Gordon returned to Wisconsin to be remembered, leave legacy
Badgers running back Melvin Gordon became the fastest Wisconsin player in program history to reach 1,000 career rushing yards, and he tied for the most runs of at least 60 yards (four) of anyone in the country last season, finishing with 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns.
MADISON, Wis. — Reminders of Melvin Gordon’s prosperous future are seemingly inescapable as the days wind toward another football season. Wisconsin’s standout running back watches NFL Network on television daily, and when he hears the names of the league’s latest rookies, he says he can’t help but wonder what life will be like when those pundits are soon talking about him.
Each new mock draft prediction for 2015 trickles into Gordon’s Twitter mentions because followers notify him whenever his name is included, and sports agents keep calling his parents to be first in line when he finally requires representation.
"They call a lot and talk to my mom and talk to me," Gordon told FOXSportsWisconsin.com "But when the fall comes, fall camp comes, I’m not talking to anybody. I’m trying to get focused. I’m trying to do what I’ve got to do, and I don’t need any distractions worrying about this or that."
The life of a potential first-round NFL Draft pick can be dizzying with diversions. Yet Gordon remains intent on avoiding those pitfalls by trying his best to exist in the present. It is, after all, the only place a 21-year-old college student can control.
That is no easy task, of course, because as the 2014 season approaches, Gordon finds himself entering a rare place in the college football world — one in which every analyst and preseason publication considers him among the best running backs in the country. You’d be hard pressed, in fact, to find a draft forecast that doesn’t list Gordon in the first round of next year’s NFL Draft. Most experts believe either he or Georgia running back Todd Gurley will be the first running back taken among the top 32 spots.
There is also the matter of whether Gordon will actually leave school early despite having another year of eligibility remaining. Some may deem that decision a foregone conclusion, but Gordon, who will be a fourth-year junior, refuses to tip his hand just yet. There are classes to attend, goals to achieve and another football season to play.
So for now, the most entertaining and explosive running back in college football, a preseason first-team All-American and a Heisman Trophy candidate, is simply hoping to produce one more great season, to maintain focus and humility in the face of growing national recognition.
"During the season, you’re just too focused on the task at hand," Gordon said. "If you go out there and you try to really work on what the scouts are looking for and this and that, and if you have a bad game, you’re really frustrated because you know they’re looking at you and you know it’s on game film. So I can see where it’ll really play a big factor this year.
"But I think it’s all mental. Mentally, you’ve just got to lock them out and just play football. You’ve been playing this game for so long. Just play for God and play for yourself and your team. Don’t play for the NFL scouts. Don’t worry about them. They’ll be there. Just focus on the task at hand. Do what you do, and you’ll play well."
There’s a story Jed Kennedy likes to tell about Melvin Gordon that is reflective of his team-oriented attitude, a reminder that he’s the antithesis of the modern-day, me-first superstar.
Kennedy, Gordon’s high school football coach at Kenosha Bradford, recalled meeting with Gordon before his senior season to discuss individual goals. He knew the team would have an opportunity to win a state title, and he knew Gordon would need to be the catalyst. One year earlier, Gordon had rushed for 1,098 yards and averaged 11.09 yards per carry.
"I said a realistic goal for you should be rushing for 2,000 yards," Kennedy said. "I’ll never forget his response back to me. He said, ‘Coach I don’t care how many yards I rush for, I just want to win a state championship.’ That’s how unselfish he is. People talk about him sharing the carries at Wisconsin and what if he was just the guy. But it’s never been about him. And still to this day it’s not about him."
Gordon rushed for 2,009 yards and 38 touchdowns — on 12.71 yards a carry — and was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year during his senior season, guiding his team to the state semifinal.
Humbleness is a trait instilled in him by his parents, Carmen and Melvin Sr., both of whom remind him of where he came from and what it will require to reach where he wants to go.
"Melvin understands this is an opportunity," Carmen said. "Like I tell him, be thankful. And I think he is. He knows in order to stay doing what you’re doing, you’ve got to be focused. He understands that. He’s a different kind of kid. Growing up, I never had a problem with Melvin at school, any of that.
"He knows he comes home, you mess up in school, you’ve got some consequences because you’ve got to deal with me. It’s the same thing as now. I don’t think he’s afraid of me. That’s respect. He doesn’t want to be difficult about anything. That’s just the way he is. I don’t think he’s taken by all the people mentioning his name. Like I told him, that puts more pressure on you to be the man you’re supposed to be. He understands that."
Even as others now tell Gordon how good he is — agents, media members, fellow students — he continues to push for more, which has made it easier to shield himself from the hype. And there is plenty of hype because his rushing statistics are nearly as eye-popping in college as they were in high school.
Consider that Gordon will begin the season as the NCAA’s active career leader in yards per rushing attempt at 8.1 yards. He’ll also have a real opportunity to break the Big Ten career record of 7.27 yards per carry set by Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter 20 years ago, and he’s only slightly behind the all-time Division I record pace of 8.26 set by Army’s Glenn Davis back in 1946.
Gordon became the fastest Wisconsin player in program history to reach 1,000 career rushing yards, and he tied for the most runs of at least 60 yards (four) of anyone in the country last season, finishing with 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns. For those reasons and more — his blend of power and speed, his cutback ability and vision — Gordon could’ve left school after last season and been rewarded with a nice NFL contract. Some scouts, in fact, surmised he would have been the very first running back taken in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Instead, Gordon chose to stay despite submitting his name for a grade with the NFL’s draft advisory board. It wasn’t about the Heisman Trophy chase, he said, or the pursuit of records. He wanted to earn more credits toward his degree, to be a team leader, to become an even better player and, ultimately, to win a national championship — something he has noted on several occasions has never been done at Wisconsin.
"A lot went into it," Gordon said. "I want to leave something here. I just don’t want to be another guy that comes through Wisconsin. I want to be remembered like Montee (Ball), James (White) and Ron Dayne. All those other guys behind them. It’s all about leaving a legacy."
Working toward creating that legacy began anew in the offseason, Gordon said, when he took on a bigger role in influencing his teammates. The thought of bypassed NFL glory and riches subsided soon after the draft ended, and his full focus returned to another college season.
Since coming back to campus for summer conditioning in early June, he has taken freshman running back Taiwan Deal under his wing as part of coach Gary Andersen’s "Big Brother" program, which pairs veterans with newcomers to the team.
"They need a leader," Gordon said. "I can’t slack in anything I do. I have to be pretty much almost perfect. The guys see me working hard and they see me working on little details, minor things like that, they’ll look at me as a leader and they’ll do the same and find little things they need to work on in their game, too. That will help them. I just want to help and make the team better."
Gordon continued to work on his body when he returned home for a few weeks before the start of team conditioning. He trained maniacally in the weight room. He swam laps in the pool. He ate everything in sight.
As a result, the 6-foot-1 Gordon said he weighed a solid 215 pounds, up from his playing weight of about 205 pounds a year ago.
"It was crazy," he said. "I just went home and blew up. My grandma was cooking a lot for me. I stayed at my grandma’s pretty much. She cooked me breakfast, and I ate throughout the day, which I didn’t do much here before. But I’m trying to do it now to keep on my weight. I’m 215 solid. I’m weighing in and that’s without even eating breakfast. I’m liking where I’m at. I’m running well with it. So I like the weight I’m playing at."
Adding bulk is only part of the plan to show he can still be a dominant force in college football while impressing NFL personnel. The two biggest areas of improvement, Gordon has stressed, will be pass protecting for his quarterback and pass catching out of the backfield.
Last season, Gordon caught just one pass for 10 yards, and he has three catches in his entire college career. Teammate James White, meanwhile, caught 39 passes a year ago and was the primary option any time pass plays were designed for a running back.
Gordon is intent on changing that thought process this year.
"I’m comfortable catching," Gordon said. "James was better at it than me. I’m not going to lie. James was a lot better than me at catching. . . .
"I’ll get my chance. I’ll get my opportunity. I understand that. We’re on a big stage this year. We play a lot of good teams in the Big Ten. I’m going to be confident. I know I’m going to be confident pass blocking and catching. Because I know it will help the team and it’ll help us win."
Gordon has downplayed mentioning many of his personal goals, instead choosing to focus on the bigger picture of team success — as he has done since high school. One goal he was willing to share was a desire for he and teammate Corey Clement to break the single-season FBS record for rushing yards by a running back tandem. That objective would sound crazy coming from most players except that, last year, Gordon and White established a new FBS mark with 3,053 combined rushing yards.
"Me and James worked together real well," Gordon said. "Me and Corey will have that chemistry, too. We’ve just got to both have a big season, got to play hard.
"It’ll be tough. But I’ve always found myself getting better each and every year. I think it’s possible. It’s not just me. I’ve got Corey to help me. We’ve got experience with the quarterback. We know our offensive line is returning. They might stack the box. But they stacked the box last year. It’ll be no different in that area. And we’ve got some hard-working receivers that are going to back people up off the box. So I think we’ll be fine. It won’t be easy at all. But I’m willing to test myself, to see how I can do."
If Gordon plays in the manner most expect, then he’ll soon face a decision with the potential to change his life. Already, the question hangs in the air: Will he stay for his final season or declare in January for the NFL Draft?
He is on the verge of becoming an instant millionaire if drafted in the first round, which most analysts suspect will happen. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the final pick in the first round during the 2014 draft in May, signed a four-year, $6.85 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings, which included a $3.3 million signing bonus.
Even if the answer seems obvious to most, Gordon won’t allow himself to think past this season. For that reason, Gordon isn’t yet ready to declare his intentions. But he is well aware of where he stands, both on the draft board and in the classroom should he leave after the fall semester.
"I’ll be short 10 credits if I do leave," Gordon said of graduating. "I’ll be short 10 credits, which is a bummer. But 10 credits is not that much. I would have to find a way to do something to get back here and finish that out. Because that degree, it means a lot."
Gordon noted his mom, Carmen, constantly preaches to him the importance of earning good grades, of keeping in contact with teachers and working toward a degree. A football career lasts only so long, she tells him, while an education is for life. He is majoring in life science communication, wants to earn his certificate in entrepreneurship to work in business and recently began exploring a summer internship at Merrill Lynch.
Carmen, meanwhile, is preparing for whatever decision her son makes. She said he could be in position to finish a degree online, but the particulars haven’t yet been worked out. She has consulted parents of Badgers players on the NFL Draft process, including White’s father, Tyrone, and cornerback Darius Hillary’s father, Ira, who played in the NFL. Agents continue to call Carmen, anticipating the moment her son opts for the NFL.
"The next phase depends on Melvin and what he does," Carmen said. "Right now, I put emphasis on it, but I don’t put too much emphasis on it. If he has a good season, then he’ll get that opportunity to go to the next level and then we’ll deal with that because that’s a whole other world. I don’t particularly like the idea of agents calling me all the time, and you don’t know who to trust. Everybody is coming with a different kind of representation. Mentally, it’s draining.
"I know if he’s going to go to the next level, this has to be done, so I’m looking at it like that. But I don’t like to be bogged down every day with them calling me, and they do. Right now, Melvin has to focus on school, he has to focus on what he needs to do to get prepared for the season."
As the exposure surrounding Gordon increases, he continues to stay as insulated as possible, surrounding himself with family, school and teammates. Still, the debate about what lies ahead cannot be avoided. And so, he is asked a question he’ll likely hear on several more occasions over the next few months: What will it take for him to leave school early?
"When you feel like you did everything you could at Wisconsin," he said. "When you feel like you did everything you could for the university. You gave them an opportunity, you gave them a chance to be great at something. Taking them to a place that no one has before. When you do things like that and you bring special things to the university and you feel like you accomplished everything, all your goals, that’s when I’ll probably feel like it’s time to leave."
While Gordon’s focus remains on the present, he no doubt has a future with so much promise waiting — whenever he’s ready.