When the trainer told Melvin Gordon his legs were two different sizes, he wasn’t surprised. Gordon had felt off, imbalanced, for a few years. As a rookie in 2015, he tore the meniscus in his left knee, and the next year he sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in the same knee. Last season, he bruised the bone. Gordon fought through the pain, playing all 16 games and topping 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.
But a few months later, Adam Boily noticed the near-imperceptible side effects of Gordon’s grit the moment he walked into The System8 gym in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“The average eye is not going to pick up on [the leg imbalance],” Boily said. “It’s not like one’s humongous and one’s little. But biomechanically?” He exhaled. “Oh, you can tell.”
Gordon had tried a few gyms since entering the NFL, but now more than ever he needed his body right. The Chargers missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker in 2017, and Gordon desperately wanted to reach the postseason for the first time in his career. Also, he was about to enter the final year of his rookie contract.
Four weeks into the 2018 season, things have gone about as well as Gordon could have hoped. His 475 combined rushing and receiving yards are fifth-most in the league, and he hasn’t missed a snap due to injury.
Gordon feeling the best he has in “about a couple years” can, at least in part, be traced back to his offseason in Florida. He felt confident enough in his work there to stay in late May and miss part of organized team activities. He wanted to conserve his body, and he had sufficient trust and status with the team to exert some player power.
To him, a successful year would be “making it through the season 100 percent and being considered the best [running] back in the National Football League.”
“When it’s time to train, I’m locked in,” Gordon said of his time in Florida. “I’m focused on what I need to do to have a good year and help this team out.”
In early March, Gordon attended the South Beach wedding of his close friend James White, a former teammate at Wisconsin currently with the New England Patriots, and met White’s trainer, Boily. Gordon and Boily discussed working together and, about three weeks later, Gordon moved into White’s house near the training facility.
Boily worked with Carmen Gordon, a staple in her son’s everyday life, to build a program including weight training, field training, medical, massage and a nutrition plan with fermented teas, seasonings and digestive-enzyme pills to “promote a healthy gut” and better absorb food.
The program started with a standard health evaluation by Sharif Tabbah, whose company Athletix Rehab works with The System8 gym. Tabbah tested Gordon joint by joint to detect underlying injuries. He asked Gordon to list every bump and bruise he could remember back to high school to understand his history. He measured Gordon’s left leg girth (several centimeters smaller than his right) to confirm what Boily had suspected.
Elite athletes are the ultimate compensators, Boily said. Like other players struggling with lower body injuries, Gordon did whatever he could to play at the level he’s used to, so he eased up on his hurting left leg and overused his right, wearing his joints unevenly and risking further injury. The foundation of Boily’s offseason plan rested on breaking Gordon’s compensation pattern to get him healthy and symmetrical.
Boily “attacked” the imbalance by overloading Gordon’s weak leg with Bulgarian squats, lunges and step-ups. Soon, three sets of five repetitions on the right became eight to 10 reps with the left. Boily watched Gordon walk around the facility and get on the massage table, looking for progress. Whenever one of Gordon’s ankles or knees flared out on the squat rack, a compensation, Boily yelled out a reminder: “Foot straight!”
To stabilize his muscles, Gordon worked with Tabbah, a longtime trainer who combined physical therapy with his Bosu ball obsession to challenge athletes with “dynamic balance” workouts. Gordon did chest flies while standing with one leg on a Bosu ball. He caught tennis balls standing one-footed on one, too. Sometimes, Gordon lay on his back with a band around his ankle and brought his knee in toward his midline, then drove it up as if he were running. The force Gordon exerted against the band to keep running, according to Tabbah, reinforced proper technique and fortified muscle around his knee to lessen his chances of a torn ACL.
“Your core demands are a lot higher [with bands and Bosu balls],” Tabbah said. “Then [when] you get back to stable ground, your strength goes through the roof a lot faster.”
On the field outside the gym, White and Gordon ran through drills alongside other NFL running backs, like Lamar Miller and Jeremy Hill. Gordon felt stronger and he noticed it in moments after reading a linebacker, when he needed to quickly decide on a plant foot, then change direction and then do it again a half-second later. White saw Gordon’s straight-line speed pick up, his feet chop quicker and the trust in his knee grow. He also saw re-doubled efforts of something Gordon, at 6-foot-1, had worked on since college.
“Tall running backs have trouble staying low,” White said. “Defenders come for your knees, so he worked on [getting lower].”
At the beginning of training, Boily had Gordon jump to measure the power in each of his legs. His right leg, the healthy one, became the baseline of 100 percent. His left only reached about 50. As April and May gave way to summer, Gordon worked up his left leg past 60 and then 70 until it reached about 98.
When Gordon walked into the facility, Boily no longer saw anything out of the ordinary.
“It took a while [to feel right],” Gordon said. “Weeks and weeks and weeks. It wasn’t like just after the first week I was A-OK. It took a while, but [I got there].”
People noticed. When Gordon reported to training camp in early August, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn remarked the running back “had some juice” and cited health was “the biggest difference.” Running backs coach Alfredo Roberts noticed any minor hesitation Gordon might’ve had starting a jump-cut on his left leg vanish.
Not wanting to lose his progress, Gordon still does “isometric contractions,” range-of-motion exercises usually done on a massage table to promote hip and knee flexibility. During workouts, Gordon sometimes enlists “J-Leezy,” a.k.a strength coach John Lott, to watch his knees during workouts and ensure they don’t flare out.
By the middle of August, a reporter asked Gordon what it felt like to be healthy. “It feels good,” he said. But he also knew football — that his body would rarely, if ever, feel like this again in the next few months. His goals of staying 100 percent healthy and being considered the best back in the league might become in conflict. Because, during the regular season, defenders would dive at his legs, hoping to wrap him up. He would get hit hard whether he shook off would-be tacklers or not, likely harder if he tried to gain extra yardage by dragging one of them along.
Gordon knew all that, so he was deliberate. The plan was to limit damage, maximize recovery and remain balanced. What he said that afternoon in August applied to every day after.
“I’m going to take full advantage of [being healthy],” he said. “I’m kind of living in that moment right now. I’m trying to do the most I can, because you never know.”