Ryan Gordon was concerned when his firstborn left home — something almost all parents can relate to.
“When your oldest child leaves for the first time, you’re worried about them constantly,” he said. “Are they going to enjoy where they’re at? Is he going to be accepted?”
It didn’t take long for those worries to be calmed, though, as Anthony Gordon left California for an opportunity to play football for the Washington State Cougars.
“We were talking on the phone one day and I asked him ‘have you met anyone?’ and he said ‘there’s this other quarterback named Tyler Hilinski who really has helped me out a lot,” he said. “He’s helped kind of dissect the playbook with me. He befriended me right away. I’ve hung out with him a couple times.’”
Hilinski was a significant part of Gordon’s life as one of the transfer’s first true friends at WSU, but his own life was cut short when he committed suicide in January of 2018.
While no one seemed to notice Hilinksi was struggling on the surface, it was later discovered that he suffered from Stage 1 chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
That’s the lowest level of the condition, yet he had the brain of a 65-year-old at the time of his death. He was only 21 years old.
“Tyler was a special person,” Ryan said. “Unfortunately, what happened, happened. I don’t know how to say this, but it’s not that he feels guilty about the situation that he’s in, but realistically, if Tyler was still here, none of this might be happening for Anthony right now. There’s a good chance he would have ended up being Tyler’s backup.”
Gordon recalls Hilinski taking him “under his wing” and showing him the ropes. The two were in the same class, and Hilinksi had already spent a year up there and had a good feel for the place.
“Luke (Falk) did a great job at helping me out as well, but I had a better connection with Tyler, especially early on in my time there,” he said. “Tyler just kind of taught me the ropes and how to go about connecting with my teammates and to be myself and that everything would work out. The Hilinski family has been nothing but supportive of me and they’ve helped me out along my road of patience. They’ve always been inspiring to me and I have a lot of love for that whole family.”
Gordon’s mother, Gina, says that not a day went by that her son didn’t think of his late friend.
But he’d find a noble way to repay him soon enough.
Failing to make a definitive choice at quarterback only hurts the whole room.
That’s the way former Washington State and current Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach sees it.
“You never know if you make the perfect choice but you make the best choice you can,” he said. “At some point, you have to decide who you’re going to invest the reps in. Once you invest the reps in them then they’ll improve and flourish. The worst thing you can do is not make up your mind and you’ll make everybody mediocre.”
In Gordon’s case back in 2018, he didn’t finish out camp at the top of the depth chart — Gardner Minshew did.
Gordon describes it as a “nasty quarterback battle” throughout that camp, though the two always got along well and still talk just about every day.
Minshew, the graduate transfer from East Carolina who got his start at Northwest Mississippi Community College, has become a testament to Leach’s ability to groom quarterbacks and the lengths players like Gordon can take their careers.
“I thought it brought the best out of all three of them. I thought it was very closely contested,” Leach said. “I think the edge that Gardner had was that he’d actually played in a game, so he had a little more experience. I thought that each of the three did things that were better than the other. Gardner, for not having been exactly in the offense, really gained a lot of ground quickly, and in the end I found that to be quite impressive, and then statistically you could argue that Anthony at various points was ahead for sure.”
The current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback may have gotten the nod at starter that year, but he knew Gordon was nipping at his heels.
“Watching Gordo play with a lot of aggressiveness and creativity challenged me to push outside of my comfort zone,” Minshew said. “I just tried to help him as he goes through the whole process, giving him advice any time I thought I could help.”
Gordon’s sureness of himself is infectious, and there was no doubt he’d slide into the starting role well.
“I was always impressed with Gordo’s confidence and competitiveness. He also had a lot of arm talent. His confidence in himself gave me a lot of confidence that he would do well after I left Washington State. Guys like to rally around that.”
And he did, completing 71.6 percent of his passes for 5,579 yards with 48 touchdowns and 16 interceptions as a fifth-year senior in his first year starting at Wazzu.
There are so many places in the road of Anthony Gordon’s football career that should have been the stopping point — places where any logical person would see things finally fizzling out and chalk it up to an “oh well, he had a good run.”
Despite breaking records at Terra Nova High School in Pacifica, he had zero stars and wasn’t recruited. He was drafted in 2015 by the New York Mets to play baseball, but chose to follow a different dream and play junior college football at City College of San Francisco.
His father says he “broke just about every school record imaginable” while at CCSF, and he knew someone would end up taking a chance on him at some point.
It’s hard to know if you just think your kid is better than he is or if he’s really got what it takes to succeed among the best of them.
And watching a kid face as much adversity as Gordon has along the way may be the only thing that’s even more difficult.
“It’s been something watching what he’s been through, and he’s stayed really positive, had to tell us to calm down and stop stressing out more than we’ve had to tell him that,” Gina Gordon said. “Just his outlook on it all and his ability to recognize what he can and can’t control is pretty impressive.”
But as time has gone on, it’s become more and more clear the Gordons aren’t just biased toward their son.
Gordon wasn’t a huge name entering the Senior Bowl, but he’s used to being the underdog. It’s in his nature to persevere and rise to the challenge.
“I think I’ve got a competitive edge,” he said. “I just think kind of my whole path and how I stuck it out at Washington State and didn’t even think of transferring just goes to show that I’m a competitor and that I’m not going to back down from any challenge in football or in life.”
Nothing has ever been given to him, and it’s been an uphill battle that he’s embraced more than most.
“Coach Leach has a cool saying that if anything was easy then everyone would want to do it,” he said. “Everything that’s hard is worth working for and it feels a whole lot better when it’s hard and you achieve it.”
There’s a lot that Gordon brings to the table for an NFL team, regardless of how overlooked he’s constantly been and continues to be.
“I don’t think there’s any question that he’s underrated,” Leach said. “When it comes to the stars and some of the evaluations coming out, you get that those are almost exclusively made by non-coaches. It’s funny, because some of these guys will ask journalists who they should recruit and who they should draft and if they’re gonna do that, I don’t know why they don’t ask them what they should run on third down.”
The team who drafts him will gain a player with a host of qualities that set him apart from some of the best at the position.
“I think he’s got a quicker release than nearly anyone in the entire league,” Leach said. “He’s got above-average arm strength. He’s got a really good presence in the pocket. There are faster guys, he’s not a slow guy. I think he really sees the field well. I think that he’ll have a successful NFL career.”
Any quarterback’s success at the next level has a lot to do with their landing spot, and how that team utilizes them.
The list of signal-callers who could have had notable careers at the next level but were never given a chance to perform to their full potential is extensive, and quite frankly, we’ll never be sure which names are on it.
“The most important thing in all of this is that you have to be at the right place, somewhere that will use your ability and talent,” Leach said. “From what I’ve seen over the years, the NFL is all over the place as far as what they’re looking for. In most cases it’s not even coaches that are making the bulk of decisions, so I think there are a lot of variables, but I think he’ll do well.”
Gordon put on a performance that was impossible to ignore at the Senior Bowl, stealing the show over the likes of projected first-rounder, Justin Herbert.
Gordon looked accurate and efficient as he entered the game in the third quarter, completing 8-of-12 passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
But there was one thing he made sure he took care of before he ever even suited up in Mobile.
Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy likes for players to wear the same number they did for their college team, but Gordon was a special exception.
This was Gordon’s moment, but it was Tyler’s too. Both of them shared it — one physically, and the other in spirit.
“I asked about No. 3 and he was so cool in letting me do,” Gordon said. “I asked the Hilinksi family if it would be cool if I could do it to honor Tyler. It should have been his senior year and he would have undoubtedly been the quarterback at the Senior Bowl this year.”
Anthony Gordon is writing two stories. It’s time for the next chapter — and it could be one for the books.
“After the Patriots drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round, he walked by Robert Kraft and said ‘I’m the best decision you ever made,’” Ryan Gordon said.
“I think Anthony has the same attitude, that ‘whoever gets me, I’m going to be the best decision they ever made.’”