High school teammates Melvin Gordon, Trae Waynes focused on draft's first round

KENOSHA, Wis. -- The first photograph is revealed, and Melvin Gordon howls. Trae Waynes simply shakes his head.

They see themselves posing on the field at Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium, alongside Gordon's mother, Carmen, and Waynes' father, Ron. It's before the "dreads war" and both boys are clean-cut, baggy clothes hanging from reedy bodies.

"Bro! Let me see this!" says Gordon, examining the photo while sitting alongside Waynes in an office at Kenosha's Bradford High School, where they became football stars. "Is that me? I look horrible. Look at my pants and my shoes. I wouldn't have offered me!"

Waynes adds: "I wouldn't have offered me, either."

The next photo shows them with filled-out frames, sprinting for Bradford's track team. Gordon looks like a superhero, all biceps and shoulders, but Waynes would win that race.

Another photo shows Waynes in a tux, boutonniere on his lapel, smiling with Gordon. Waynes, who took classes at a charter school while playing sports for Bradford, was headed to his senior prom. But his date would have to wait.

"We just had to go to Melvin's house first," said Waynes' mother, Erin.

There are other Trae-and-Melvin images: snowboarding in town, an awards ceremony at Lambeau Field, signing day at Bradford, last year's Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, NFL combine training in Southern California. Waynes' mother, Erin, a prolific photographer, takes her camera everywhere. She has documented Trae's milestones and, accordingly, those of his best friend, whom she considers her third son.

Erin will have her Canon 7D inside Chicago's Auditorium Theatre on Thursday, although several hundred photographers also will be there to capture the next Trae-and-Melvin moment. That night, Trae, a Michigan State cornerback, is expected to be a top-15 pick in the NFL draft. Many project Melvin, a record-setting running back at Wisconsin, to be the first running back selected in the first round since 2012.

They could become just the fifth set of high school teammates drafted in the first round in the same year since 1990, and the first set from Big Ten schools.

For two best friends and their hometown, a monumental night awaits.

"It's hard enough to get to the NFL," said Jed Kennedy, who coached Gordon and Waynes at Bradford. "To have your best buddy go through it at the same time, it's kind of unfathomable. We all look back and have two or three life-changing moments. They're having theirs on the same night when everybody who's a huge football fan is watching."

Waynes and Gordon first crossed paths at Mahone Middle School, but their friendship evolved at Bradford, where Gordon enrolled midway through his freshman year after starting high school across the state line in Illinois.

"I had friends, but I really didn't have a clique," said Gordon, who bounced between Kenosha and nearby Zion, Illinois, during his childhood. "Trae and I just connected."

They played on opposite sides of the ball and seemed different -- Gordon was bubbly, Waynes soft-spoken. But something clicked.

Gordon quickly blossomed in football, ripping off long runs that later became his signature at Wisconsin. Scholarship offers streamed in after his junior year.

"We knew we had something special," said Jacorie Benjamin, Gordon's uncle.

Waynes took a more circuitous route. Initially known for his baseball prowess, he bounced around the football field: from outside linebacker to safety and finally to cornerback his senior season, which ended prematurely because of a broken leg.

He could track down any ball carrier and deliver huge hits, but he never headlined Bradford's marquee.

"It was always, 'Melvin, Melvin, Melvin, Trae,'" Gordon said.

"Melvin kind of became Trae's biggest football rival," said Waynes' brother, Mason, a middle-distance runner on Eastern Michigan's track team. "It was, 'I scored this many touchdowns,' or, 'I made this many stops.' Even in the college combines, it was, 'Hey, what did you run? This is what I ran.'

"It kept growing."

The constant one-upmanship stemmed from individual drive and mutual respect. There's the endless video-game debate, which began in high school with "Madden" and "NCAA Football," and continues with "NBA 2K."

Ask them who's better.

"Lie," Waynes says, nodding at Gordon, "I want you to."

"I was going to say it's even, but since you want to talk trash, it's me," Gordon volleys. "Put that down. Melvin Gordon was the best at everything he did."

"Besides 'Madden,'" Waynes counters. "Besides track."

During their senior year, Waynes returned from his broken leg to beat Gordon in the 100-meter dash. Shawnelle Gross, an education assistant at Bradford who coached and mentored both players, remembers Gordon asking how he possibly could have lost.

"It happened twice," Waynes reminds Gordon.

"You beat me by that much," Gordon says, holding up his thumb and forefinger.

Beyond the bravado, Waynes considers Gordon the hardest worker he's met. Gordon proudly states he knew Waynes would be a star, before the college recruiters or anyone else did.

They split up for college, still a sore subject. Gordon blames himself for initially favoring Iowa rather than Wisconsin. Kennedy said Wisconsin's coaches mistakenly thought they would discourage Gordon by aggressively courting Waynes.

"By the time [Wisconsin's coaches] realized they were best buddies, Trae was already set on Michigan State," Kennedy said.

Their paths diverged, but they kept supporting each other. On Thursday, they could unite in the limelight.

"Nobody's trying to get left behind," Gordon said. "I didn't want Trae to walk that stage and I'd be sitting there. He felt the same way, like, 'I don't want Melvin to walk that stage and I'm not there.'

"We both pushed each other to be there."

When Gordon first enrolled at Bradford, he ran with a rougher crowd, one disposed to fighting. He knew if he stuck around that crew, he'd be sucked in.

So he cut ties, telling a good friend: You're doing something I can't do.

"I had to find friends who had the same goals as me, who wanted the same things," Gordon said.

Waynes never found himself slipping -- his parents provided him with a strict structure -- but he had friends who did.

"One of them, he's not here anymore because of the life he was living," Waynes said.

In each other -- and in others, including Bradford quarterback Gino DeBartolo -- Gordon and Waynes found the right group. They set goals of earning college scholarships and maybe even reaching the NFL.

The three were inseparable: practices, games and workouts; raiding their parents' refrigerators ("We'd eat everything," DeBartolo said); epic Xbox sessions (or at least until Gordon won); trips to nearby Lake Michigan.

"I never once had to worry about these guys out there doing drugs or gang-banging," Gross said. "They were never getting off track."

They spent weekends watching football. Gordon, the resident football savant, usually commanded the remote.

"He always watched the running backs, rewinding to see the cuts," DeBartolo said. "We'd say, 'Let us watch the game.' He was always analyzing. Adrian Peterson was his favorite."

The group grew before their senior year, as Joe Keels, Gordon's cousin from Illinois, moved in with Melvin's family.

Keels was also a talented athlete, but he hadn't taken football seriously in Illinois. Gordon and Waynes gave him cleats, gloves and motivation.

"I went from a stressful lifestyle in Illinois, living in a bad environment, to being with those guys," Keels said. "We had so much fun."

At homecoming their senior year, the foursome began calling themselves "The Wood," after the 1999 movie about friends growing up in Inglewood, California, and the label stuck.

All four ended up earning football scholarships: DeBartolo played quarterback and safety at Army, where he'll graduate in May; Keels started at a junior college before landing at Nebraska, where he'll be a senior defensive end this fall.

Draft night will be emotional for Keels. He remembers a young, "toothpick-skinny" Gordon talking about playing college ball and being laughed at. He remembers touring college camps with Waynes, a "two-star guy nobody really believed in."

"There's going to be a lot of tears," Keels said, "when I see them walk across that stage."

Erin Waynes tears up every time she thinks about the draft. Ron Waynes expects to feel the same joy and worry he did at Trae's birth.

"The reality is," Ron said, "how much control do we really have?"

Ron and Erin, both guidance counselors at Kenosha schools, were hands-on parents. They drove their sons to school ("A bus is unpredictable," Ron says). They surrounded Trae and Mason with positive activities -- sports, music, community service -- led by positive people.

They both ran track in college and attended all their sons' sporting events. When Trae redshirted his first year at Michigan State, they still went to every game.

"Both boys just expect us to show up, wherever it is," Ron said.

By attending everything, Ron could dispense discipline and support for Trae and Mason. He was there the day a Bradford teammate crack-blocked Trae at practice. "Some cheap s---," Trae said. The coaches didn't declare any misconduct.

Ron approached his son.

"No punks allowed," he told Trae. "Don't let anyone disrespect you. Stand up for yourself."

Waynes proceeded to go "bounty hunter," according to Gordon.

"He was smashing everybody," Gordon said. "It was a scary day."

The Wayneses weren't alone at practices. Gordon's parents, Melvin and Carmen, were usually there, too.

The two families grew close, attending college camps and awards ceremonies together. When Carmen recently visited Melvin in California, she also dropped in on Trae.

"He's like my son, too," Carmen said.

Trae laughs while recalling Melvin's father, nicknamed Bo. A big man with an even bigger personality, Bo would yell, "Gladiators!" at Bradford games and playfully urge Kennedy to keep scoring.

Bradford's average victory margin during Melvin and Trae's senior season: 39.3 points.

"One of the fairest parents I've ever had," Kennedy said. "He would tell you exactly what he thinks."

Bo won't be at the draft, however. He's at FCI Elkton, a federal prison near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, serving time following a conviction for his role in a cocaine-dealing ring.

Carmen supported Melvin throughout his award-winning career at Wisconsin, even moving to Waterford, Wisconsin, to be closer to him. But Bo's contributions aren't forgotten.

Melvin hopes Bo, scheduled for release in 2018, will be allowed to watch the draft.

"My dad introduced me to the game. My dad introduced me to Walter Payton," Gordon said. "My dad showed me how to be a man. ... Him and my mom, they shaped me completely."

Gordon walks the Bradford hallway greeting starstruck students. He and Waynes duck into Gross' classroom, greeting the man they call Unc.

Gordon embraces Sue Akina, his former biology teacher, lifting her off the ground. They retreat to her classroom, and moments later, Gordon emerges with a tray of homemade lasagna.

"I love Kenosha," Gordon said. "I love coming back."

And giving back. Both Gordon and Waynes still speak at schools around town, which they began doing while students at Bradford.

As a Bradford senior, Gordon was among several players to speak at Kenosha's Frank Elementary School. He talked about cutting ties with wayward friends and overcoming academic hurdles. He invited the kids on the field for a Bradford game.

"Melvin's from the same neighborhood, had to face the same tough things, especially the gang issues," said Gary Vargas, who works with at-risk kids in Kenosha and facilitated the sessions. "He's got a story that relates."

Last spring, Gordon returned to Kenosha's Boys & Girls Club. Many of the kids he spoke to at Frank Elementary, now middle schoolers, had gathered. Gordon stayed for more than two hours, shooting pool, taking pictures and chatting.

"They realized he was left-handed," said Dennis Bedford, a youth empowerment director at the club. "He was mixing it up. I got the feeling looking around and seeing all those boys, he could flash back."

Gordon welcomes the role-model responsibility, especially in his community.

"I tell those guys ... go out there and make something happen," Gordon said. "It doesn't have to be sports. Go be a doctor, go be a teacher. Just don't go down the wrong path.

"I love talking to kids. You never know, you might say something and that might be all they need to take off to be special."

Thursday will be special in Kenosha. The Boys & Girls Club is hosting a draft-watch party, called "Kenosha Goes Pro," which the mayor will attend.

Wisconsin's fourth-largest city has produced star athletes before, from Heisman Trophy winner Alan Ameche to NBA All-Star Nick Van Exel. But two first-round draft picks on the same night would be unprecedented.

"They're products of this community, and they're still representing us because they come back," Bradford principal Kurt Sinclair said. "They know where they came from."

Waynes always thought Gordon would be a first-round pick. Waynes' goal was just getting drafted.

"I was playing catch-up," Waynes said. "Everything started falling into place."

After earning first-team All-Big Ten honors last season, Waynes conquered the scouting combine, running the fastest 40 time (4.31 seconds) among defensive players. Gordon also performed well, clocking a 4.52 in the 40.

The pre-draft process has brought them closer. Although they trained separately in California -- Waynes in Santa Ana, Gordon in Carlsbad -- they spoke daily, often rehearsing interviews over FaceTime.

"[Gordon] was acting like a GM," Waynes said. "He was critiquing every answer I gave, like, 'Nah, that's not good enough. You need more depth.' He was even on me about studying for the Wonderlic."

"I'm a person who likes to be prepared," Gordon explained. He takes nothing, including a first-round selection, for granted.

Waynes attended Gordon's pro day at Wisconsin. Gordon hoped to reciprocate, but Michigan State only admitted family members. Between team visits, they celebrated Gordon's 22nd birthday in Madison.

All that's left is a week they'll never forget.

"It's going to be exciting," Waynes said. "Nerve-wracking."

Michael Booker knows the feeling. Booker went No. 11 overall in the 1997 draft, six spots behind Bryant Westbrook, his friend and former teammate at El Camino High in Oceanside, California.

"It was like I got into a new club and I was bringing my friend with me," Booker said of the draft. "A lot of guys who go in, they're not going to have that person who has been through everything with them."

Westbrook appreciates the history of what he and Booker accomplished even more now.

"Guys are always doing their Al Bundys, talking about the glory days of high school," Westbrook said. "I always throw that out there, and there's not too many people who can say that.

"Melvin and Trae, they're both awesome players. Twenty years from now, they'll be doing the same thing.

Westbrook considers the 1997 draft the best weekend of his life. Booker said they "took the party from Oceanside to New York." Gordon and Waynes could take a party bus from Kenosha to Chicago, only 65 miles south on Interstate 94.

Draft night won't be their last moment together, but it will be the biggest yet. Erin Waynes will have her camera, clicking the shutter through tears.

"It's kind of crazy," Gordon said, "because now what we dreamed, it's a reality. It's all happening."