Tom Sorensen

Strange case of Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, who has a kindred spirit in former UNC star

Whether Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon can ever relaunch his NFL career or not, he’ll always hold a place in Charlotte lore because of a weird car swap.
Whether Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon can ever relaunch his NFL career or not, he’ll always hold a place in Charlotte lore because of a weird car swap. AP

Wide receiver Josh Gordon is eligible to play for the Cleveland Browns Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers. Do you remember how good he was as a rookie? In 2013, Gordon led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards. And he missed two games. He also caught nine touchdown passes. To be 6-3 and move like he does ought to ensure success.

But Gordon never had another season like it. He has done multiple stints in rehab, played five games in 2014 and missed all of 2015 and 2016 and, thus far, all of 2017. The NFL has suspended him for 43 of Cleveland’s past 48 games.

Two of Gordon’s most recent encounters, at least those that were publicized, took place in N.C.

The last NFL game Gordon played was in Charlotte. This was almost three years ago, Dec. 21, 2014. Gordon caught four passes for 45 yards. His starting quarterback that day was Johnny Manziel. The Panthers won 17-13.

Five months before the Cleveland game P.J. Hairston, the former North Carolina guard who played for the Charlotte Hornets, said he ran into Gordon at the Fresh Market in Chapel Hill. Hairston said he recognized Gordon and they talked. They didn’t know each other.

When they went outside, said Hairston, Gordon asked Hairston if he would swap cars for a night.

Gordon drove Hairston’s Cadillac, and Hairston drove Gordon’s Mercedes. Gordon was pulled and charged that night with DUI.

The car swap story was bizarre. Who does that? Who do you know who has swapped cars with a stranger, even a famous stranger, for an evening?

But the career trajectory for both players has been bizarre.

Hairston no longer is on an NBA or G League roster. Despite being a first-round draft pick, Hairston always was marginal. He’s 6-6 and can shoot. But in part because of off the court issues, he never quite fit.

A first-round draft choice by Miami, the Heat traded Hairston to Charlotte. He played a season and a half for the Hornets and half a season for the Memphis Grizzlies. He averaged six points a game during his two-season career.

I’ m sucker for underdogs, and interviewed Hairston, then a Hornet, one afternoon at Spectrum Arena. It was just Hairston and I; he leaned against a wall as he talked. We all need something we can lean on.

I told a basketball-wise friend that Hairston sounded like a new guy.

The friend asked: Again?

Gordon, meanwhile, has never been peripheral. He was chosen in the second round of the NFL’s supplemental draft. His talent is overwhelming, as many slower and smaller defensive backs will attest. And almost all defensive backs are smaller and slower.

We can make fun of athletes and other celebrities, curious about the lack of discipline that can undermine an opportunity and ruin a career.

But if substance abuse, alcohol, is Gordon’s nemesis, fame and money won’t save him. Perhaps treatment has, or will.

I don’t know Gordon; I’ve never interviewed him in a locker room, interview room or as he leaned against a wall. But I’d like to see him at least put himself in position to succeed.

He’s only 23.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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