What the Heck Happened to Jordan Gross?
Jordan Gross was healthy, a Pro Bowler and a leader on a rising playoff contender. But the 34-year-old Panthers offensive tackle walked away from millions to enjoy the rest of his life. An update on him, plus Ray Rice reaction
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Strange scene at Panthers’ training camp Monday morning: A man who looked like Michael Phelps, maybe 6-4 and 235, watching Carolina’s fourth camp practice, wearing cargo shorts and a denim shirt, sunglasses and a goatee, not bothering anyone.
But this man looked out of place. He didn’t look like a football player. Too trim, a little too old. But a Carolina trainer, Ryan Vermillion, came to greet him warmly and then said to me, “He was supposed to meet us for our run at 5 a.m. but texted me and said, ‘Can we do it tomorrow?’”
That’s because Jordan Gross, former football player, was snoozing in a nearby state park in his Airstream trailer with his mixed-breed dog, Rosi. Gross is on his own schedule now.
Gross is 34. He was one of the best tackles in pro football last season, and he shocked Carolina’s world when, healthy, he announced his retirement in February. Now here he was, at Panthers training camp, one of those guys who just took a job with the Panthers radio network and Carolina TV station you’d think would be a hanger-on but who says, “If I’m going to be reporting on the team, I want to know what I’m talking about.” So that’s why on a July Monday, with a sparse crowd in house for a 91-degree practice at this lovely camp site, Gross was here to watch.
Jordan Gross played so well in 2013 that the analytics website Pro Football Focus rated him the No. 3 offensive tackle in football for the season. His contract was expired, but had he decided to play another couple of seasons at 34 and 35, the Panthers or some tackle-needy team would have signed him to a deal worth at least $8 million or $9 million a year. Gazing out at practice Monday morning, Gross pondered the questions: Why’d you do it? Why right now, totally healthy?
“A year prior to retirement,” he said, “I restructured my contract. I could tell I was near the end and I wouldn’t want to play much longer. My strength wasn’t what it was. I don’t believe there’s really any natural 300-pound person. It was getting difficult in all phases of my job to retain strength. I decided to try to do everything I could to play one more season at the highest level I could—be healthy, lead guys, go all out to play at the highest level I could.”
Throughout the season, a surprisingly great one both for the team and for a tackle who knew he was done at the end of it, Gross brought his 8-year-old son, Teddy, to work with him when Teddy either didn’t have school or it was Saturday and Teddy could come and sit in the hot tub with the left tackle and a few of his mates. Before games, Teddy would be down on the field to experience the last year of his dad’s pro football career. That’s the way Jordan Gross wanted it—no one in the outside world or even the Panthers knowing he was playing his last season, no attention paid to it, just a man working as hard as he could to play at the highest level he could before he left the game.
“I never wanted to play longer than I should,” he said. “I never wanted anyone to be able to say, ‘He stayed too long.’ Instead of just hanging on and playing at a lower level, I always thought it would be better for people to say to me, ‘Why’d you retire? You were great last year.'”
“But the money,” I said. “If you played another two years, someone—Carolina or someone—would have paid you at least $15 million.”
“Oh, I thought about that,” Gross said. “Who wouldn’t? It’s really great, to have all that money. But how good would it be to play a year or two more and have that extra money, and you have a shot joint or a knee that doesn’t work anymore? I made a lot of money playing football already.”
He told the Panthers five days after the season. They didn’t try to talk him out of it. “How many people in sports get to call their own shot and get to go out the way they want?” Carolina GM Dave Gettleman said. “How many people get to go out going 12-4, making the Pro Bowl, playing at the highest level of their job, his team winning the division? The thing I’ll always remember is the way Jordan was at the end. On the last Thursday practice of the regular season, he and [guard] Travelle Wharton, who he played next to for so long, had a race down the field—laughing all the way. And the next day, Friday, they did it again. He just loved everything about the game, about his teammates, about competing.”
Then Gross had to decide what to do with his life. He’d made lots of contacts in the Charlotte business community. He got asked to join some big companies and train to be something big in business–and he thought long and hard about it. He would have to do something big and challenging and rewarding, wouldn’t he? But he wasn’t sure he wanted to invest all the time and the long hours and the time away from his family in a Fortune 500 executive job. He’d saved his money and didn’t live an extravagant life. Gross, who studied speech communication at Utah, married his high-school sweetheart from Idaho, and they had two children, and for the time being, he decided he’d take a job doing radio on the Panthers’ radio network and a TV host job with the Panthers during the season. He decided to look into an RV or Airstream trailer (he chose the Airstream) and go on a long trip with his family at the end of the school year for his kids, and they did a trip to the Oregon coast and slalom-waterskied in McCall, Idaho, near their off-season home, and camped.
And when it was time for football to start, Gross hitched up the Airstream to his truck and drove east so he could begin to learn his new job—the media gig covering the Panthers. He and Rosi drove from Idaho to the Outer Banks to see the other coast, and then, instead of staying at home in Charlotte, he decided to camp out in a campground in the Airstream near Wofford College and the Panthers’ summer home. By day he is here, watching practice and talking to the coaches and players about the team. While he’s at practice, Rosi stays in the air-conditioned Airstream. When Gross returns after practice, they do trail runs or take long walks.
His former teammates are just like people who haven’t seen him in a while—amazed at how he looks.
“You look like a stick person,” center Ryan Kalil told him.
“You look unhealthy,” running back DeAngelo Williams told him.
Maybe, though, Gross looks like how a 6-foot-4 man who runs trails and eats normally should look. He’s not dieting or trying to lose weight. He’s just not training to be a football player anymore.
As I stood on the sidelines of a padded practice in the sweltering South Carolina summer Monday morning, I wondered how Gross felt. Did he miss it? Is he happy he’s not putting his body through a 12th professional season of this?
“You know how I know I made the right decision?” he said. “I haven’t thought once that I did the wrong thing. Not once.”
There is a white line on the sideline of NFL fields. It’s here, too, on the sideline of the Panthers’ summer home. That’s where Gross and I were Monday morning, watching the offensive linemen go against the defense, bodies flying and coaches coaching and whistles blowing.
We didn’t speak for a few moments, just watching the practice. Gross stood there, watching. Content. A minute went by. Two. He nodded out to the field, to the sweating men.
“It’s good,” he said. “I don’t want to be on that side of the white line anymore.”
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Now for your email, much of it centered around the Ray Rice news story I wrote in the wake of commissioner Roger Goodell’s two-game suspension and $529,000 fine of Rice last Thursday for his February domestic violence incident with then-fiancée Janay Palmer.
I am going to run three emails that I believe reflect the outrage of the readers—both with Goodell and with the way I wrote about the suspension on Friday morning—and then I will respond.