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Melvin Gordon remains hopeful for a breakout rookie season in San Diego

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Is Melvin Gordon a bust? (1:26)

A look back at the disappointing start to Melvin Gordon's rookie season with the Chargers. (1:26)

WHEN HE IS running a football and it feels smooth and easy and right, Melvin Gordon sees each play unfold as if he is snapping a photograph with every step -- crystal-clear, frame-by-frame pictures, showing him how to avoid trouble be­fore it even starts.

It was like that last year, he says, during his final season at Wisconsin: 14 games, 2,587 rushing yards and 29 rushing touchdowns, one of the best performances by a running back in the history of college football. On the heels of that success, the San Diego Chargers traded up in this year's NFL draft and grabbed Gordon with the 15th pick in the first round, making him and the Rams' No. 10 overall pick, Todd Gurley, the first backs taken in Round 1 since 2012.

But the night of his first preseason game in August, the photographs are far from clear. Everything comes at him in a blur: Dallas Cowboys defenders, a wave of shifts called at the line by his quarterback, Philip Rivers. From the Cowboys' 10-yard line, tantalizingly close to his first professional touchdown, Gordon takes a Rivers handoff and heads right. A hole has opened at the line of scrimmage. For Gordon, though, straining on this nervous evening to find his footing, open space turns suddenly into a wall. Before he can either avoid it or blow through it, he finds himself at the bottom of a pile.

"What a career Gordon had at Wisconsin -- 408 yards against Nebraska!" a television announcer says, a reminder, almost taunting, of the spectacular past. This night, far from college and the familiarity of home, is dismal. He gets only six carries for 11 yards and no touchdowns. At times he looks like a lab rat lost in a maze.

An hour after the final whistle, in the luminescent sprawl of locker rooms and corridors under Qualcomm Stadium, the 22-year-old rookie struggles to drive failure from his mind. In a crisp tan dress shirt, his dreadlocks tucked neatly into a ponytail, he fulfills the obligations required of a first-rounder, answering media questions earnestly, flashing a broad, self-assured smile. Moments later, away from the microphones, he confesses in a low voice: "I'm going to be tossing and turning tonight. I'm trying to keep it together."

Veterans among the Chargers counsel him to let it go, but it doesn't come easy. "When you practice hard and you don't get the results you wanted, it's like, 'Now what do I have to do?'" Gordon says. He turns left out of the locker room and heads 50 paces down a narrow corri­dor.

"Melvin, where are you going?" a team official asks.

"I'm trying to get out of here."

"Melvin, it's the other direction. You took a wrong turn."

A MONTH EARLIER, before the Chargers' first preseason practice, Gordon says he wants to be one of the best running backs to ever play the game. As a redshirt junior in 2014, in his first year as Wisconsin's featured back, Gordon was so eager to improve that he ran speed drills in front of his college apartment in the early-morning darkness. He smiles wide and bright, looks and sounds deeply certain. "Anybody should want to leave a mark in some type of way, and that is what I want to do," he says. "You are playing a sport that is so brutal, you go through so much, I mean training is hard, games are hard and it only gets harder from this point on ... when it is all said and done you want to be remembered."

In a Qualcomm Stadium parking lot after the preseason game against Dallas, Gordon meets his mother, Carmen. He was "in the dumps" she'll say later. "Very, very down." Carmen Gordon is a proud and exacting woman. The stadium that night had been dotted with fans wearing Gordon's No. 28 jersey, but she had announced in training camp that she would not wear her son's number as a Charger until he proved himself. As mother and son embrace, Gordon glumly dissects everything he believes he has done wrong. His shoulders slump. "Don't ever let me see you like that!" she tells him. "Keep your head up, and don't let nobody see you down. This is a man's game, and you gotta keep your head up and just keep moving forward."

Two weeks later Gordon rushes for just 34 yards against the Seahawks in the Chargers' third preseason game. On one play, Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner sheds a block, launches himself toward Gordon and seems to swallow him whole. On another, Gordon has to choose between bouncing around a blocker to the sideline or trying to sneak through the hole, where corner Richard Sherman is closing in the near distance. At Wisconsin, the decision would have come swift and clean, but here his steps seem laden with thought. He begins rounding toward the hole but shifts his weight slightly, still thinking about the outside, and then shifts back. Sherman lays his shoulders low and plows into Gordon's thighs for a twisting tackle.

"Richard Sherman," Gordon says in the Chargers' cramped locker room afterward, shaking his head. "By the time it was time to go, he was on me."

As the regular season nears, there are voices on the Internet, TV and talk radio saying that drafting Gordon in the first round was a mistake: Early indications don't inspire much confidence that Gordon will live up to the hype as the Chargers' next great running back. Breaking a few tackles and still managing only 2.3 yards per carry simply won't cut it. Some lump Gordon together with other Wisconsin backs -- Montee Ball and Ron Dayne -- who didn't pan out. Others impatiently link Gordon to quarterback Ryan Leaf, whose first-round selection by San Diego in 1998 nearly brought the franchise to its knees.

Watching and listening is Ollie Wilson, San Di­ego's running backs coach, who also mentored former Chargers great LaDainian Tomlinson during his rookie year. Early one morning, Wilson gets a text from Gordon. I promise to get better, it says. Relax. Dial back the outsized expectations, Wilson writes back.

Wilson is actually pleased with what he's seeing from the rookie. Gordon fits in well on a team led by veterans. He makes no waves, does not act entitled and al­ways tries to deliver on what is asked of him, even if it's an off-key rendition of an R. Kelly tune sung for laughs. He drives to the team's training center for weightlifting at the break of dawn. He steals away to study plays alone in his spartan apartment. "He's learning," Wilson says. "We're eventually going to get there." If there's one thing that Wilson wishes Gordon would change, it's his candor. The rookie already has been quoted in the media admitting he needs to get better. "If you lay it out there, eve­ryone is looking for it," Wilson says. "There's just so much coming at this young man right now."

"LT," GORDON SAYS, uttering the initials with a reverence that borders on spiritual. It is a day before training camp begins, and Gordon has been shooting a TV commercial for a West Coast furniture chain. On the set, he watches a replay of an old advertisement similar to the one he will be in. It stars a young LaDainian Tomlinson. "Are you going to be as good as LT?" people on the shoot ask. "We want you to be just like LT."

Perhaps more than any other NFL city, San Diego pines for the golden era of its last great running back. Tomlinson ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns in his first game as a Charger. At his peak in 2006, he ran for 1,815 yards and scored 28 touchdowns and was named the league's most valuable player.

When LT left for the Jets in 2010, his replacement, Ryan Mathews, never came close to matching him. "All that talk about being the next LT, I wonder if that happened to Mathews," Gordon says, a focused look in his eyes. "Was he trying to do too much, to prove that he was just like LT? Maybe I should reach out to him for advice. LT is a Hall of Famer, man. Those are big shoes to fill."

In the living room of a friend's house, he stares out tall windows, down a hill, toward San Diego's Mission Valley, where the aging, concrete-clad Qualcomm Stadium sits. "I'm going to try and just do me, because you can't be LT -- no one can," he says, but then he adds: "I heard that LT, on his first play, he took it to the crib. I heard he had a long one. And that's my mindset. I keep envisioning a long one, too. Just like LT."

As often happens with stories about legends, the exaggeration that makes for good narrative also makes it harder on the next generation. "I actually don't think I had a long run for a touchdown un­til much later in the season," says Tomlinson, now an analyst for the NFL Network. He says he certainly didn't reach the end zone on the first carry of his career -- it was actually a 1-yard run.

ON SEPT. 13, with Detroit at Qualcomm for the first game of the regular season, Gordon plays well during the first half, rushing for nearly 50 yards. He twists, jukes and slithers into the end zone for what ap­pears to be his first touchdown. But he hasn't scored. Replays show his arm touching the ground as he spins on top of and then falls over the back of a defender. It's a memo­rable, crowd-pleasing carry. It makes fans think there's more to come.

Then comes the second half. The Chargers are down 21-13 midway through the third quarter, but they drive into Detroit territory, largely behind Gordon, who on one play scrambles 4 yards downfield before two linemen crush him. The football squirts loose. One of the Lions picks it up.

Fumble.

Gordon trots to the sideline, crestfallen, his stomach turning. He spots Wilson, who tries to calm him. Then he sees Danny Woodhead, the battle-hardened running back with whom he splits time in the backfield. The rookie tries to explain to the eight-year vet what happened. "I don't want to hear it," Woodhead says. "I don't want to hear it. That is just one play. Hey, it's over."

Gordon touches the football only four more times and barely passes the line of scrimmage. Behind Rivers, the Chargers dig their way out of an 18-point hole and get the win. After the game, Gordon sits alone on a small stool in front of his brown-paneled locker. Celebratory shouts come from the showers: "Let's hear it for the team! Let's hear it for the team!" He is happy for the win, but the fumble eats at him. "It was a good play by the defense, I am not going to lie," he says quietly. "But I just gotta keep it in there and keep it tight. Gotta understand: These guys are fast, and they get paid, too."

At his feet is a small leather bag. Spilling out is a grass-stained jersey. It belongs to fellow rookie running back Ameer Abdullah, a second-round pick by Detroit. He and Gordon have been friends since meeting at an all-star game in high school. Abdullah had run for an electrifying 24-yard touchdown in this first game.

"He got me today," Gordon says. "He was definitely the better player." They'd traded jerseys afterward.

Gordon stares at his iPhone. He looks at how other rookies are doing. Gurley, recovering from a knee injury in college, is being held back from competition by the Rams. But David John­son, from Northern Iowa, a third-round draft choice by the Arizona Cardinals, has scored on a 55-yard pass. And fifth-round pick Karlos Williams, out of Florida State, scored for the Buffalo Bills. And Tyler Lockett, a third-round receiver from Kansas State, had a 57-yard punt return TD for the Seahawks. Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, who beat out Gordon for the 2014 Heisman? He has thrown four touchdown passes, a rookie record.

"Man, Mariota, he went off, too," Gordon mumbles. "A lot of guys had good games today."

Slowly, carefully, he zips Abdullah's jersey into his bag and leaves.

GORDON GREW UP in the northern outskirts of Chicago -- in Zion, Illinois, and then in Kenosha, Wisconsin -- surrounded by a tight-knit extended family, always the focus of his parents' attention. He spent much of his time with his maternal grandmother, Lorraine Hutchins, who along with Carmen in­stilled in him the discipline of the Jehovah's Witnesses faith. When he was still in grade school, his family sent him house to house to spread the faith's message. Often the response was rejection, even scorn. But Gordon noticed the undeterred way in which adult Witnesses -- "the brothers," he calls them -- dealt with angry looks and doors being slammed in their faces, and he pressed on.

He would come to lean on those lessons. He did it at Madison, where, before breaking out last season, he battled injuries and then had to share backfield time with future NFL players Ball and James White. He did it when he transferred to Bradford High in Kenosha after barely playing his freshman year at another school. "Nobody ever worked harder," says Jed Kennedy, then the coach at Bradford, who raves about Gordon's commitment to lifting weights and extra running, and says he did it all with a humble willingness and "an ear-to-ear smile."

Gordon isn't as close to the Witness faith as he once was, but his grandmother and his mother both believe that in the middle of this first season in San Diego he must lean on the lessons forged on those doorsteps once more. "It was an experience that grounded him," Carmen says during a tour of old haunts in Kenosha. She nudges her gleaming white Camaro past the low-slung neighborhoods where the Witnesses preached, past the tidy, suburban-style home where Melvin lived in high school, and the football field and the wind-swept beach on Lake Michigan where he and good friend Trae Waynes, a rookie this season with the Minnesota Vikings, ran sprints.

Carmen, a nurse, describes herself as a hard-driving mom and concedes that she lives for her son. "I don't have any other kids," she says. "I can put all my energy into Melvin. People say, 'She is too involved,' but who cares? All that he has seen, you got a lot of things my son could have been doing. My son could have been in prison, could have been dealing drugs or strung out. So I say F those people ... I made a promise to him when he was born -- as long as I am on this earth, I will be there for him."

Before each Chargers game, two hours or so ahead of kickoff, Gordon fits his iPhone into a pocket of his blue warm-ups and jogs onto the field to limber up. While he stretches, he gets a call. It is from his father, Melvin Jr., his namesake, who is serving time on a drug conviction at a federal correctional institution. The two may be separated by prison walls and thousands of miles, but they remain extremely close. As the stadium begins buzzing and Gordon works to tamp his nerves, the father reminds the son to believe. He tells him to pick up his feet among the tacklers, cautions him against moving too fast. Don't rush, don't be anxious. Eventually everything is going to lie right in your lap.

"I love you, Dad," Gordon says. "If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here. Dad, I give all this fame to you."

Sometimes, his father cries.

Melvin Jr., a barrel-chested behemoth of a man, is known in the family as Bo. Melvin III, it follows, is Little Bo. Through much of his childhood, his father was celebrated as a reliable, heavily involved par­ent -- "one of the best I have ever seen," says Kennedy, the Kenosha high school coach. Yet Bo was hiding the fact that he was dealing drugs. In 2012, he was found guilty of trafficking cocaine and sentenced in U.S. District Court to 10 years in prison, a judgment reduced to seven years last January.

During the tour of Kenosha, Carmen's cellphone rings in the Camaro. Bo is calling from prison in Elkton, Ohio. The line crackles, and every so often a recorded voice cuts through: "This call is from a federal prison." The distraction doesn't bother Melvin's father.

He speaks of self-inflicted pain, of prisoner's pain, of being unable to give his son the kind of support that he now so badly needs. The low-security prison is in the Midwest, where Chargers games are rarely shown. He must make do with watching highlights of Little Bo, alongside other inmates in the day room.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Melvin's father pushed his son toward football greatness -- running him through cone drills as a grade-schooler, lifting weights with him as Melvin grew older, introducing him to video of Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, always challenging, prodding, critiquing. The professional game was a shared dream -- their dream, together.

"I embedded it in his head that he was going to the NFL," his father says. "Almost like Floyd Mayweather's dad. He trained his son from the time he was a baby, and look at him now. It is the same thing with Melvin."

Little Bo fidgets when asked how the absence of his father affects him. He vows to carry on, juts his chest and promises to keep on "holding it down" until his father gets out. His answers feel as if they are meant to steer outsiders from the rawness of emotion. Members of his family remember him breaking down in a high school parking lot after learning of his father's arrest. They say he shares his true feelings with very few.

For now, father and son speak over the telephone when they can and also trade emails, sometimes four times a day. Gordon's father says he hears the heavy tension in his son's voice, and he knows it won't be gone until his release. If he weren't in prison, he says, his son would play better. He'd be running free and easy. Little Bo, he says, would be showing "absolutely a totally different game."

"He loves to run that leather," Bo says over the phone from prison. "Right now he tells me they are not running him enough, which is true, they just gotta give him a chance. He has so much pressure coming from everywhere, and I don't want to put too much pressure on him."

IN COLLEGE, GORDON kept a photograph of Gurley on a wall in his apartment, better to remind himself of his competition. There's no need for a photograph now. Gordon, Gurley and the other rookie running backs group-text constantly. By early October, having rehabbed from his injury, Gurley is beginning to streak. He puts up 146 yards against Arizona, including 118 in the fourth quarter alone, the most from a first-round rookie rusher since Adrian Peterson in 2007. He runs for 159 against Green Bay, then 128 against Cleveland, then 133 and a 71-yard touchdown against San Francisco. Gordon scrolls through his cellphone and sees the other backs in the group-text praising Gurley.

The long shadow of LT is being replaced by one cast by a fellow rookie for St. Louis.

Gordon typically starts and gets most of the Chargers' carries. But watching him try to mesh with a heavily injured offensive line, watching him shift around the backfield as Rivers changes calls and alters blocking schemes on the fly, he never looks sure and instinctive. Then there's Woodhead, who is simply too good to keep on the bench. Woodhead invariably enters the game when San Di­ego has an obvious passing down or nears the goal line.

On the road against the Bengals in September, Gordon breaks off runs of 20, 26 and 27 yards, a burst Chargers fans hadn't seen in some time. He still doesn't find the end zone or reach the 100-yard mark. When the Browns come to town, against one of the shakiest defenses in the league, Gordon gains only 38 yards. The Chargers win, but he is embarrassed, even depressed.

"The Cleveland game definitely almost broke me," Gordon says afterward. Then he reconsiders, as if wondering how that might sound. "Well, I wouldn't say 'almost broke me,' but it was tough on me mentally. So many teams had success against them, but I was only able to put up a couple of yards. I know the NFL is a different level, but I am so used to having big games. It is tough. You go out there and put in all that work, and you don't get the ball as much as you would like. You have opportunities, and you don't make the best of them. You do all that work and look at your stats, and it is only 30 yards. It can kill your spirit a little bit."

THE STEELERS ARE in town for Gordon's first Monday night game.

Finished with warm-ups, he heads for the locker room, looks up at the stands and sees a sea of black and gold -- sure trouble for the effort to keep the Chargers in town. That's a big reason why Gordon has held off on buying a house. It's mid-October, the season well underway, but the team and its new running back have hardly stoked the city's passions. Pittsburgh fans have bought enough tickets to make Qualcomm seem like their own.

Still, all year Gordon has been waiting for this: a nationally televised showcase, players and coaches across the league watching, his friends in Madison and Kenosha watching, and his father in the TV room in prison. Maybe this will be the breakout game. Maybe tonight his name will begin to sit alongside Gurley's when talk comes to impact rookies. Linebacker Melvin Ingram, Gordon's best friend on the Chargers, has tried to prep him for the moment. "He just told me, 'Whether the others have success or not, that won't affect you in any way. That won't help us win games,'" Gordon says. "'Getting down on yourself ... is not going to get you nowhere.'"

Then again, the linebacker's talk sounds very much like the kind of prodding he's heard before from the other veterans, from his coaches, even from LT. Gordon knows the only way to move past the constant comparisons will be to perform. But the results on this warm night are more of the same. Gordon has 42 yards rushing on 15 carries, 52 yards receiving on seven catches. Good, not great.

Meanwhile, the Chargers lose when running back Le'Veon Bell makes a dramatic, last-second plunge across the goal line, and Gordon limps away, his back wrenched, blood running from a cut on his left shoulder. "Sore as hell," he says.

There is a way to view Gordon's season with optimism. LT says he can see that Gordon is beginning to learn. Frank Reich, the Chargers' offensive coordinator, says that despite the tough times, Gordon has handled his early games well. "There's still a lot of season left, and I'm expecting numerous big games from him."

But for Gordon himself, little about this rookie year has been satisfying. The afternoon after Pittsburgh, at his apartment, a mile from the stadium, he nurses his wounds -- mental and physical. He's clearly gassed. He's been up for a while but walks with a molasses slowness, like someone who has just woken from a deep slumber. He answers questions halfheartedly, slumped in a leather couch, his attention centered on a video game. It feels as if he is trying to put a firm barrier between himself and the expectations and questions that surround him.

The talk turns to Gurley.

"Ain't too much I can do, really," he says pointedly. "He is just in a different spot than me now. He got a different team. They run the ball a lot more than we do. I got to make the best of what we do. I can't worry about how many carries he's getting and how many I am getting. When I get my chance, I gotta do my thing."

He leans forward, smiles, more engaged. He talks about the excitement of his first Monday Night Football game -- and the disappointment. There is one play from the previous evening that bothers him in particular. He grimaces and says he's been studying it intensely. He pulls out a black tablet loaded with video from the game, searches for the sequence in question, and begins deconstructing all that went wrong. There, on the tablet, the offensive line opens up a hole that could have led to a highlight run. Rivers hands Gordon the ball in the backfield, then turns and points at Gordon -- Go right! Go right!

Melvin Gordon on the couch looks at Melvin Gordon on the screen, as if that guy, the San Diego Charger, is someone else, someone he does not exactly recognize. The video shows him carrying the ball and sprinting with his back to Rivers, missing the open hole, missing his quarterback's pleading gestures, going left, left, to the line of scrimmage, into trouble, the wrong way.