One week before he would be selected by the San Diego Chargers as the 15th pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, University of Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, 22, stood in front of the Chicago Jokers, a West Side youth football team, and talked candidly as the young athletes’ necks craned and their eyes settled in a collective gaze that was equal parts anxiety and awe. 

They were gathered in a high rise building on the campus of Columbia College Chicago for what was billed as an “NFL Draft Week First Round Conversation,” in which potential first round picks interacted with young football players from the city’s neighborhoods. The Austin Chamber of Commerce was among the organizations to host the conversation. Last week’s draft was the first to be held in Chicago since 1963.

The meeting between the future NFL running back and the kids was an ironic intermingling — the dreamscape world that would be Gordon’s in a matter of days, the one the kids could only brood about, and the reality Gordon has shared with the young men in front of him for most of his life.

The players, who range from 10- to 14-years-old, are from neighborhoods in Austin, West Garfield, North Lawndale and beyond — locales not so distinct from where Gordon grew up in Wisconsin. His experiences weren’t so different, either. 

Gordon’s father, 46, was sentenced in 2012 to a 10-year prison sentence for dealing cocaine. He has cousins and friends who are now headed in that direction, he said.

So what did it take to be standing here, a week away from your dreams? Players like 

Travion Jones, 10, a Joker defensive end, wanted to know. 

“I had to be a man kind of young and make a grown man decision to separate myself,” Gordon said. “You guys are probably going to have to go through that and separate yourself and be your own man. That’s what my mom always told me when I was younger. ‘Be your own man, don’t follow someone else; especially if they ain’t trying to be where you’re trying to be.'”

Gordon’s father, Melvin Gordon, Sr., was a big Bears fan. He groomed his son into an admirer of Barry Sanders and Walter Payton. Gordon, Jr., or ‘Little Bo’ as he was called by friends and family, would study the legends’ highlights and aspire to emulate their body of work.

“I just want to be special and I want to be remembered at the end of the day,” Gordon, Jr., said. 

Former NFL football player and South Side native Corey Mays knows about the end of the day. After playing linebacker for Notre Dame, he went into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2006. Throughout his career, he played with the New England Patriots, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Now an angel investor, Mays told the Jokers that he’s enjoying life after the NFL, because before he got there he decided that his college and professional football days would be dedicated more to work than play. Like, Gordon, he had to sacrifice relationships.

“This is Chicago,” Mays said. “You come home from college on break your freshman year and one of your friends is a GD [Gangster Disciple]. Now, you have to make a decision. Do I hang out with you anymore, even though I’ve known you for so long and you’re still a cool person, because now I have a friend at Notre Dame and his father owns NBC? Yeah, NBC.”

“You get thrust into an environment where you’re already behind, because of your education…these kids are privileged, they’ve been tutoring, they vacationed in Europe,” Mays said. “You have to understand the arena you’re walking into. I made the decision to go to Notre Dame, because some schools were kind of wild. I had to make a decision for the long-term versus the short-term. I said, okay, this is environment is a bit more tame. I can chill here for four years. I’ve got the rest of my life to party and have a good time” — Mays paused for effect — “and I’m having a good time right now.” 

Mays’ message may have stuck with 10-year-old Jones, who envisions himself as an NFL linebacker in the future. But if that doesn’t work out, he said, he’d like to be a mathematician.