IRVINE, Calif. — The first thing you notice when Melvin Gordon III emerges from his hotel room at the Marriott here in Orange County, where the Chargers stay on the night before home games, is the fan. It’s 8:10 a.m. Gordon’s Chargers and the 49ers are kicking off in a little more than five hours, and the Pro Bowl running back is lugging a hefty black electric fan with his overnight bag. “I can’t sleep without it,” he says. That goes back to his college days at Wisconsin, where he was a Heisman runner-up in 2014, before becoming the 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Over his first two seasons Gordon established himself as one of the premier backs in the NFL. Then the Chargers moved north, to Costa Mesa for practice, and to Carson, Calif., in the south Los Angeles suburbs, for games. Each of those game-day trips to Carson, 30-some miles up the 405, in somehow heavy traffic for a Sunday morning, is the beginning of what Gordon considers—potentially—his final day in the NFL. “You’ve gotta put your best foot forward because you never know if it’s gonna be your last one,” he says as he waits for a valet driver to return his Range Rover to the Marriott driveway. “Can’t have no regrets.”
Leave nothing to chance (or as little as possible). That means following roughly the same routine every Sunday, and leaving ample time for thorough pregame preparation. Like a number of NFL players on a game weekend, Gordon is all about ritual. This is his.
Saturday, September 29
8 p.m. PT
Gordon spends the evening after dinner cramming for tomorrow’s test. On film he reviews his blocking assignments, the rushing plays he’ll carry out, and the facet of the game that sets him apart: the route-running. Only four running backs in the NFL have more catches this season than Gordon (28 in five games), and he leads the field in yards per catch (9.3). Saturday nights are for visualization: “The night before you kind of see yourself being in that moment, and then when you wake up you get into that zone,” he says. “Everything from that point is really a buildup to that first play.”
Gordon eats a quick and quiet breakfast with a handful of teammates at the hotel, then gets in his car to drive home, to a high-rise apartment where his father is waiting. Like his son, Melvin Gordon II has his hair twisted in tightly-coiled dreadlocks and wrapped in a bun high and to the right, and like his son he wears a gold chain around his neck. He’s quick to remind Melvin III where the talent comes from. Big Bo, as he’s nicknamed, is especially proud today.
“You know, when you play football that’s not really you out there,” says Big Bo.
“Who is it?” replies Lil Bo, knowing the answer before his father says it.
“That’s me,” Big Bo says. “You just borrowin’ me real quick.”
“You sound crazy right now,” Lil Bo says.
Father and son exchange game tickets and hugs, and Gordon is on the road to Carson. Soon enough, traffic slows to a crawl, and Gordon begins to calculate just how much of his game day he spends in his Range Rover. It’s a time for meditation, to get lost in the hip hop bellowing through the speakers—it’s not a time for brake lights. “I don’t really like this area too much, to be honest. I loved San Diego. It was my kind of energy, my kind of vibe. It was a perfect place for me. Everything was perfect.”
His father and mother moved here, from Wisconsin to the maze of highways and commercial parks 40 minutes south of L.A. proper, to be closer to Melvin. They don’t much like the area either. Still, having mom and dad nearby is something of an emotional anchor for the 25-year-old from Kenosha. Both had been integral in his day-to-day upbringing through high school, with dad playing a critical role in his son decommitting from Iowa and attending Wisconsin. (Melvin III says his father didn’t talk to him for two weeks when he made his initial decision, though he spoke with the coaches at Wisconsin daily.)
A year and some change into Melvin’s time at Wisconsin, in March 2012, his father was sentenced to 10 years in prison for cocaine trafficking. He wound up serving nearly five years, and was released in December 2016, finally able to see his son play football again, in the flesh. Gordon, when interviewed last year about his father’s return, expressed no ill will; he was grateful for his father providing for the family. “When my dad got out of jail it felt good to have him there,” Melvin says. “It was like old times. It’s good to know that you’ve got both parents there supporting you, when that’s how it was at the start.”
Melvin’s grandfather was responsible for fathering 28 children, the Gordons say, which meant Melvin was part of a small army of cousins, most of them outstanding youth athletes in Wisconsin and Illinois. Only Melvin, though, in the middle of the pack in terms of age, made it to Division I athletics. “Whether it was girls or partying or whatever, they got kind of sidetracked, so I separated myself, because I knew this was my way out,” he says. “I tell my younger cousins, it’s easy to get sidetracked. I tell my little cousins, you’ve got to be mentally tough. What you’re going through now is nothing compared to what you’re going to experience in the league. I just didn’t want to struggle, man.”
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This is typically earlier than Gordon arrives for a 1:25 p.m. start, but a week earlier he showed up at this time for the Rams game and went for 80 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. So he’s rolling with the change of pace. A golf cart brings him from his car to a security checkpoint about 75 yards away, where they inspect his black leather satchel and wave a wand up and down his all-black slacks and form-fitting tucked-in tee combo. He’ll pull a Wisconsin Badgers visor out of the satchel and wear it for pregame warmups, eliciting a promise of a fine from an NFL uniform inspector standing by. The visor is lucky for him, though, and Gordon keeps it on. Another ritual: Gordon goes through his receiving route tree alone, with Chargers assistant Mark Ridgley throwing him the ball. Ridgley moved from running backs to the offensive line this season, but the tradition begun last season remains.
After the fighter jet flyover and the national anthem, it’s time for football. Bo, Carmen (Melvin’s mom) and Kenzel Doe, a former Wisconsin teammate and one of Melvin’s closest friends, settle into a small luxury box with their hosts, Melvin Ingram’s mother, wife and son. Ingram, the Pro Bowl defensive end, was the first to take Gordon under his wing when he entered the league. While the others sit in the stadium seats outside the box, Big Bo sits inside, across from the catered stack of mini bacon cheeseburgers and hot dogs, and pulls out his phone. In videos that won’t soon be deleted, 10-year-old Melvin weaves between would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone, ill-fitting shoulder and hip pads flapping all around him.
Bo isn’t keen on talking about his time in prisons in Illinois and Minnesota and the consequences of his conviction; he’d like to leave those stories in the past, or otherwise save them for his nascent book idea.
“I did my time and came home to something beautiful,” he says. “Everybody makes mistakes in life. Nobody’s perfect, so I’m leaving the bad behind. It still seems like a dream, because it takes a lot of work to get here. It doesn’t happen for everybody. My son is the only one who made it through, because me and my wife exposed him to the right things at the right time. It’s not just about being good. Its about getting noticed and getting your kid out there for the world to see.”
The Niners get the scoring started with a pick-six by Antone Exum Jr., who jumps on an overthrown ball in the flat and takes Philip Rivers’ pass 32 yards for the score. Late in the second quarter, down 17-12 after a missed extra point, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn chooses to go for two. Rivers in the huddle changes up the play call, amending a Gordon diagonal route to Rivers’ right to a sprint to the left flat. Gordon makes the catch, makes a man miss with an inside cut at the 1 and is in standing for the conversion.
“Phil freestyled that,” Gordon says later. “I was supposed to run a whole different route. Phil moved me to the left side and said, ‘Just run a swing.’ He does that every once in a while. That’s why he’s fire.”
After being contained in the first half, Gordon lights up the second, dodging, bruising and spinning his way to one of the most impressive 13-yard runs you’ll ever see, three plays into Los Angeles’ first possession of the third quarter. Three plays later on 3rd-and-four from the Niners 6, Gordon splits out wide, and takes Rivers’ pass in for a touchdown to put the Chargers up 23-17. On the next drive, with the Chargers at the San Francisco 10, Rivers finds Gordon again in the right flat, but this time Gordon spins into contact and fumbles, only his second since 2017. Though the Chargers retain possession, Gordon still owes $300 in cash to his position room for a fumble in the red zone. “I can’t believe I fumbled,” he says later. “I’m so pissed about that.”
Up 29-27 with 6:50 left and the ball at midfield, Rivers hands to Gordon on a perfectly blocked counter right that sends Gordon sprinting down the home sideline. At 11 yards, Niners linebacker Fred Warner meets him with a hard shoulder that delivers a shock through Gordon’s left shoulder. Someone on the sideline notices Gordon grimacing in pain from the stinger and brings him to the medical tent on the sideline, out of the public view.
“They tested me for a concussion,” Gordon says. “What game did you play? Who did you play? Did you win? I’m like man, if you don’t undo this strap so I can loosen this shoulder up …
“It’s just a little stinger. Get ’em every once in a while if you get hit in the right spot. Just shake it off, take a couple plays off. I was just hoping ain’t nothing bad happened, because I didn’t get to finish the drive. Those are the types of games where the team needs you to finish, so I was a little upset about that, but I have faith in Austin.”
Austin Ekeler, Gordon’s backup, doesn’t get the first down three plays later on third and 2, but Gordon doesn’t need to wait long to see if his absence might have changed the outcome; Niners QB C.J. Beathard throws an interception three plays into the would-be game winning drive. The Chargers win improves their record to 2-2 heading into Week 5.
In the locker room, Gordon is one of the players surrounded by a media scrum, with print and television reporters jockeying for position. With a season-high 104 yards on the ground and a receiving touchdown, Gordon’s a hot commodity.
Talk about your whole game.
Talk about your play as a receiver this season.
Speak of the grit of this team.
Gordon talks about all of it: “We can’t wait for something bad to happen to be special. We’ve got to come out the gate like that.”
It’s time for Mom’s debrief, and Carmen Gordon wants to know why her son keeps trying to hurdle opponents. “Why do you keep going up like that?! You scare me,” she says. “How do you feel? Do your knees hurt?
“You had a good game, hear? I’m proud of you!”
He’s fine, he assures her, but he doesn’t plan on driving home. He reveals that he changed his shoes at halftime, from a newer model to the sort he wore at Wisconsin when he rushed for 29 touchdowns as a senior: “Had to put on the thunderbirds!” he exclaims to laughter from the group.
Doe takes the wheel while Melvin sits in the front seat and pulls up Twitter. Before long he’s searched his own name and is scrolling through the top results. He says he only does this when he’s played well. “Good games only,” he says. “It’s just funny what people say about fantasy.”
Next, results from around the league.
“Zeke [Elliott] went crazy today.”
“134 and three tuddies? Alvin Kamara going crazy. Makes my game look weak.”
“Saints ain’t jokin’! They’re low-key nice.”
“Christian McCaffrey went for 184,” Gordon continues.
“184?” Doe asks.
“One-eighty-FOE,” Gordon stresses. “Not playin’ no games.”
“Sony Michel had 112 and a touchdown. They said we’re not finna’ be 1-3, not with Tom Brady.”
Khalil Mack, Gordon says, notched yet another strip sack for the Bears after being traded by the Raiders, out of the AFC West. “This man crazy, bro,” Gordon says of Mack. “I’m so happy he’s gone. Get him outta here, bruh.”
The NFL news consumption doesn’t stop; now back at the apartment, Gordon turns on the television to see Adam Schefter discussing Le’Veon Bell’s ongoing contract discord in Pittsburgh, and what it could cost for another team to fetch Bell in a trade. Over Chinese takeout picked up by mom and dad, Bo asks Melvin if he thinks Bell is coming back to play under his current deal. “No,” Gordon says. Bo asks: “You think he’s gonna stay out for a year?”
“Yes, sir,” Melvin says. “And I would too. Come back and get hurt—why? Gave up everything he had for five, six years, and y’all can’t pay the man?”
(Gordon’s own rookie contract was four years and $10.67 million. Last spring the Chargers picked up his fifth-year option, and he’s scheduled to make $5.6 million in 2019.)
The Chargers’ digital staff uploads the all-22 film from the game, accessible on every player’s tablet, about two days before NFL Game Pass subscribers have access. Gordon, who has been refreshing the upload feed while eating and watching Sunday night Ravens-Steelers game, takes a seat at the kitchen island and huddles with his father to watch the film. The viewing session is full of self-critiques, visions of yards left on the field and could-have-been big plays. “Oh my gosh, I wanted to take an inside move on him, and I thought, he’s playing me to protect the inside!” Gordon yells. “I was too far outside of him.”
He plops down on the coach, with Mom, Dad and Kenzel. There were visions of a late-night trip to meet teammates at a nightclub in Los Angeles, but those plans were scrapped when the leg soreness kicked in. They’ll watch the Sunday night game, with doses of nuanced commentary from Carmen (“Flacco stay trippin’!”). Before Gordon puts compression sleeves on his legs to keep any swelling down, he remarks at how silly it must look, the whole family stuffed onto one couch in a spacious apartment. Says Carmen, “That’s who we are, though.”
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