In the summer of 2015, while serving a one-year suspension from the NFL for failing drug tests, Dion Jordan disappeared. He didn’t return phone calls or respond to text messages sent by his agent, Doug Hendrickson, who kept hearing from Jordan’s concerned cousins. They told Hendrickson that Jordan was binge-drinking for weeks at a time by himself at home in Arizona.
Hendrickson eventually reached Jordan’s girlfriend, Paige Pettis. “Listen,” he told her, “we gotta get him out here.”
Out here meant San Francisco, where Jordan is from and where Hendrickson is based. As Jordan recounts his version of the story, he says he was under the impression that Pettis planned the trip so they could watch his favorite baseball team, the Giants. And while they did catch a game, that does not appear to be the true purpose of their excursion. What unfolded the next morning was closer to an intervention.
“He came into my office and was just a f—— wreck,” Hendrickson says. “I mean, I would quantify it as literally near death. He looked homeless, just awful.”
Jordan wrapped both arms tightly around his agent’s shoulders and cried for 20 minutes. He needed a haircut, and he wore a ratty T-shirt and a long, stained black coat. No one spoke, as Jordan sobbed and sobbed. “I just knew that I had to do something to get myself back where I wanted to go,” Jordan says now, more than two years later. “Ya feel me?”
Hendrickson didn’t know what to do, so he did the only thing that came to mind. He walked Jordan across the street in downtown San Francisco, then pushed open the doors at Empower, the gym run by Tareq Azim, a trainer who’s more like a life coach. “Dion needs you,” Hendrickson said.
Azim did a double take. He couldn’t believe that was Dion Jordan, the Oregon star who was drafted by the Dolphins third overall in 2013. Azim recalled Jordan as a “freak” and a “badass.” He says, “I was blown away. I could have knocked him over. He looked that frail and just not healthy.”
They started with an honest, uncomfortable conversation. No small talk. This, Azim told Jordan, is life and death. Jordan opened up about his alcohol and drug use, how he’d drink often and all night and sometimes he’d take MDMA. Jordan was dizzy and yet comfortable. For the first time in a long time, he felt safe. But he also wondered: “What the f— have I gotten myself into?”
They made a list of mental and emotional deficiencies, all the stuff that Jordan held onto, that tormented him. Then they put a plan together, right then, Day 1. “It wasn’t even how he ended up there,” Azim says. “It was simple.
“What are you hiding from?”
In the long, sad, anguished history of draft busts, there’s a checklist of common problems. Jordan struggled with most of them, from drinking and drug use to injury and ambivalence. Hence his plummet from promising young talent to football pariah in two seasons.
Jordan cops to all of it. He didn’t take his career seriously enough. He ignored anyone who warned him. He prioritized bad habits. He hung around the wrong friends. And he was distracted by South Beach and all that Miami glamour. As a rookie in 2013 Jordan had just 19 tackles and two sacks, playing in all 16 games as a Dolphins reserve. “My production was directly related to what I was doing off the field,” he says. “I put nothing into it. I was just showing up.”
He was 23 then, rich—his four-year contract was worth roughly $20 million—almost famous and living in Miami. He deserved to have fun, he reasoned, and he could handle it. He dabbled in molly and ecstasy and smoked marijuana. Mostly he liked to drink. He preferred hard alcohol and consumed all kinds. He told himself he’d party only on some weekends. That became every weekend, and that became every weekend and some weeknights. Eventually, he says, he could drink all night without blacking out. “It becomes exhausting,” Jordan says. “Because every day you’re trying to chase that feeling you had yesterday.”
The Dolphins had traded picks Nos. 12 and 42 to move up and draft Jordan, based almost entirely on his potential. He had managed only 14.5 sacks in four seasons at Oregon, where the Ducks rotated defensive linemen in shifts like hockey lines. Still, Jordan stood 6’ 6″ and weighed 248 pounds and ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash, and that combination of size and speed is what made him so enticing. He ran faster than some NFL receivers.
That is, when he was on the field. The NFL suspended Jordan for four games to start the 2014 season after he tested positive for a stimulant on the league’s banned substance list, and he had two games added to that suspension for a failed drug test.
He never stopped partying during that first suspension. At that point he had not yet tried to quit. He says the Dolphins went out of their way to offer him help, and from the very top. His biggest supporter was Stephen Ross, the team’s owner and billionaire real estate developer, who checked in with Jordan regularly via phone calls and offered to take care of whatever treatment Jordan might need. “He did all he could to keep me a Miami Dolphin,” Jordan says. “They don’t let too many people make as many mistakes as I did.”
After more failed drug tests, Jordan was suspended for all of 2015. He lost $5.6 million in salary and bonus money, and he didn’t really care. His life was a mess, and the circumstances only made it worse. Per NFL rules he was banned from the team facility. He had no mentors, a serious drinking problem, money to spend and endless free time. “When things aren’t going his way, he doesn’t seek more attention by trying to cause chaos,” Azim says. “He hides. He locks himself in a room.”