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Toughness on the football field is hard to quantify; it’s one of those things where you know it when you see it. In two of the game-changing plays he made during Sunday night’s Patriot 33-3 dismantling of the Steelers, Josh Gordon put his toughness on display.

There he was late in the first quarter, streaking across the 20-yard-line, snaring Tom Brady’s pass, running diagonally across the field toward the end zone and barreling into the Patriots’ first points of the night by stepping over and through cornerback Joe Haden and then slamming into and bouncing off linebacker Anthony Chickillo.

There he was again late in the third, sprinting 40 yards down the middle of the field, hands at the ready as Brady stepped up in the pocket and let it fly, catching and hanging onto the football while three different defenders took their shots getting him to the ground.

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Considering he hadn’t played a real football game since leaving the Patriots last December to serve yet another drug-related suspension and knowing it was important to prove he still belonged in the game after taking time to address his mental health issues, the two plays served as a quick and decisive answer to what he can still bring on the field. When it comes to football, Gordon seems ready, unleashing the full physical force of his 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound frame for three total catches and 73 yards.

But it was the joy he showed afterward, the way he tossed the touchdown football into the stands and gleefully slapped high fives with the fans in the stands, the way he spoke at a postgame microphone of what playing for the Patriots has done for him, that is what you hope represents toughness of a different kind. A harder kind. A more important kind. Toughness in the face of inner demons that can do as much or more damage to a person than any hit or tackle can do.

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“For me initially it was a culture shock, it was definitely different,” Gordon said of last year’s transition to the Patriots. “But I think as I grew in this environment, and to observe other young men move and organize and act professionally, expectations were high, but it wasn’t anything more than what they knew they could do what was asked of them. I knew this is the way it was going to be. I could get with it or look for a transition somewhere else. It’s tough, but if this is what you want to do, then this is the best place to be.”

For Gordon to be back here again speaks to his progress in overcoming the battle inside his head, the internal fight to beat back demons none of us can see but which have been vicious enough to interrupt his football career too many times to count. Gordon admitted as much with his recent statement addressing a Patriot future he earned when the NFL offered him a conditional reinstatement from his most recent suspension.

“Before the 2019 season starts, I would like to address an issue that arose toward the end of last season,” Gordon wrote last week on his social media outlets. “It’s been well documented that I have battled substance abuse for quite some time. Unfortunately, I did not take the time to focus on a solution to my problem until this past year.

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“I am eternally grateful for the constant support from the NFL, NFLPA and the Patriots organization. I also want to thank my family, friends and all the fans who supported me while I addressed this issue.

“Going forward, I will not be discussing the details of my past. I plan to focus on the present and getting better every day. I hope people will judge me on what I do now and in the future. I look forward to being a member of the Patriots once again this season and doing my part by contributing on and off the field.”

Josh Gordon hauls in a pass from Tom Brady in the third quarter Sunday night.
Josh Gordon hauls in a pass from Tom Brady in the third quarter Sunday night.Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Globe Staff

He did his part on the field Sunday, and when you put those pivotal plays up against his last game as a Patriot last year, one 19-yard catch and a measly two targets against these same Steelers, you are reminded of what a force he can be in this offense. The imminent arrival of Antonio Brown might be sucking the oxygen out of every Patriot conversation at the moment, but if you think that’s about to bother Gordon, think again.

Gordon won’t just benefit from the defensive attention Brown will draw, opening up passing lanes for the likes of himself, Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers, and James White. He’s sure to appreciate the media attention Brown will draw, too, far from the protective bubble the Patriots have built around Gordon.

Gordon doesn’t need the extra protection on the field — showing again on Sunday that he’ll lay his body on the line. “I put as much of myself out there as I possibly could, I had a good time with it and that was my No. 1 goal,” he said.

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But the help off it? That he will gratefully accept.

“I’m doing very well,” he said.

“I’m excited, filled with gratitude every day, enjoying myself coming inside this building, this family-oriented environment, doing what I love to do. There’s nothing better than that. It’s great.”

That’s a fight worth winning.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.