Josh Gordon is not supposed to exist. A person standing 6-foot-3 and weighing upwards of 225 pounds shouldn’t be able to run as fast as he did, gliding past cornerbacks as if he was permanently attached to one of those moving walkways in the airport that was set to hyperspeed.
The seminal play of his abridged NFL career came in 2013, performed in a game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, and was replete with all the abilities that made him so transcendent. Hauling in a slant from quarterback Jason Campbell over the middle of the field, with Patriots Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib sniffing at his jersey from just a few inches behind, Gordon shifted into a gear that didn’t seem human. A stiff arm created the initial separation. Gordon’s legs did the rest. By the time Gordon reached the end zone, Talib was no longer in the frame.
That play makes it feel like Gordon could’ve done anything he wanted with his feet in a pair of cleats. He could’ve racked up 2,500 yards in a season. He could’ve caught 25 touchdowns. He could’ve thrown a ball 60 yards through the air and raced underneath it until it fell into his hands. Josh Gordon was too good to exist.
There’s something about Gordon’s face. It’s friendly, warm even. It’s youthful and inviting. Yet behind it, there's a darkness. He spoke often, whether through his own words or sentences on an Instagram post, of football being his safe haven, with the team facility acting as one the few places he truly felt comfortable. His most recent Instagram post, and the last one he posted before he announced he’d be checking himself into rehab, is a photo of himself, in the midst of a catch and run during a Browns preseason game last month. “Comfort Zone…”the caption reads.
But Gordon’s decisions over the past two years have pushed him far away from that supposed safehouse. When he was suspended for all but five games of the 2014 season, he was barred from stepping foot in the Browns practice facility. Even when he returned, he isolated himself, feeling his teammates had given him a collective cold shoulder.
“I don’t want to throw (teammates) names around, but I can see it,” Gordon told the NFL Network’s Nate Burleson of his return to the locker room. “I’m definitely really observant so I see how people might be more standoffish. It’s kind of like a disease. People want to see it, but they don’t really want to touch it. And that’s kind of how it was. Really just having to be a loner.”
Browns beat reporters have frequently described Gordon as someone who keeps to himself, closed off to anyone who hasn't gained access to his inner circle. But then, here’s Gordon, in an interview in late 2015, bemoaning a perception that was formed without knowing who he truly is.
“If you actually get to know somebody, besides reading articles and stuff like that, who is he really? What’s really underneath the helmet?” Gordon said.
He never really gave anyone that chance.
It was like Gordon enjoyed the idea of football more than football itself. With everything that’s happened, and with Gordon’s NFL career hanging in the balance, those Instagram posts feel more like Gordon trying to convince himself that the game was his solace instead of truly meaning it. He is perpetually stuck in 2013, a season where he went for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in just 14 games, his play on the field enabling the dangerous opportunities off of it.
We saw what Gordon might’ve been one last time before he was gone forever, a glimpse at an alternate timeline, in a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III lofted a ball 43 yards in the air, to the front right corner of the end zone, where Gordon, dwarfing cornerback Brent Grimes with his size, came tumbling down with the catch.
He celebrated then, pressing a finger where his mouth would be if it wasn’t encased by a facemask, his way of turning down the noise that has surrounded him since his NFL career began. Josh Gordon was back.
And then, just like that, he was gone.