BEREA, Ohio (AP) — As his teammates and coaches went about their season, Josh Gordon felt like an outsider.
He was exiled on his own team.
Unable to practice or play during his 10-game NFL suspension, the star wide receiver was so isolated that he said it felt as if he had contracted an illness. No one wanted to be near him. He was alone, on a separate schedule and Gordon said he felt relationships change. He knew he had to prove himself again.
What Gordon didn’t realize was that his standing inside the locker room had been unshaken.
"I don’t think he ever lost our trust," Browns Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas said. "He made some poor choices, I’m sure he’ll admit to them. But throughout his suspension, with the things that he did and the way he conducted and handled himself and came back in shape, he proved that he was a new person that had grown up from the situations."
Gordon came back from his suspension for marijuana abuse last week and shined in his first game. He caught eight passes for 120 yards in Cleveland’s 26-24 win over Atlanta, a victory that shoved the Browns (7-4) into the thick of the AFC playoff race.
It was a welcomed return for Gordon, who did it with such ease that Thomas had no idea he had been so productive.
"I went home and my wife said, `Wasn’t it great having Josh back?’" Thomas said, "and I said, `He didn’t really do anything, right?’ She said, `He had 120 yards.’ I’m like, `Really?’"
Gordon didn’t speak with reporters on Wednesday, excusing himself from a crowd gathered around his locker by walking a down-and-out route through the exit door.
Earlier, in an interview with former teammate Nate Burleson for the NFL Network, Gordon said the "lowest point" of his suspension was when he felt friends — and the Browns — distance themselves from him.
"I don’t want to throw names around but I can see it," Gordon told Burleson, who was with Cleveland during training camp and became close with Gordon. "I’m definitely really observant so I see how people might just be more standoffish as they were before. It’s kind of like a disease. People they want to see it but they don’t really want to touch it."
Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer can relate to Gordon’s feelings of separation. While he was rehabbing a season-ending knee injury in 2013, Hoyer felt similarly secluded despite being with a team.
"When you’re in the building but you’re not really a part of the team, you kind of feel like things are going on without you. It’s a terrible feeling," he said. "You see your teammates going about the business that they do every day and you want to be a part of it, but you’re really not."
Browns coach Mike Pettine said it would be natural for anyone to feel as Gordon did. Although he may have been around, Gordon, who was not permitted to practice or lift weights with his teammates during his ban, was not part of the weekly buildup for a game. He didn’t feel as if he belonged.
"I can just see from a human nature standpoint maybe feeling that way," he said. "Knowing the quality of the people in this building, I doubt there would be any overt maliciousness. I know Josh is well liked by his teammates."
Like Thomas, Hoyer said Gordon doesn’t have to earn back anything.
"He’s done his time," Hoyer said. "We welcomed him back with open arms, not just because of the player he is, but we all know the type of person Josh is. He’s a great guy. He’s a great part of this team and he’s a big part of this locker room. We knew he’d come back humble, hungry, and you can see it on the field."