FOXBOROUGH — Josh Gordon got up again.
He’d just caught a short pass on a crossing route and gotten cut down at the knees by Jets cornerback Brian Poole. Gordon hit the ground hard and sat there for a moment before he stood and trotted back to the huddle. His back was sore and the ring finger on his left hand, dislocated on the previous series, was taped to his pinkie.
“You good?” Tom Brady asked.
Brady’s next throw came on a third-and-22, and Gordon had the go route from the left side. Jets corner Darryl Roberts had inside leverage, but Gordon is built for that not to matter. He turned his face at the perfect moment and high-pointed Brady’s throw, then hung on as he crashed to the ground at the Jets’ 4-yard line. Three plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone.
When a team gives a player a second chance, that is exactly what they’re hoping for.
“I think what he did last game was pretty spectacular,” Brady said on Wednesday.
The Patriots gave Gordon another chance this March when they placed a second-round tender on the receiver, then serving an indefinite suspension from the NFL. It was not a risky move, but it confirmed that if Gordon were allowed to play again the Patriots would like it to be for them, even after the 28-year old, who has struggled most of his life with drug and alcohol addiction, left them to begin that suspension shortly before the playoffs last year.
Gordon has proven the Patriots right for placing their faith in him. In how he trained this offseason and in his toughness on the field, he’s shown how seriously he took this latest opportunity. For those reasons, the Patriots should hope he’s with them for the long run. But Gordon is also in a years-long personal battle, and the simple fact that he is still throwing punches has been nothing short of inspiring to his teammates.
“He just kept answering the bell,” Brady said. “I think that says a lot about him and his mental toughness, his perseverance. Guys were dropping like flies out there and he just kept getting back up. There were a lot of big hits that he took on a very hot day.
“Just proud of him, what he’s accomplished.”
Gordon used one of the same words as Brady, perseverance, after the Jets game. Despite his injuries, he played 88 percent of the offensive snaps. He caught six passes for 83 yards.
“I think my life, the battle of perseverance is something that can show through, through my play and my mind-set and how I attack the game,” Gordon said.
That mind-set has impressed Bill Belichick, enough so that the Patriots coach was willing to say so out loud this past week.
“Josh has worked really hard since he’s come back. He’s shown a lot of toughness,” Belichick said. “. . . He’s taken some hits over the middle. He’s a big, strong kid but he’s resilient and he’s shown a lot of mental toughness holding onto the ball and took a couple of tough hits.”
That the way Gordon has played reflects his life’s story is important, because we don’t know too much about him. The Patriots are still very careful to shield him from the public when he’s not on the field, only allowing brief, group interviews after games and sometimes in the locker room.
Gordon’s inner circle has bought into this, too. His business manager and friend, Michael Johnson, politely declined an interview request and his trainer, Tim Montgomery, who helped Gordon bulk up a bit this offseason, did not respond to a similar request. The Patriots declined to make Gordon available individually for this story, and Gordon did not speak in a group setting to reporters this past week.
Without more information, it’s hard to say much more than this: There was a tenseness and a fragility to every moment Gordon spent in front of microphones or cameras last year that has dissipated. He is more willing to speak frankly and to reveal his personality and, through only that, it’s been possible to catch a glimpse of who the players say they see every day.
“It’s easy to root for everybody in this locker room but especially, he’s definitely one that everybody’s rooting for. I’m just glad to have him as a teammate and as a friend on this team, a guy that I can talk to at any time,” said Phillip Dorsett.
“You can’t help but smile when you see him out there running around the field and doing what he loves to do,” said Matthew Slater. “We’re really happy for him.”
Matthew Slater on Josh Gordon getting banged around and still making plays: “We call that War Daddy Deluxe”— Nora Princiotti (@NoraPrinciotti) September 22, 2019
“I don’t know what happened to his finger but it wasn’t good”
That extends to all corners. Gordon’s locker is next to that of undrafted rookie Gunner Olszewski and, when they’re both at their stalls, they talk. Those are two players from pretty different walks of life, but the conversation flows easily and it looks natural on Gordon’s part to have taken an interest. It wouldn’t be to everyone. Gordon’s not around a ton but when he is he’s chatty with the defensive backs and all of the receivers.
“We’ve always been friends,” Dorsett said. “We were friends last year.”
Gordon impressed last Sunday in ways that don’t show up in the box score, but his game was not perfect. He and Brady missed each other on several throws, mostly in the first half. He injured his finger while committing a facemask penalty. But he kept going and Brady kept going to him.
“I’m just really glad he still had faith in me throughout the course of the game to keep dinging it my way,” Gordon said.
That faith was rewarded.