Josh Gordon knows he’s out of chances—at least, that’s what the frequently suspended Cleveland Browns wide receiver said last Wednesday, just hours before he went
With the exception of his 2012 rookie year, the 26-year-old Gordon has missed some or all of every season of his professional football career because of struggles with substance abuse. He has not played a regular season football game since December 2014, absent for 51 of his team’s last 56 games, and spending more than 100 of those 1,052 missed days in rehab. When he did play, he was exceptional, recording a league-best 1,646 yards in 2013 (and doing it in just fourteen games).
Last week, he came to New York for his reinstatement hearings, trying once again to convince league executives that he had a handle on his sobriety. And it worked. Wednesday evening, Gordon was conditionally reinstated into the NFL. “Subject to compliance with clinical and other requirements”—the language of the NFL statementthat means, among other things, clean drug tests and AA meetings—he can rejoin Browns’ practices as soon as November 20th. Of course, it is precisely that compliance that has always been the problem.
Gordon has been slapped with multiple suspensions for repeatedly violating the league’s substance abuse policy—two games in 2013; ten games in 2014; the entire season in 2015. In 2016, he was reinstated (albeit with a four-game suspension to start the season) and on his way back to playing. Then during a team walk through about two games in, a member of the Browns’ security pulled him off the field and told him a warrant was out for his arrest for failure to comply with a paternity test. He said he wondered, “Who’s this girl? If there is a kid, who is this kid?” Two Sundays in a row, while the team was on the road, he stayed behind (suspended players don’t travel) and “self-medicated.” So, the fifth week of the season, the week he was going to return to the field, he opted to go to rehab instead.
It was the second straight season of football he missed—and the second straight season in which the NFL had to go without one of its most dynamic playmakers. At 6-foot-3, 230 lbs, he has a height that shouldn’t be allowed to pair with his build; and he has a build that shouldn’t be allowed to pair with his speed. (Tim Montgomery, his trainer and a former Olympian, says he could be an Olympic Champion in the 400 if he trained for it.) The last receiver to have his combination of defense-detonating skills was Calvin Johnson, a player so physically dominant he’s nicknamed after a fictional robot with laser-powered cannons for arms. Gordon became the first receiver with back-to-back games of more than 200 yards receiving (237 and 261). That’s even more remarkable when you learn that he wasn’t sober for either of them. Or for any game. Gordon says he’s had something in his system for “probably every game of his career.”
Since he entered rehab in 2016 for that 35-day stay, Gordon largely faded from public view. When he left in mid- to late-October, he moved to Gainesville, got into “probably the best shape of my life,” applied for NFL reinstatement in March 2017 (he was denied in May), and stayed sober for six months. He felt like he deserved a reward. “I wanted it in the way I know how,” he says. “And that’s drugs and alcohol.” He said he “might step into a bar and have two drinks,” then leave, trying to figure out how to not go home, how to make it last a little longer. He calls that his “rock bottom.” So back to rehab he went—this time for “well over three months.”
Now, he’s out (again), sober (again), and in possession of a shot at NFL stardom (again). The 0-8 Browns could use him. The NFL—embroiled in a national anthem controversy, and with its most viral-highlight-friendly playmakers (Watt, Rodgers, Beckham Jr.) sidelined by injury—could, too. Of course, there’s a callousness in that consideration, one that underlies the public chorus of unsympathetic disdain that’s closely followed in the wake of Gordon’s repeat offenses over the years. This isn’t just a dude trying to get back on the football field; it’s a young man trying to put his life back together.
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. 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.
At what point did you become comfortable saying, “I’m an addict”? I feel like back in the day, you may not have thought that.
Because the stigma that was attached with it. And I got way beyond the stigma of it. Being able to see how many functioning alcoholics and addicts there are out there. And being at the facility I was at, you got world renowned doctors in there, lawyers, engineers. I was like, I can definitely throw my hands up and [be] willing to do whatever, and go to any length. I need to fully buy into the program. I need to know what I am, I need to know who I am. If I’m still on the fence, if I’m still on the edge, that’s a dangerous place. And for me, I’ve had enough proof. You [can] define it how you want to define it, but, for me, the easiest way to do it is to go with what they already have. It’s addicts and alcoholics. It’s on a scale from moderate to severe. But do I fall on that spectrum? For sure.
Back when you were playing in the NFL, would you describe that person as a “functioning alcoholic”?
Highly functioning. For sure. I definitely pushed the limit. I don’t know how I did it. It could be before games, it could be before practice, after practice. You see other guys kinda doing it, but I would take it to another level a lot of times. Feeling as though I was being enabled, I thought it was an okay thing to do: Well, this is the norm.And it wasn’t. It definitely wasn’t.
“I would drink probably like half a glass, or a couple shots to try and warm my system up, basically. To get the motor running. That’s what I would do for games.”
Can you think of an example?
I used to make a ritual of it before every game. If I had already been drug tested that week, or the day before the game, I knew I had a couple days to buy to clean my system. Even before I was getting tested for alcohol, prior to my DWI in 2014, I would take the biggest bong rip I could. And try to conceal all the smell off all my clothes. I’d be dressed up to go to the game. A bunch of guys smoke weed before the game. But we’re not talking about them.
I would have these little pre-made shots. I used to love Grand Marnier. I could drink it down smooth. I could usually drink a lot of it. But if it wasn’t that, it might be a whiskey or something. And I would drink probably like half a glass, or a couple shots to try and warm my system up, basically. To get the motor running. That’s what I would do for games.
So if you get tested, you have a certain window where you don’t get tested again?
No, it’s random. But that’s where the brain goes. You think you have it figured out. You think you have the system beat. You think you know something that they don’t know. I’ve been proven wrong every time. I’ve tried everything to get around it. Before I went in for treatment, just seeing the lengths I was willing to go to risk myself, having lived that scenario out, and the negative effect has always occurred, it’s like: Alright, man. Not again. Can’t do it anymore. That’s the point I was at. I was like: Do it again, throw everything away. Don’t do it again, have a chance, give yourself a little bit of opportunity. That’s what made it a lot easier for me at that point in time.
How would you do this on game days?
We would stay at the team hotel and then players are allowed to go back home, get what they need, and then go to the game. So I’d leave the hotel early morning, go home, eat breakfast, do my little ritual, whatever it may be, some weed, some alcohol, and then go to the game. And then, I’d definitely be partying after every game, win or lose. Every game.
Were you doing this in 2013—during the back-to-back 200-yard games, for instance?
How many of your games would you estimate that you had something in your system for?
Every game. Probably every game of my career.
“I didn’t plan on living to 18. Day to day life, what’s gonna happen next? So you self-medicate with Xanax, with marijuana, codeine—to help numb those nerves so you can just function every day.”
Did people know?
When I got to the league, I think they had their doubts from the very beginning. From the day they drafted me, they had to know there was some type of risk involved. I don’t think that they specifically knew. But I’m sure they had their doubts. I missed a lot of meetings, showed up late a lot of times, eyes were probably bloodshot on many occasions. But I guess you couldn’t really draw a definitive conclusion because I thought I was evasive enough. And because nobody told me anything. But I’m pretty sure somebody thought something. Definitely in college, for sure, they knew. There’s a good chance. More than likely.
Why do you think you used?
Initially it started for me, [because of] a lot of childhood and adolescent trauma-based fear. I was using in my childhood. That environment brought me into that a lot sooner than a normal—whatever normal is—kid should be brought into that, to be able to make a decision on their own of what to do. I didn’t want to feel anxiety, I didn’t want to feel fear. I didn’t plan on living to 18. Day-to-day life, what’s gonna happen next? So you self-medicate with Xanax, with marijuana, codeine—to help numb those nerves so you can just function every day. That became the norm from middle school to high school. So by the time I got into my 20s, I was on an accelerated pace.
Do you remember the first time you used?
I was in middle school, in seventh grade. I was in the delivery ramps on the side of the middle school with some friends. I was given some Xanax, smoking weed and shit like that. In that class, I ended up—not passing out, but really nodding off, off the Xanax. I only supposed to take half the bar, [but] took the whole bar and I’m like drooling over the desk. Kids started laughing in the class. The teacher’s back was turned, and I just kinda raised my hand and asked to go to the restroom real quick. That was my first experience of a high. In 7th grade. And it was to that extent. So I was definitely out of control.
Truthfully, that’s where it started from for me. The anxiety, the fitting in and stuff. Not being comfortable with who I was. Socially, I felt awkward, talking with people, telling them where I was living. Other kids have nicer stuff than you, “you’re poor” type of shit. A lot of inadequacy, I think, is the reason why I initially got into it.
Did you have any particularly close calls?
The spring and summer of 2016. I was in a car accident, totaled the car, wrapped it around a telephone pole. [We were] speeding. Me and another passenger, both shitfaced, thinking it’s fun. Sideswiping cars on the street. Putting other people in danger. And then ultimately, it’s like: How the hell did I walk out of that without a scratch? Cause the car is blown to shit.
How hard is it for you to sit here and talk about these things?
It’s beneficial for me at this point. The more I get it out, the more I feel better about it. The more that other people know, the more I feel at ease walking the streets, without this target on my back. Without having to look over my shoulder. It’s therapeutic for me.
How much did all of the noise and criticism get to you?
A lot. Every day. That’s why I had to move out of Cleveland. I went to Gainesville specifically because I thought there’d be nobody there that would know who I was. Living in Cleveland, sometimes it could be a nightmare. I’ve been harassed, had drinks thrown at me. I’ve been [followed] in the grocery store, heckled everywhere. At the games, people harassed and heckled my brothers and my mom. [My] brothers got into fights in the stands. Cars [have] been jumped on. Somebody dented the hood of the car. Had to sue a guy and get the money back cause he damaged the car. People are throwing money, pennies, to break the windows. So Cleveland was rough, man.
Give guys a chance. Be patient. Allow him to see it through. If he lets you down, he lets you down. But know that’s a human being there. He’s dealing with something.
And these are Cleveland fans?
These are Cleveland fans. That experience followed me everywhere I went. So I’m always like: Who recognizes me? Like, Josh, nobody knows who the fuck you are. You play for the Browns. That still is tough to deal with. But the more I do all this stuff and let people know exactly what I’m going through, the more I hope people can let the kids be.
If you could make those people understand one thing about you, what would you say?
Football is not who I am. It’s what I do. And for me, everything that you may see or read, it’s all through one lens, it’s one perception. And unfortunately, living in a world where you’re in the public eye, perception is their reality. But for me, my reality is entirely different. It’s being a father now to a two-year-old daughter. It’s being a good friend, a teammate, a son, a brother. The normal things are what I’m prioritizing now. The rest of this stuff, it’s really kind of supplemental. It’s really for the benefit of entertainment. It’s like, Wanna Keep Up With Josh, like it’s a TV show. What happens out there, happens out there. But just that perception and reality are not the same. Not from my side of table, at least.
Everything is an immediate gratification process. Especially for fans. If you don’t produce, you’re fired, you’re done. It’s so hard to try to take that and then add the humanity. I came into the NFL at 20 years old. I couldn’t imagine many people doing that type of thing with success. Give guys a chance. Be patient. Allow him to see it through. If he lets you down, he lets you down. But know that’s a human being there. He’s dealing with something.
For people who say we’ve been here before, you’ve come out of rehab and said you’re not going to blow this chance. Why should we expect it to be different this time?
The past times, every time I would try to stop, it would be for the wrong reason. It’d be a publicity stunt; it’d be for somebody else; it’d be for the coach, or whomever thought it was in my best interest to try to do that. Last time, I wanted to do it to save my career. Just for the job. [Now] I have the positive reinforcement and motivation of having a daughter and stuff like that, but kids can’t save you in that aspect. Only thing saving me at this point and time, and the difference between now and then, is that I’m doing it for myself. And I want something more for myself. I’m trying to do it for myself. I could give a fuck what anybody else is doing, honestly, at this point and time.
When you were in rehab, if you were thinking forward of what you wanted your life to look like in recovery or what you wanted a happy life to be, what did that look like to you?
To me, I envisioned my mom and my two brothers and myself and my daughter, living like say some imaginary house, but under the same roof. That’s something we haven’t’ done in a long time. It seems very simple—the concept might be oversimplified. I just wanted to have a healthy relationship with my family. And that’s what really kind of drove the initial desire to really get there.
I wanted to be there for my mom. I wanted to be there for myself. And be there for my brothers. And my daughter. More than anything. I didn’t want to perpetuate the cycle of being the absentee father. Because I know what that’s like. It wasn’t the career, it wasn’t money, it wasn’t the house, it wasn’t cars, it was be there for the people that matter the most.
This interview has been edited and condensed.