GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It was about 9 a.m. last Wednesday, somewhere north of Orlando on Florida’s Turnpike, when I felt a smile come over my face.
“You’re going to find Josh Gordon today,” I told myself. “You’re going to get that big, exclusive interview, and it’s going to be awesome.”
How foolish. About an hour later, I walked into the gym where Gordon has been training, but he wasn’t there. Neither was his trainer, Tim Montgomery.
Someone sitting behind the desk was nice enough to text Montgomery for me, to see if he was interested in speaking to the Boston Globe about Gordon. Montgomery responded quickly.
“He says he’s not sure when he’s going to be back, and he’s not interested at this time,” the guy behind the desk told me. “Sorry, man. Wish I could help you more.”
I went down to The Swamp to see if I could find Gordon, who in the last couple of weeks applied to commissioner Roger Goodell for reinstatement into the NFL.
But Gordon doesn’t want to be found.
Gordon posts occasionally on Instagram, but that’s the extent of his public persona. He hasn’t done an interview or shown his face in public since earning another indefinite suspension from the NFL last December.
Gainesville is where Gordon has been living since then. Gordon lived here during his suspensions with the Browns, as well — it’s where he trains with Montgomery and gets mental health treatment. It is unclear if Gordon lives here because this is where Montgomery lives or because of the mental health facilities.
But Gainesville is the perfect place for Gordon to hide out from the world. This town of about 130,000, home to the University of Florida, is in the middle of nowhere — an hour from Jacksonville, two hours from Orlando and Tampa, and five-plus hours from Miami. To get to Gainesville, you really have to want it.
And I did — badly. There are just so many unanswered questions with Gordon.
I want to know how the Patriots were helping him deal with his issues. I want to know how he ended up having a private throwing session with Tom Brady this offseason in Brookline. I want to know how hard he has been training this offseason, and what he thinks his chances are of returning to the Patriots this fall.
But mostly, I’d like to know what happened to Gordon last December. Everything was seemingly going well, with Gordon making it through 11 straight games, and catching 40 passes for 720 yards and three touchdowns. He hadn’t played in 11 games in a season since 2013, due to myriad violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
But Gordon was fitting in with the Patriots, showing flashes of his All-Pro form. The Patriots hadn’t had a wide receiver that electric since Randy Moss. Gordon didn’t play in the Super Bowl, but the team gave him a ring (though he didn’t attend the ceremony). Brady took a liking to Gordon.
“We’re here until late at night, early in the morning, on the field, watching film and so forth and it’s just been great. I can’t say enough good things,” Brady said of Gordon last December.
Then one day in Week 16 — poof — Gordon was gone, suspended again. The league’s drug policy prevents anyone from the league office or the Patriots from commenting on anything — what happened, what Gordon has to do for reinstatement, and so on.
“I’m not allowed to comment,” a league spokesman told me again last week.
“We don’t have anything to do with Josh Gordon,” coach Bill Belichick said. “You need to talk to the league. We have no control over Josh Gordon.”
But there are no rules that say I can’t talk to Gordon.
Gainesville is in no-man’s land, but I lived there for two years and know the town well. And I finally had my chance last week. I sold my bosses on a training camp trip to Miami to write a couple features about the Dolphins, and casually mentioned that I could also drive to Gainesville and hunt for Gordon. There are only so many gyms in Gainesville, and the town isn’t very big.
I knew only one fact about Gordon: That he is training with Tim Montgomery. You may remember the name — Montgomery was a two-time Olympic sprinter (1996, 2000) and a former world-record holder in the 100 meters who was stripped of his records in 2005 when he was caught up in the BALCO scandal. Montgomery later served 4½ years in jail for separate incidents — a check fraud scheme, and dealing heroin.
But Montgomery has been out of jail since 2013, and now trains athletes at his gym in Gainesville, NUMA Speed. In addition to Gordon, Montgomery trains Lions receiver Brandon Powell and Bengals tight end Jordan Franks. Montgomery, like Gordon, is working hard to turn his life around. His company stands for “Never Underestimate My Ability.”
I woke up Wednesday morning and drove two hours from Orlando to Gainesville — no appointment, no advance notice. I plugged NUMA Speed into my phone and it turned out that the gym is in a shopping plaza on the outskirts of town. It’s a nondescript strip mall, with a Moe’s, Planet Smoothie, an Army recruitment center, and several empty storefronts. I drove around the plaza twice looking for NUMA Speed, and couldn’t find it.
Finally, I drove around back, and there it was. Just a parking lot, a dumpster, a few giant tires, and a doorway. On the door was a message:
“Welcome to a community of people who decided easy will no longer suffice.”
I walked inside, and it was like any elite-caliber gym — a warehouse filled with ropes, stretchy bands, weights, sleds, cardio equipment, and a 50-yard slab of artificial turf. The warehouse actually belongs to Go Primal fitness, and Montgomery subleases some of the space.
It was 10 a.m. on a Wednesday and mostly quiet. A couple of people were working out and one guy was flipping tires in the parking lot, but no Gordon or Montgomery. At least I was in the right place, though — in the corner of the gym was a framed, game-worn Patriots jersey with Gordon’s name and No. 10 on the back.
My hopes were quickly deflated when the person behind the desk told me that Montgomery didn’t want to talk. I expected that, though it didn’t stop me from daydreaming about the big, exclusive interview.
I hung out for an hour, but neither Montgomery nor Gordon showed up. I drove over to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, a.k.a. “The Swamp,” just to make sure Gordon wasn’t running stadium steps (he wasn’t). I went to Gainesville Health and Fitness, the other big gym in town, to make sure he wasn’t working out there (he wasn’t).
After a quick lunch, I went back to NUMA Speed. A different person behind the desk was nice enough to ask if I wanted Montgomery’s number.
So I texted Montgomery again. I may have mentioned that an interview would be a win-win — I’d get the exclusive, and he would get free advertising.
“I understand, but I promised Josh not to talk to anyone about his training nor his condition,” Montgomery responded. “I hope you understand Josh has been let down by a lot of people, and I would hate to be one of them.”
Hard to argue with that. Montgomery did say that if I gave him a few questions, he would pass them along to Josh to see if he wanted to talk. So I provided him with some of the questions that I had above.
“He doesn’t wish to be in the paper,” Montgomery responded again. “He’s just wanting to play football. I need to keep his mental in a good place.”
So that was that. I took my shot, came up short, and wasn’t going to harass either guy. I drove two hours back to Orlando and flew home that night.
I won’t be surprised to see Gordon again in a Patriots uniform. The Patriots tendered him a restricted free agent contract this spring, and Gordon has a good relationship with Goodell. If Gordon can prove that he has his substance and mental health issues under control, Goodell will likely let him back into the league.
Then again, Gordon’s situation seems permanently tenuous. Slip-ups can happen at any time.
So for now, Gordon is laying low in Gainesville. He’s a man who doesn’t want to be found.