The Motivation of Melvin Gordon

His father in prison on major drug charges. Injuries to every part of his body. A rookie season that gave him nightmares. ... Chargers running back Melvin Gordon had every reason to back down. Instead, he's on the verge of NFL stardom

By Tyler Dunne

November 3, 2016

Bleacher Report

Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images

SAN DIEGO — His nonchalance is striking.

Melvin Gordon III hardly blinks when asked about the day his father was whisked away.

"I didn't have time to be depressed," Gordon says. "I had to be the man of the house and take care of my mom. I wanted to be in a position where I could take care of both of them so he doesn't have to be back in there."

Back in there, as in: back in prison.

Dad was a cocaine dealer.

We're not talking baggie handoffs on a corner, either. Dad moved a lot of product. He didn't work for you. You worked for him. Dad was the brains behind the operation. The maestro. He was, as his wife puts it, "ghetto rich." Then he got caught. Then the man known to everyone as "Big Bo" was sentenced to 10 years.

Then 19-year-old "Little Bo" should've self-destructed. Booze. Weed. He should've found a vice of some sort to relieve the pain of losing his dad. He should've slipped into depression.

He didn't.

"I never got down to the point where I felt like I couldn't do what I needed to do," Gordon says.

So while Big Bo is one of 497 inmates at a Duluth, Minnesota, prison—2,100 miles away—Little Bo is here, the last player to leave the Chargers practice field, crisping in the 90-degree heat.

You kidding? He's not done yet.

He slaps his hands together and sets up at the JUGS machine. Arms pumping, dreads swaying over his eyes, footballs zipping his way at warp speed, Gordon drops one, is visibly pissed and demands a Round 2. This time, he tucks his hair in a bun and his eyes burn. Catch. Catch. Catch. Gordon snares 10 in a row. To the tune of a loud "Woooooo!" from tight end Hunter Henry, he turns toward a mountain behind him and pretends to fire pistols with both hands.

This is how he handles it. How he decided to handle it.

That decision, in 2012, was easy.

He'd torture himself. He'd fulfill his father's prophecy. He'd mold himself into a legend. For years, Big Bo repeated one message to his son: You can be the best running back ever. He introduced him to a chaotic world of lifting and running and pushing his body to its scientific limits. Dumbbells were his nutrition, aches and pains his oxygen, Big Bo's booming voice his bible.

Sure, Gordon was torn up when Big Bo's world crumbled. He "couldn't think" initially, "couldn't focus." That lasted three days. Then he turned himself into a Heisman Trophy-worthy running back. Gordon shredded defenses for 10 yards per carry that 2012 season, 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing in 2013, and 2,587 yards and 29 scores in 2014.

By the time Big Bo headed to prison, he had already created a damn monster.

Gordon didn't bring hookups home from the bar at 2 a.m. He changed and went for three-mile runs. He didn't work out four times per week at Wisconsin. He worked out four times per day. He didn't sit out with ankle sprains that'd sideline others for a month. He played. He doesn't binge on Netflix. He binges on game film, burying his face in a tablet for hours when he's chilling with friends.

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Donald Miralle / Getty Images

In the locker room, vet Antonio Gates walks by this chiseled figure, grunts "Put a shirt on, bro!" and the conversation shifts to the best running backs in the game today. David Johnson. Ezekiel Elliott. LeSean McCoy. Does Gordon believe he'll reach this level by season's end?

He's incredulous. His right eyebrow tilts in "You serious?" swag.

"I've got faith in myself that I'll be on that level," Gordon says. "I'm in no position to be complacent. I always want to be better. I want to be the best back. And I'm not the best right now."

The Motivation of Melvin is very real and very dangerous. He loathes the growing theory that running backs can be dusted off at Goodwill, thrown into a system, then returned for someone else's cheap use. That theory doesn't account for monsters like him. That theory doesn't account for a monster who only operates at one speed: 100 mph.

"I always want to be better. I want to be the best back. And I'm not the best right now."

— Melvin Gordon

Big Bo's words echo from afar. He can only catch a full game if the Chargers are in the area. Otherwise, he relies on highlights, newspaper stories, and recaps from his son and wife. The two must settle for a 15-minute phone chat, hang up, wait an hour, then chat again. This three-time-zone difference hasn't helped, either.

On Dec. 17, the family expects Melvin Gordon Jr. to be a free man. His sentence was reduced to seven years, then reduced again.

The entire time, Gordon never slowed down. He still takes a ladder to the beaches of San Diego in the middle of the night and obsesses over X's and O's during the day.

There's only one problem.

Gordon's blessing is also his curse.


Gregory Bull / AP Photo

From across the Westin Atlanta hotel lobby, Carmen Gordon waves. She claims to be 48 years old but doesn't look a day over 28. With glistening black-and-brown braids drooping over gold hoop earrings, Mom is armed with a personality that's on fire.

She attends every one of Gordon's games—always has, always will—and is staying here at the Chargers' team hotel this weekend.

We head to the Cheesecake Factory around the corner for lunch, where Mom curses, laughs and cranes her neck around to catch glimpses of the Wisconsin-Iowa game on the TV behind the bar. Oh, that brings her back. She remembers sitting in Kinnick Stadium herself in 2014, with Iowa students yelling, "Take Gordon's head off!"

"And I'd yell, 'That's my f--king son!'"

With each F-bomb, Carmen smacks the table with a fist, drawing the stink eye from an elderly couple one table away. When a Ravens player drilled her son last year, she wanted to storm the field. "I wanted to whoop that guy's ass! I told Melvin after, 'Don't let anybody punk you like that!'"

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Melvin Gordon with his mom (courtesy of Carmen Gordon).

All along, over orange chicken and white rice, Carmen professes an undying love for her "baby." Her son. And she makes it very clear: Dad feels the same. He's no saint. Never was, really. His family was always entangled in drugs. That was life in Waukegan, Illinois, a "little Chicago" of madness.

"He has a lot of money," Carmen says, "but it didn't pay off."

That's because when Gordon was only in junior high, the feds intercepted one of Big Bo's calls. Melvin Jr. was "a manager," Carmen says. "He was moving big weight." The case dragged on...and on...and she says the feds gave him time to see his son play through high school.

As Carmen explains, he could've been locked away for life—or close to it—so he cooperated with the authorities.

"I mean, if they gave you life," Carmen says blankly, "what would you do?"

As she remembers, he helped verify the identity of others already caught on a wire.

There's a chill in her voice.

"It wasn't a lot of people. They already had them," she says. "He looked at it like, I can't do life. I have to see my son. I have to be home. He got a lot of flak. We still don't know when he gets out what it's going to be. He has to live a low-key kind of life—especially now, because my life could be in jeopardy. Melvin's life. His family. I don't know.

"But he was looking at life. He wasn't a typical drug dealer. He moved big, big weight."

When his father turned himself in, Gordon was only a redshirt freshman at Wisconsin. He was "crushed," Carmen says, "broken up."

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Melvin Gordon with his parents (courtesy of Carmen Gordon).

Poll any NFL locker room, any day. So many Dads of so many players lived in the streets. That’s not unusual. But whereas most disappear for good, Big Bo was present. He effectively kept his two worlds—drug dealing and fatherhood—far apart and laid the foundation for his son. "The blueprint," Gordon calls it. Big Bo was on a mission to mold greatness.

He'd rummage through trash cans on the sidewalk for used water bottles, set them up as cones and send his seven-year-old son through drills. "Cut here! Cut there! Cut here!" Gordon zigged, zagged and zigged daily. When he took a kick return to the house in little league, he was convinced right then that there was a method to his dad's madness.

"Ever since that day," Gordon says, "nobody needed to tell me to do any drills."

Inside the house, Big Bo played him clips of Barry Sanders and Walter Payton. The elusiveness of Sanders ("His cutback, his stop-and-go—it was unbelievable," Gordon says) and toughness of Payton ("He had the mindset every back is supposed to have: Never die easy") became a part of Gordon, too.

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Big Bo and Little Bo (courtesy of Carmen Gordon).

Carmen handled the physical punishment. When her son acted up, she spanked him. And when he tried running away at 15 years old, she took the PlayStation console out of his hands and jammed it into his chest. Gordon never "flip-mouthed" her again. Big Bo punished verbally, his words blindsiding his son harder than any jolt of a PlayStation.

"I felt sorry for my baby," Carmen says. "He pushed him to the point where me and my husband had arguments. I'd say, 'You're doing too much!' But it paid off."

Did it ever.

In high school, the basement was filled with weight-training equipment and a strict regimen was implemented. Gordon gained 30 pounds of lean muscle between his freshman and sophomore years. Big Bo never missed a practice, let alone a game, supplying tips in real time. His boy scored a ridiculous 38 touchdowns as a senior at Kenosha's Bradford High.

On most of those 38, Big Bo sprinted right down the sideline with him. Carmen laughs her infectious laugh. He often had a few beers in him, too.

Gordon committed to Iowa. Big Bo convinced him to decommit and attend Wisconsin.

Then, he went to prison.


Alex Goodlett / Getty Images

At his locker, Gordon takes you through his tour of pain.

Body part to body part, he's so casual.

Gordon has sprained both ankles. Pulled his groin. Injured his AC joint. Suffered a hip pointer. In college, he took hit after hit after hit. And of course he played through it all. Thomas Hammock, Gordon's position coach at Wisconsin, didn't give him a choice.

Those precious moments after Big Bo went to prison, Hammock was the shoulder to cry on. And once Gordon decided to move on, Hammock became an Uncle Bo of sorts.

"He'd say, 'You're going today, and you don't have a choice,'" Gordon says. "He was extremely hard on me."

Big Bo's imprisonment was not a shock to his system. Instead, a crazy drive became borderline demented. Every second of every day needed to move Gordon closer to his father's goal, closer to being the best ever.

One day, Gordon and two teammates strapped 25-pound vests on and ran every step at Camp Randall Stadium. Up, down, up, down. Every step, every row. Gordon, Kenzel Doe and Devin Gaulden all started off as a unit. Halfway around the bowl, Gordon left both in the dust. Doe's legs were "burning." He took breaks, walked, took more breaks.

"When I start to see people fade, I get stronger. I always get stronger."

— Melvin Gordon

Gordon never broke stride. When all three were finished with this hell on earth, he explained why.

"When I start to see people fade," Doe recalls Gordon telling him, "I get stronger. I always get stronger."

Which would also explain Gordon's sick desire to train when the rest of the country is sleeping. So many nights, Doe woke up to a 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. Snapchat from Gordon working out.

"What are you doing?" Gordon would say in the snap. "I bet you're asleep right now."

Laughs Doe, "I'm like, 'Come on! Of course I'm asleep!' I'm like, 'Dude, that's messed up!'"

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Melvin Gordon and Kenzel Doe (Brian Blanco / Getty Images).

If Wisconsin lost, no way was Gordon going to the bars. The nights he did head to the Kollege Klub for a few drinks, he felt guilty. His "after bar" party was a three-mile run from his apartment near the stadium to the Equinox building on the other side of campus and back.

Anything, Gordon says, "to clear my conscience."

As Big Bo shuttled from prisons in Pekin, Illinois, to Ohio to Duluth, their conversations continued, sure, but Gordon found new ways to push himself. His apartment walls were plastered with photos of Todd Gurley (the back everyone compared him to), Adrian Peterson (his idol), the Heisman Trophy and, as Doe recalls, one expert's preseason running back rankings.

Anything that'd stoke the fire within that Big Bo had lit back in Kenosha.

"This dude," Doe says, "pushed himself to the max."

The fire burned hottest that night his mom was yelling at Iowa fans. Her son "hated" Iowa, she explains. He wanted to stick it to everyone giving him hell for decommitting. She displays a photo on a cellphone of Gordon leaping over a defender. That night, she looked into her son's eyes and saw a man possessed. Little Bo ripped the Hawkeyes for 200 yards, you know, one week after a 408-yard flogging of Nebraska.

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Charlie Neibergall / AP Photo

Gordon bursts into laughter when told that a player from that Nebraska defense hung up at the mere mention of "Melvin Gordon." There's a gentleness to Gordon, a warmth, as if he doubles as a kindergarten teacher you'd trust with your kids, not someone who stiff-arms defenders into tomorrow.

"His dad's goal for him was to make it to the NFL. So why not work? Why not be better?"

—Wisconsin teammate Kenzel Doe

He seems...fine. That's the consensus from teammates past and present. He is...fine.

Doe raves about Gordon's ability to adapt without his dad.

"His dad's goal for him was to make it to the NFL. So why not work? Why not be better?"

Derek Watt, too. The fullback who blocked for Gordon then at Wisconsin and now in San Diego says, "There was nothing he could do about it, and he knew that."

Both remember Big Bo visiting their freshman apartment. He had them all doing curls, pushups and dips.

To them, Melvin was not shaken a bit.

Of course, his mom knows better.


Denis Poroy / AP Photo

There's a side to Gordon only Mom sees.

A softer side.

She sees it when she tells Melvin he "doesn't look cute" anymore and he's genuinely hurt. She sees it when they lie in bed together for an hour on a road trip or when she's cooking him dinner in San Diego. She sees it when she slips a pair of glasses on.

"Take those glasses off!" he told her recently.

Says Carmen, "The reality of it is he thinks I'm never going to get old. Because that idea of him seeing me in the..."

Her voice trails off.

The first time Gordon saw a body in a casket—his Aunt Esther died from multiple myeloma—was his last. He told his mother right then he couldn't do funerals. The sadness. The crying. The sight of death. No, no and no.

Every Sunday, throughout his entire childhood, the Gordon fam all cooked out in Kenosha. They'd have dance contests, blast loud music, play card games. The reality that this family is dwindling worries him. He's already lost an aunt, a great grandmother, two great aunts and a great uncle who helped raise him.

Cancer runs deep in his genes. His grandfather, the original Melvin Gordon, had cancer but has since steadied.

To top it all off, he lost his dad to prison. Eventually, Melvin could only stomach one or two visits a year to the prison. Such is the danger of revving life into a torrid go-go-go-go pace. He's always lifting, always running, always watching film, with a play-football-now, handle-emotions-later attitude. He's masking real trauma. Real pain.

"He's holding a lot in that I don't think he's dealt with. And football helps him forget about everything. ... I think he deals with everything on the football field."

— Carmen Gordon

Carmen knows this took a toll.

"You can never tell when his feelings are hurt," Carmen says. "He covers up a lot of his emotions. I can tell a lot of times, but I guess in college he found a way to deal with stuff without actually being out with it. He hides it, which scares me sometimes.

"He's holding a lot in that I don't think he's dealt with. And football helps him forget about everything. ... He says, 'Don't worry about it, Mom.' He deals with nothing. I think he deals with everything on the football field."

Which can be effective. By God, it's been effective.

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Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

Carrying a football, Gordon possesses the stride of a gazelle with the nastiness of a wild hog. But what happens when this remedy—football—is more placebo than cure? What happens when you go an entire season without even scoring a touchdown, as Gordon did as a rookie last year?

Gordon's eyes widen. His complexion turns pale. Demons return.

The answer is sleepless nights. All offseason, he'd toss. He'd turn. He'd sweat. And when he did finally fall asleep, Gordon had the same recurring nightmare. He's in his No. 28, crossing the goal line again...and again...and again. Then he wakes up, his knee aching from microfracture surgery, and he realizes, oh crap, he actually went 184 carries and 33 receptions without scoring a touchdown.

"Like, Dang. I don't have anything!"

He felt like a pariah, not a conquering hero, too ashamed to go home to Kenosha or Madison. "I didn't really want to go anywhere," he says. Stress mounted. His knee hurt.

For crying out loud, Gordon couldn't even play NBA 2K in peace. On his headset one day, a random online opponent realized he was playing Gordon and let him have it. "You suck, bro!" the voice barked. "You didn't even score!"

Gordon was so livid he can't even remember what he shouted back. The NFL's 15th overall pick who had 29 meek yards before fumbling and getting benched in front of 100 family members and friends at Lambeau Field had offseason microfracture surgery, and his Twitter mentions blew up with Greg Oden references. Gordon feared he'd never be the same back again.

Meanwhile, that player who glared at him every day on his apartment wall, the one the Rams selected five picks before Gordon, was named the NFL's Rookie of the Year.

"He has a stellar, I mean, phenomenal season," Gordon says. "It's like, How low can I go?"

His answer, again, was simple.

He'd drown himself in football.

He told himself this pain was "90 percent" mental and then joined Adrian Peterson at O Athletik in Houston. Peterson, like Big Bo, like Mom, like Hammock, pushed him. The grueling workouts brought Gordon back to zig-zagging water bottles and those Camp Randall steps. He's now a must-start on your fantasy football team, with a league-high 10 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns.

The monster, Doe believes, is back.

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Dustin Bradford / Getty Images

When the two hung out in Madison two-and-a-half weeks ago to see their alma mater play Ohio State, Gordon's face was buried in his tablet like old times. The Chargers had just beat Denver, and Gordon needed to dissect every snap. Play. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Gordon meticulously watched each snap at least 15 times.

"That's Melvin," Doe says. "I'm like, 'Dude, what are you looking at? You keep rewinding it back, and you haven't even run the ball yet!' That's just how he looks at film."

Big Bo's message this year is the same as last year: You're the best running back ever. After every fumble, every touchdown. You're the best running back ever. Both parents try to tidal wave Gordon's psyche with good vibes, knowing their son needs this positive reinforcement.

"I have to keep reminding him, 'Baby, you're going to be great,'" Carmen says. "He's that type of kid. You have to keep reminding him."

Because nobody knows yet if this monster is built to last. If his remedy again runs dry, then what? For all the touchdowns, Gordon is averaging only 3.6 yards per carry after averaging 3.5 last year. Still, veteran center Matt Slauson calls him a combination of the three backs he's blocked for: Thomas Jones, LaDainian Tomlinson and Matt Forte.

"Once his dad gets home, Melvin's going to be a different player. He is. ... Whatever's inside of him, he's going to unleash it."

— Carmen Gordon

"He's got all the tools," Slauson says. "You don't see guys like that."

And for a good 20 minutes, Carmen muses on the cutback lanes Gordon hasn't seen and the blocks linemen miss with a pro scout's attention to detail.

She sets her fork down, leans in and locks eyes.

"People may not realize this," she says, "but I think once his dad gets home, Melvin's going to be a different player. He is. He's going to be a different player because he wants to live up to his dad's expectation so bad.

"Whatever's inside of him, he's going to unleash it."


Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

Game on the line, Gordon sits on the visitors' bench in a state of exhaustion.

It's 30-30 and he's done everything he can, scoring three touchdowns. He cannot bear to watch the Falcons' 58-yard field-goal attempt with one second left. He waits for a reaction—hears deft silence from the Georgia Dome crowd—then lifts himself up and straps on his helmet for overtime.

Oh, he still has juice left in the tank. In OT, his leap over the line on 3rd-and-1 tees up San Diego's game-winning kick.

This day, he's the hero again. Gordon churns out 121 bruising yards on 28 touches to keep the Chargers' season alive. And, damn, does this feel good. Inside the locker room, as Archie Eversole's "We Ready" booms from a speaker the size of a teenager, teammates gush over Gordon.

In Gordon, they see greatness. They see what Big Bo did.

"You can't create his identity," tackle Chris Hairston says. "He can use his quickness. He can use his strength. He has the long speed to hit the home run ball. And he'll run over a linebacker in the middle of the hole. Anything we ask him to do, he does it. That's a special back. He's a special player. It's hard to put my finger on why, but I believe in him.

"To come back this year better, stronger, hungrier—that's a testament to the way he works."

Through last season's malaise, Melvin Ingram took Gordon in as a younger brother.

The word he repeats is "maturity."

"He's one of the best running backs in the league," Ingram says, "and he showcased it today. He's mentally tough. It's hard to find mentally tough people. I don't know another person who works harder than him."

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Lenny Ignelzi / AP Photo

Gordon himself downplays his performance, saying he never thought about touchdowns last year and isn't thinking about them this year. Which, of course, is a lie. These three-plus hours of touchdowns and pain fed his wild side. Once the cameras leave, Gordon holds out his left hand as a badge of honor.

It's swollen and scraped and weathered.

He digs it.

"I'm a runner, man," Gordon says. "Playing physical is all I know."

A vein curls along his left temple. His goatee still won't quite grow in, the patches of hair on his chin refusing to connect with that thin strip above his lip. Gordon is still only 23 years old. He looks and sounds like a maniac who could tote the ball another 28 times this second.

He heads toward the sink to unplug his charging cellphone.

"Can we walk and talk?" Gordon asks. "I have a lot of family here."

As Gordon exits the locker room, one nearby lineman chants, "Three mo'! Three mo'!" Gordon ducks his head and smiles. "Need it," he replies. "Man, need it."

When he was ramming into the Falcons line, no, Gordon wasn't thinking about his childhood. He wasn't replaying the 3 a.m. jogs. Wasn't rewinding Big Bo's message. Rather, he says he found a zone and stayed in that zone.

"It will be dope, man. It'll be dope. My pops will definitely be proud. He's proud now. He'll be happy to actually be there."

— Melvin Gordon, on his father's release from prison

Football is consuming him once again. For better and worse.

Here in the bowels of the stadium, rolling a traveler's bag behind him, Gordon stops dead in his tracks.

He imagines the day his dad is released from prison.

The day his life becomes more complete.

"It will be dope, man," he says. "It'll be dope. My pops will definitely be proud. He's proud now. He'll be happy to actually be there."

He smiles and makes a promise.

"This is just the beginning, man. I've got a lot more games left in me."


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.