This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 13 Cleveland Issue. Subscribe today!
JOSH GORDON HAS two hours to pee in a cup. To prepare, he is drinking a bottle of water -- natural spring, not carbonated, because he hates that -- and has left ample time to get back to his home base, a bathroom in his downtown condo near Lake Erie. The call came earlier this afternoon, and Gordon knows the drill. No matter where he is or what he's doing, he has four hours to drop everything and take a drug test.
One time, the Browns wide receiver was jet-skiing in Florida when his cellphone rang. "We gotta leave," Gordon told friends, who had just docked on an island. "I got a test." When he's in Cleveland, his tester and witness is often a guy named Mike, a gentleman in his 50s or 60s whom Gordon jokes he has gotten to know very well.
Sipping his water just off the lobby of Aloft, a trendy downtown hotel, Gordon says he's taken roughly 180 drug tests since he entered the NFL in 2012, one of the pitfalls of having a college résumé that includes breathtaking catches and positive tests for marijuana. Has it hit him that on this early-September day, the bathroom break is Gordon's only link to the NFL?
He'd been banned indefinitely after a urine sample this past March measured 16 nanograms per milliliter of THC, just over the NFL's threshold of 15. Though his B sample tested under the limit, at 13.6, it didn't matter. Gordon was in Stage 3 of the NFL's drug program, and nothing could save him.
When he found out in late August that he'd lost an appeal he thought he'd win, his reaction wasn't emotional or angry, says one of his brothers who delivered the news. "All right," Gordon told him. "See you at the house." On Sept. 19, the NFL would revamp its drug policy, dropping Gordon's suspension to 10 games, but for weeks he'd live under a dark cloud of possibly being cut from his team -- and cut off from football -- for at least one year.
The first few days of his suspension, Gordon says, he sat at home and would hear from teammates after every report on TV. But then, he jokes, he kind of began to like the idea of sleeping in.
Despite stern warnings and the prospect of losing his livelihood, Gordon says he does not have a drug problem. "Definitely not," he says. "I wouldn't know what I was addicted to because I don't do anything."
Not everyone agrees. Hall of Fame receiver and ESPN analyst Cris Carter was asked by Gordon's camp this summer to mentor him, but Carter declined, saying in a recent interview that he believes Gordon is in denial. "I would like to help him, but I don't believe he's anywhere near out of the woods," says Carter, who battled drug and alcohol addiction in his early NFL years and has been sober for more than two decades. "I'm afraid for him right now. I'm afraid for his career."
But there's a faction of fans, especially in Cleveland, who see Gordon as a victim. Here's the NFL, in all its head-spinning indecision toward domestic violence, so stubborn and sure in Gordon's punishment over nanograms of weed. A local company printed up T-shirts with "Free Gordon" over his expressionless face, streaked in green, yellow and red -- the colors of the Rastafarian flag. Another shirt says "Legalize Gordon" with his headshot framed by a marijuana leaf.
The Josh Gordon who's trying to mind his p's and q's to play football again says that the constant testing is no big deal -- when you're drug-free. But less than a minute after he utters that PR line, Gordon can't help himself.
"It's definitely harassing for sure," he says. "You're, like, on probation."
He's still "pissed off" that the NFL put him in the drug program as a rookie for what he says were missteps in college and is convinced he's in his current predicament only because he is tested far more often than others. Later, he'll say he's surrounded by people who smoke pot. "Everybody I know does it."
GORDON COULDN'T GO to the Browns' facility in early September for an interview because of his suspension. He didn't want to do it at his home; that seemed a little too personal. So he decided to meet at the Aloft hotel. Dressed in a Portugal World Cup jersey, a Mariners cap and black sweatpants, he seems somewhat nervous. He has spent a good part of the summer underground; for a while he didn't even feel comfortable going on social media. If he tweeted that he was in New York, or enjoying a fancy meal or a concert, he figured it would give the impression that he wasn't miserable enough.
Even before this mess, Gordon had a hard time expressing himself. It's been this way since he was a kid. So to compensate, he writes poems and songs, from rap to country. Only those closest to him have seen them.
One of those people is his older brother Herald Gordon, who goes by Kain and lives with Josh in Cleveland. In those first days of his suspension, Josh would drag himself out of bed, turn on ESPN and watch as strangers dissected his future. Then he would try to motivate himself to work out, sometimes with his brother.
It was Kain who'd drive Josh to the YMCA on summer mornings when they were kids. The family is reluctant to talk much about Gordon's youth, and Kain would agree to an interview only via text. "wasn't all sunshine growing up," Kain wrote, "but it was not all cloudy skies n raining." Kain has an interesting twitter handle, @RastaGordon713, but when asked about that, or his views on the NFL's marijuana policies, he replies, "I'm not going to get into that."
Gordon, for his part, offers up just the basics from his childhood, stuff you'd see on a team bio page, like the fact that he's from Houston. "I was just raised in humble beginnings," he says. "Three brothers together and a single mother who raised us the best she could."
Money was tight in the Gordon house. One of his old teammates from Lamar High, Dion Palmer, says friends used to tease Gordon because his house stood out as being the shabbiest in the neighborhood. "To be honest, it didn't belong," Palmer says. "There'd be all these nice houses, and then there was Josh's house. We used to joke that his house was a shack. He never said it, but I'm sure he was [embarrassed] because people would joke about it."
Sometime in high school, say people who knew Gordon then, he started running with the wrong crowd. They describe him as kindhearted and loyal to a fault and wonder if he is reluctant, even now, to shake these influences because they were with him in the beginning, before he became successful.
Not that stardom has come as a surprise. On the field, he is transcendent, with giant hands, breakaway speed and preternatural athleticism. He led the NFL in receiving last year with 1,646 yards on 87 catches and did it despite being suspended for two games after testing positive for codeine. (Gordon insists he was taking doctor-prescribed cough medicine.)
He is 23 years old and integral to the success of the Browns, who haven't been to the playoffs since 2002. He is so highly regarded that Cleveland used a second-round pick on him in the 2012 supplemental draft, despite his baggage, then passed on Clemson star wideout Sammy Watkins in the 2014 draft.
Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, only two men have had more receiving yards than Gordon in their first two seasons: Randy Moss and Jerry Rice. But despite stats and status to rival all-time greats, Gordon doesn't appreciate his full value, according to former Baylor teammate Terrance Ganaway. "Somewhere along the path, Josh Gordon has forgotten what he truly is worth," he says. "Josh needs someone in his corner that is going in the right direction. He needs someone to show him the correct way to present himself."
Court records show that Gordon's drug use stretches back to at least 2009, when he was 17 and a senior. He was charged with possession of marijuana, pleaded no contest and was convicted of the misdemeanor. Two years later, at Baylor, he and teammate Willie Jefferson were found passed out in a Taco Bell drive-thru with pot in the car. Gordon wasn't prosecuted, but he failed at least one drug test and eventually was barred from playing football. Several of his teammates, including the team's leaders, pleaded with Baylor president Ken Starr to allow Gordon to play. It was in vain. So Gordon went to Utah but left school before he ever played. He said his mom's home caught fire and he had to go back to help support her. Once in Cleveland, Gordon would admit that he had failed another drug test at Utah.
After sitting out a year, Gordon auditioned for roughly 20 NFL scouts on July 10, 2012. The Browns were enamored and signed him to a four-year, $5.3 million deal six days later. Gordon moved into a high-rise condo and got a camouflage Porsche.
"Honestly, I don't think it could've worked out better," he says. "Knowing my circumstances from which I came and the path I was headed down, to be where I am, I'm blessed."
GORDON BELIEVES HE entered his rookie season in Stage 2 of the NFL's drug program. (The league declined to verify this, citing confidentiality.) That meant he could be tested up to 10 times a month for street drugs, while an average player gets tested just once a year. He says a pre-employment test in the summer of 2012 left him feeling even more singled out before his career had even begun. He says he went to Chicago and talked to doctors for roughly 18 hours. They asked him about his past and kept writing things down.
"It kind of blurred at a certain point," he says. "I ended up falling asleep in a meeting. I was so tired. It was like a placement exam, the whole thing. They were just asking you to regurgitate words back to them, that they'd recite, like backwards. They'd tell you to read the alphabet backwards. It was weird."
On March 5 of this year, Gordon took a random drug test. Weeks passed, and one day he received a letter in the mail. It said he had violated the NFL's drug policy. Again. It said he'd soon receive a follow-up note explaining what was going to happen.
Gordon panicked. What stage am I in again? Which test are they talking about?This time it wouldn't turn up codeine, but it would eventually lead to his season-long suspension.
Gordon claims he has not used marijuana since he's been in the NFL and traces the positive test back to secondhand smoke. But by July, he was in trouble again, charged with DWI in North Carolina. His blood alcohol level was .09; the legal limit is .08.
Gordon checked himself into Cliffside Malibu, a five-star luxury rehab facility in California. He tried music therapy, water therapy, acupuncture. He was assigned a horse he was responsible for feeding. He was encouraged to get in tune with it and to "be nice to it."
"It's definitely some hippie s---," Gordon says.
But he enjoyed his one-on-one sessions. They gave him the opportunity, finally, to open up. He told his life story and found feedback enlightening. But he left after two weeks for camp, still convinced he wasn't an addict.
"People there definitely had heavier problems than anything I've done," he says. "[The media] want to create this monster. Every story about me seems so harsh. He's an addict, a junkie, a cokehead. That's not who you really are."
When he returned to the Browns in July, he seemed distracted by the looming suspension. He played in the preseason and was criticized for indifference. He waited for more than three weeks to learn that NFL arbitrator Harold Henderson had denied his appeal. A person with knowledge of the proceedings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says the decision dragged on because the league and NFLPA believed they could revise the drug policies before his appeal was finalized. They couldn't, so Gordon spent nearly a month more believing he'd be banned for the year.
As the season opened against the Steelers, Gordon had no plans to tune in. It would be too hard to watch.
WHAT DOES A MAN do when he thinks he's been banned from what he loves for a year? Gordon signed on with Sarchione Auto Group as a salesman and goodwill ambassador. He wore a black polo with Ford and Chevy logos on it, but not for long. When changes to the drug policy were announced, Gordon was able to go back to the Browns' facility and join teammates for lifting and meetings, though he can't practice and can't play until the Nov. 23 game at Atlanta. He isn't paid during his suspension either, losing about $800,000.
Coach Mike Pettine called it a "big plus" to get Gordon back this season. But he has also said he wants to make sure the Browns are there for him personally. Gordon says he likes structure. He admits that the offseason is when he usually runs into problems.
The new substance abuse policy's threshold for a positive marijuana test is 35 nanograms, which should eliminate the possibility that secondhand smoke would trigger a positive test. And according to a person familiar with the negotiations, players in Stage 3 will be eligible for review by clinicians and can possibly be discharged after 24 months. Under the old rules, Gordon faced Stage 3 status for the rest of his career.
Gordon sounds as if he has seen his career flash before him. He seems scared about what is next. He knows a man gets only so many chances.
After he talks for about an hour at Aloft, he is asked if he has anything else to say. He extends his hands like a politician. "I didn't do it," he says.
A minute or so later, he leaves the room. He has to take a drug test.