LOS ANGELES – Disaster sizzled in that cord attached to the outlet. If only Dion Jordan hadn't pulled it. But of course he had to pull it, because even in the insanely stupid act of using a vacuum cleaner to siphon gasoline from one car to another, he was the responsible one. He was always the responsible one. Everyone else had walked away and the vacuum was still running. Leaving it like that seemed wrong so he grabbed the plug and pulled it from the wall.
And this is what it is like to be 17 years old, a football star in suburban Phoenix and suddenly on fire.
The plug caused a spark and the spark struck the vacuum and the machine exploded. A giant flame raced through the air knocking Jordan against the wall. Instantly, he felt a searing pain rising up his forearms and lower legs – everything not covered by the basketball shorts and tank top that he wore.
The rest was a blur. There was the frantic call to 911, the sirens, the paramedics and the whirling blades of the helicopter that had been dispatched to take him to a burn center. There was also the gurney, the flight, the hospital, all the doctors, the somber looks of the medics around him, the yards and yards and yards of bandages. They told him he had third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body, which are the kind of wounds some people don't survive. They also told him he could forget about playing football ever again.
Who knows what the path would have been for Jordan – almost certain now to be one of the top-five picks in this NFL draft as a defensive end from Oregon – had two former high school teammates not come home from junior college and needed to get gas from a filled car tank in one of their garages into an empty one? It was October of 2007 and the letters from the best football schools had been piling up at Jordan's aunt's house in Chandler. He had taken two recruiting visits and had two more remaining. The night before, he had played his best game at Chandler High. Little did he know it would be his last in high school.
"It made me realize how much I had going for myself," he says of the accident. "The doctors told me what I had to do in my recovery, the process I had to do to get myself back. I learned to appreciate everything. Be optimistic about it."
Jordan is sitting in a restaurant in the Los Angeles enclave of Studio City where he has been staying while he trains for the NFL draft later this month. He is in the restaurant's back corner wearing a long sleeve sweatshirt and warm-up pants that cover the scars left from the fire. Deeper are the wounds of the weeks spent lying in a hospital as his skin molded itself together again, the anxiety that comes when you realize your life can disappear in an instant and the ache that comes when you find out your mother no longer has custody of you, and you are going to live in a whole new city.
"We have our chances [in life], it's what we do with those chances," Jordan says. "The way it panned out for me wasn't pretty but I went ahead and faced that adversity and I learned from that adversity. Life can be making the most of it."
He lay in the hospital that first night bandaged and as far from that perfect high school game as he could be, and he told himself that he would play again. Many of the schools that had recruited him stopped. The bandages were tight. There was so much blood. It was hard to see how he would get better anytime soon, let alone play college football the following fall. But those doctors who said he wouldn't play football didn't understand him.
"Dion has always been a determined person," his mother Sherrita Jordan says.
Football became Dion's salvation in a place where it would seem to be his last thought. He had a goal, something to chase, and every minute spent lying in a hospital bed was a moment wasted. After a few days, he sat up in his bed. Then he dangled his legs over the edge. Then he stood up. Then he walked a few steps. Then he walked to the bathroom.
Every day Sherrita came to see him. She held his arm. She led him on those first few steps, then on the longer walks. And when he was well enough to go to physical therapy, he stayed up late into the night slowly walking the empty halls with Sherrita at his side, willing his legs to heal faster and make football a reality.
Years later, Sherrita sighs over the phone. The fire was hard for her. She hates the sight of blood, and the doctors were showing her how to change the bandages and dress the wounds. But there was something in the way Dion fought lying in the hospital that made her sure he was going to be fine. When her son said he would play football the following fall she was sure of it.
"I never doubted it for one moment," she says. "The doctors were telling me and my sister one thing, but we believed that God had another plan for him."
In so many ways he was an inspiration to her – so driven, so sure of himself. Little did she know how much of an inspiration she was to him.
It was tough raising Dion and his younger brother and sister in the broken-down San Francisco neighborhood of Hunter's Point. Drugs were everywhere, and eventually they found their way to Sherrita. Soon she was addicted. Bit by bit, her life fell apart. Eventually, her sister, Yative Tiger, took her children when Dion was 13 and become their guardian.
"It was a good decision," Sherrita says. "I was on drugs. I saw a future for them."
Too many of her friend's kids were running loose in Hunter's Point, too many bad things were happening. An accounting taken some time later found that almost every one of those children is either in prison or dead. Her own kids had to go away to survive.
"I feel bad he had to grow up fast, but he became a stronger person because of it," Sherrita says. "My children are so close now. Dion will do anything to keep the three of them together."
Losing her family devastated Sherrita. "An eye-opener for me to get back on track," she says. It eventually forced her to get into a program and get clean. "I thought to myself: 'This isn't me,' " she says.
Sherrita moved to Phoenix. And even as her children stayed with her sister and learned at first to run track at a community center where Tiger worked, then later transition to other sports, she remained an important part of their lives.
"I'm thankful to this day for my sister," Sherrita says. "My kids have two mothers now."
She pauses for a moment.
"My kids could have been separated," she continues. "It's a good thing because of what my kids have seen and been through. A lot of people around us went on a negative path. It's an inspiration to me that they didn't go down that path, too. "
And yet it is Dion who sits in the restaurant and says with satisfaction that his mother has been sober for eight years now. "She's had her fight," he says. "As a family we're going to strive for something better. I felt I had to learn through persistence and being optimistic."
He stops for a moment.
"It was tough being young and having to live through that situation," he says. "Being the oldest you have to make the best of the situation for my brother and sister. At first you feel like the world is against you for some reason. My mom, she stayed in our life, so that made it all right."
He is asked if he sees strength in Sherrita by getting clean and being there in high school when he wound up in the hospital.
"Oh yeah," he says. "You have a decision to make every day."
Then he adds: "Nobody wants to go through all that, but I learned from a young age that everything will be all right if you work hard. It paid off."
Until the fire, life in Chandler had been good for Dion. He ran track in junior high school before turning to basketball. He took up football in high school and became a three-sport athlete at Chandler High. After his junior year he looked into the future and saw football as the best chance to thrive and get a scholarship and maybe a career. He dropped basketball, so he could focus on football where he was a wide receiver and also played defense.
"I felt I was put on this earth to play football," he says.
Then came the fire. He says it was "a dumb idea," to use a vacuum to siphon gas from one car to another, but nobody wanted to suck the fuel from a tube. The vacuum seemed cleaner, healthier. And when the explosion came and he was in the hospital, he said to himself: "This isn't going to be my story."
He would write another one, a better one. All he had to do was look around the halls of the burn center. There was so much despair in there. So little hope.
"Those people in there, they had worse injuries than me," he says. "The little girl next door to me, she was stuck in there. She had to live there. All her care was given in there, in the burn unit. Just seeing her struggle and what she had to go through as a young girl was tough.
"You have to be optimistic no matter what."
He had already visited Nebraska and Colorado before the fire, but the flood of mail slowed after he went to the hospital. Oregon kept calling, however. A lot. And this helped him, too. If somebody wanted him to play football for their team that much then he needed to get healthy for that team. Early in 2008, he visited Oregon and signed there.
It took him some time to find his place. Oregon redshirted him that first season, then moved him to tight end in 2009 before finally making him a defensive end for his sophomore season. He started his junior year and was named All-Pac-10. Last season, he had five sacks in 12 games and went on to star at this year's combine.
"His strength, size and internal motor make him so good," says his former Oregon teammate and friend, Kyle Long, an offensive lineman prospect in this year's draft. "He can stand at one end of the room and reach out and touch the other side. And he has great explosiveness."
"I call him 'Avatar', that's what he looks like," Long says. "When you come from the Planet Pandora you're a little different."
Dion Jordan eats slowly. His life is changing now and he can sense it. Some NFL team is going to build its draft around him soon. He probably will be picked within the first hour. There will be pressure in being selected so high, but he is ready for it. His previous 23 years have prepared him well.
He lifts his arm, and, for a moment, the edge of a burn scar peeks from the cuff.
"I'm not the only person who's had to go through stuff in my life so I don't feel sorry for myself," he says. "It's my choices and my decisions that I make every day that have worked for me. I have lived my life and persevered."
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