There are countless aspects of the Josh Gordon saga that I will never understand.
I will never understand what it’s like to grow up as a poor black kid on the southwest side of Houston — my family evicted from apartment after apartment, working electricity becoming only an occasional experience. Or what it’s like to be kicked out of three schools before I could even complete tenth grade, becoming lonely and eventually turning to the social hierarchy and camaraderie of a local gang.
I will never understand the necessity to steal and sell drugs just to feed myself, for gunfire to be a routine part of life, or the pain of taking a bullet in the arm. And I will never understand what it’s like to be surprised that I made it to the age of 18.
I cannot comprehend what it’s like to be so physically and athletically gifted that I’m courted by some of the top college football programs in the country — that same talent eventually leading to a selection in the NFL’s Supplemental Draft despite an indefinite suspension from the NCAA for a possession charge sitting atop my laundry list of red flags.
I will never understand what it’s like to run out of a stadium tunnel to thousands of screaming fans, or to have my body put through the rigors of even a single NFL play. I can’t imagine what it feels like to take the NFL by storm and promptly ascend to football’s elite — my name suddenly appearing in headlines, on the All-Pro list, and on the tongue-tips of every reporter and columnist looking to pen a story of redemption.
I’ll also never understand what a public fall from grace of that magnitude feels like. Four years of DWIs, league substance abuse policy violations, suspensions, fines, rehabilitation centers, reinstatements, and disappointments — all in the eye of the public, with each misstep garnering more castigation than the last.
But, there are a few things about about Josh Gordon and his story that I do understand.
I understand why he continues drinking and using: He’s an addict and an alcoholic. In our natural state, it’s what we — yes, we — do. I understand the deep, depressing feeling of hopelessness that comes from not being able to stop, even after being presented with the knowledge that the addiction is eventually fatal. According to last November's GQ article, Josh Gordon is well aware of the power of his disease.
GQ: How do your feelings about recovery now differ from where they were when you got out of rehab the previous times?
Josh Gordon: I said, If I plan on having any type of a career, I’ll stop. But at this point I thought, If I want any type of a life, if I wanted to live, [I’ll stop]. It was like: You’re never going back to fucking work ever, if you can’t figure out how to live. Because at this point in time, the trajectory, you’re going to die. You’re going to kill yourself.
I understand why the Patriots acquired Josh Gordon. From a business standpoint, the acquisition was always a calculated risk. Yet, I honestly feel that the Patriots believed their environment would be conducive to Gordon’s personal growth — a mentality that, even with the best of intentions, was supremely naive, and serves only to bolster the fact that NFL teams are really, really bad at these types of things.
I also understand the frustration of football fans who can’t grapple with the notion that someone with such immense talent, and the opportunity of a career that can bring generational wealth to their family, would throw it all away for a bit of chemical gratification. It is a difficult thing for many to reconcile with, but the fact is, consequences rarely matter.
Addiction is a pathological disease that requires treatment. But, treatment that isn’t immediately followed by painstaking daily effort towards recovery is fruitless. And for addicts and alcoholics unwilling to commit to that level of recovery — which often includes massive lifestyle changes — consequences mean absolutely nothing.
I was 26 years old in the early spring of 2015 when I started sitting in circles while drinking bad coffee and sharing my experience with people from all walks of life who, as it turned out, were just like me. The people in those old converted warehouses, church basements, and dimly-lit VFW halls of suburban Chicago saved my life by teaching me simple concepts like the helping others and the myth of will power.
In many ways, the NFL is the antithesis of those principles. It’s a violent, pain-inflicting game full of ego and power where gifted men are made to feel untouchable and propped up as “heroes”.
Josh Gordon needs a new path — one that is simpler. One that isn’t flooded with cameras and expectations. One without road trip temptations and agents looking to auction off the content of his life story just to recoup a few dollars of lost salary. A path with less days spent at rehab centers and more days spent sipping cups of bad coffee with real people who know exactly what kind of pain he’s going through.
In just a few years, I’ve met and continue to meet hundreds of “Josh Gordons”. Some stay and some leave. Some love their new life and others can’t let go of their old one. Gordon could start walking down that new path today. By announcing his retirement and never playing again, football could be the last thing he ever loses to his disease.
At the very least, it might help save his life.