Survivors of horrific trauma often have no memory of the actual incident that left them maimed. It’s the brain’s way of coping with events too extreme to process.
Dion Jordan has no such luck. He remembers everything about that awful day in late 2007.
He remembers his knucklehead friends trying to siphon gas from a car with a vacuum cleaner. He remembers unplugging the machine to prevent something terrible from happening.
And he remembers, with great clarity, the explosion that torched his teenage body, an accident that imperiled not only his NFL dreams, but also threatened his promising young life.
“I was kind of in shock, because I didn’t understand what was going on,” Jordan said last week while hanging out in his family’s apartment in suburban Phoenix. “Everything happened so fast.”
Jordan sustained second- and third-degree burns up and down his 6-6 body, scarring him for life. Paramedics feared Jordan also inhaled a toxic amount of chemicals when the gasoline ignited. Luckily, he didn’t.
Still, some thought he might never walk properly again. His football prospects? Dim.
Now 23, the young man who once struggled to get out of bed is a fit and fierce pass-rusher, and the next great hope for the Miami Dolphins, who drafted him third overall in late April.
“He’s a miracle kid,” said Emily Rubin, Jordan’s high school English teacher and academic advisor.
Leader in high school
Greater Phoenix isn’t so much a city as it is the world’s biggest strip mall, and Chandler — a diverse, prosperous town of 240,000 just south of Tempe — is no different.
The road into Chandler is an endless stretch of modest neighborhoods, used car lots, liquor stores and check-cashing centers. Air conditioning is a must; the temperatures often top 100 degrees before May.
In the center of town stands Chandler High School, a massive, 60-acre campus that’s the scholastic home to more than 3,400 kids.
The school, which is two years shy of its centennial celebration, has produced pro athletes, businessmen, small-screen stars and, as outgoing athletic director Dave Shapiro admitted sheepishly, a handful of death-row’s finest.
Despite a rich football history — notable alums include former St. Louis Ram Adam Archuleta and Gordon Rule, a defensive back drafted by Vince Lomardi in the 1960s — Chandler has just one state football title to its credit.
Chandler’s sister school, Hamilton, is a rival in name only. Hamilton has won all 16 meetings between the two teams, including one particularly embarrassing collapse by Chandler, when the Wolves somehow blew a 10-point lead with 40 seconds to play.
The sibling rivalry between the schools can often get petty, if not downright mean. But the day Jordan got burned, that all disappeared. The hospital’s waiting room was packed with players from both teams, all in support of the tall, rangy defensive lineman.
“He was a great kid; I don’t think he was ever in trouble,” said Shaun Aguano, Chandler’s head football coach. Aguano served as offensive coordinator during the time Jordan spent on campus.
“At practice, he was a leader,” Aguano added. “He controlled the locker room. Everybody liked Dion.
“There’s no animosity about him.”
Technically, Jordan is an outsider. Born in San Francisco, he was sent to live with his aunt Yative Tiger in Arizona at age 12. The reason: to get him out of Hunters Point, the rough neighborhood where the Jordan family lived.
Dion Jordan, named after his father, is the oldest of Sherrita Jordan’s three children. He has a younger brother, Michael (yes, his name is Michael Jordan — his father’s idea, Sherrita insisted) who goes to school in Iowa. His sister Sherrelle is one of the nation’s top prep hurdlers.
Growing up wasn’t easy. Sherrita Jordan had a debilitating drug habit that spanned decades. Dad wasn’t a regular presence in Dion Jr.’s life either, and so Tiger was left caring not only for her own kids, but also her sister’s.
“It was a hardship for me and my family. By the grace of God, I overcame that,” Sherrita Jordan said. “There’s a negative and a positive. The negative is the kids sometimes would be separated from me, and the positive is the kids see the result of using drugs, and they’ll make that decision to do better for themselves.
“The good thing with me and my children is they decided to do something different with their lives, something positive.”
Somewhere along the line, Dion Jordan’s mom and aunt joked, the roles reversed. The son became the father of the family.
“I’m real proud,” Dion Jordan said of his mother’s sobriety. “It shows I get my strength from somewhere.
“It motivated me also, being her oldest child, just to keep going. Because I knew what was going on, I had to take care of myself, and my siblings too.
“I had to keep going, and so did she.”
Sports was Dion Jordan’s master key in Chandler, unlocking friendships that last to this day. He joined a youth track club, meeting coach Eric Richardson — another teacher at Chandler High — when he was just 9.
“It was tough for him, especially early on,” Richardson said. “Obviously, kids love their dads. I’m not a real religious person, but I guess God threw me in that spot as a temporary stopgap and a Band-Aid to kind of take the place of Dad until that situation rectified itself.
“We had some long talks and some strong talks. He had some anger issues and stuff. On the football field, it ain’t all bad. In society, it can be problematic.”
Jordan was always the tallest kid in his class. Despite his superior physical gifts, football was a struggle at first. The two-way player made the varsity team as a sophomore, but dropped as many passes as he caught.
Finally, the coaches figured it out: Jordan could hardly see. The epiphany came when Jordan reacted so slowly to a ball thrown his way, he caught it by the back tip. An eye exam showed he had depth-perception issues, particularly at night. But once he was fitted for corrective contact lenses, Jordan took off.
Despite playing strictly on third downs on defense, he recorded more than a dozen sacks. Scholarship offers began pouring in.
Oregon wanted him. Oregon State, too. Colorado would regularly blow up his phone. (Arizona State, which is located just 12 miles from his home, was, surprisingly, not a real option for him.)
Meanwhile, Jordan was one of the more thoughtful kids in Rubin’s English class. Jordan wouldn’t just keep his little brother and sister in line. Friends and teammates got the same treatment.
Scarred for life
When he saw something wrong — like two of his buddies using a wet/dry vacuum to siphon gas from a broken-down car — Jordan wouldn’t just sit idly by.
The call went out for a structure fire. Brad Miller, a battalion chief with the Chandler Fire Department, arrived at the scene expecting to find a garage in flames.
Instead, he saw a teenage kid in a world of hurt.
When Jordan unplugged the vacuum, static electricity caused a spark. The gasoline did the rest, turning the household appliance into a small explosive.
The burns were gruesome. But that wasn’t the main concern for the first responders.
“Anything around the face is a great deal of concern for us,” Miller said. “It can damage the lungs if you inhale chemicals, to where its irreversible.”
Was there worry for Jordan’s life?
“Absolutely,” Miller said.
Medics rushed Jordan to a hospital, where he, remarkably, needed only one skin graft.
Still, his body was wrapped in bandages for months. At first, he couldn’t get around without a walker.
But Oregon, coached at the time by Mike Bellotti, never wavered. Even if he never played another down, the Ducks said, Jordan’s scholarship was safe. (It’s no coincidence that Jordan ultimately ended up with the Ducks, where he emerged as one of college football’s most versatile defenders.)
Still, his recovery was a road with a thousand steps. He spent weeks in the burn center; infection was a major fear.
Finally, after about a month cooped up in the hospital, Jordan convinced his doctors to let him out, if only for a few hours.
It was the night of the big game.
Chandler-Hamilton. Jordan refused to miss it.
His chauffeur that night: Battalion Chief Miller.
“He definitely had some internal motivation,” Miller said. “He had the determination that nothing was going to keep him down.
“We cruised over to the game, had a good talk. He kept telling me how this wasn’t going to beat him.”
A day to celebrate
April 25, 2013, was an unofficial holiday in Chandler. It was NFL Draft Day, and Jordan was poised to be a top pick.
He was in New York with his whole family. He wanted to stay home and celebrate there, but NFL considerations won out.
Back at Chandler, his old teachers commandeered a nearby sports bar.
“We went berserk,” Richardson said. “They had, like, seven TVs. We were like, ‘Turn them all to the draft now!’ ”
Everyone thought Jordan would go second to the Jaguars. But when they passed, Richardson started getting nervous.
No way did he want Jordan playing for the turbulent Raiders (who owned the third pick), but there was also a chance he could fall to the hometown Cardinals, who picked seventh. Instead, the Dolphins traded up from No. 12 to No. 3 with one person in mind: Dion Jordan. (No one in Arizona history has ever been selected higher, Shapiro was quick to say.)
“I think for his continued growth and development, it’s probably best for him to get away from this, from home,” Richardson said. “You’ve got everybody — his family, his teammates, his school. Everybody’s pulling and tugging. It was probably best that he landed in Miami.”
Jordan agreed, saying he does his best work away from home. And he plans to do some serious work in the NFL.
“I want to be the best,” he said, “be a dominant force throughout my career playing the game of football. I know I can do it.”
Jordan will head to Miami by himself, but not alone. He has an entire town pulling for him, plus the support of his girlfriend, professional sprinter Mandy White.
He begins this exciting new chapter with plenty of scar tissue; some visible, others not. But just as the events of that fateful morning remain fresh, he refuses to forget those who helped him regain his footing.
That draft-day party wasn’t canceled, rather, it was merely postponed. The guest list might wind up including half of Chandler. Coaches, teachers and friends will all be there.
And so will the fire-rescue crew that helped save his life.
“I knew I was going to be all right the whole time,” Jordan said. “It was just a shock, because nobody ever thought something like that would happen. It was just something I had to deal with.
“It’s a thing called adversity. It wasn’t what everybody wanted to see or expected to be, but I knew I was going to be all right.”