Trae Waynes and Melvin Gordon tried to lay low.
The two good friends and high school teammates from Kenosha, Wis., offered obligatory “it will be great” comments to questions about what it means to face off against one another for the first time as NFL players Sunday when the Vikings play San Diego at TCF Bank Stadium.
But Waynes and Gordon are too competitive and have too much personality to be so low-key when bragging rights are on the line, said Joe Keels, an “objective” buddy of the NFL rookies.
Waynes, a cornerback, was the Vikings’ 2015 first-round draft pick (11th overall) out of Michigan State. Gordon, a running back and Heisman Trophy finalist, was the Chargers’ 2015 first-round draft pick (15th overall) out of Wisconsin.
Since they were selected four picks apart at the draft in late April, the duo and their support systems have been eagerly awaiting this matchup.
“They talk a lot of smack,” said Keels, a defensive end at Nebraska. “They want to know who we think is going to win, and they’re trying to get me and another friend to choose sides. It’s all fun. They’re just excited to play against each other. If Trae gets a chance he’s going to ring [Gordon] and if Melvin gets a chance he’s going to run over [Waynes].”
The healthy competition never stops between Waynes and Gordon. In high school, it was who was stronger and faster, though they were competing for the same team at Bradford High School. In college, they became prominent figures for two of the Big Ten’s top teams.
Gordon’s record-breaking junior season at Wisconsin put him in the national spotlight as a Heisman Trophy finalist, but Waynes was the higher pick in the NFL draft.
“We haven’t really gone up against each other since high school,” Waynes said. “I tackled him and he made me miss, back and forth.
“[Gordon is] a competitor. … If he messes up he’s not one of those players that gets his head down. He’s going to run even harder the next time. That’s something we saw in college, when he broke the [FBS single-game rushing] record against Nebraska. He had fumbled the ball, and when I saw him on the sideline I texted our other best friend Joe and said ‘He’s about to go crazy,’ and that’s when he broke the record.”
The two never played against each other in college, either because of injuries or a Big Ten schedule oddity.
Gordon has 30 carries for 139 yards in two games for San Diego. He also has four catches for 26 yards and has emerged as an important piece to the Chargers offense. Waynes’ role for the Vikings has been limited to special teams throughout the first two weeks of the season, but that won’t take away from the experience, they said.
“I’ve been waiting for it for a while now to go up against him,” Gordon said. “Hopefully he’s in [the game] and we get to compete against each other.”
It was during postgame bus rides as varsity reserves early in high school that Waynes and Gordon began dreaming together about what it would be like to be NFL stars. They have continued to help push each other toward these goals and on Sunday part of their dream will be fulfilled.
“Melvin dreamed of this his whole life and Trae basically had everyone counting him out, so being on this stage and going against his best friend, it’s crazy to watch,” Keels said.
Former Bradford football coach Jed Kennedy continues to be impressed by his former players, especially off the field.
“The thing I remember most is not how great of players they were, but that true genuine friendship they had,” he said. “They were razzing each other in the locker room. When Trae got hurt in high school, Melvin took it harder than he did. … They’ve done it the right way and they’re great people and they haven’t changed.”
Kennedy, a diehard Vikings fan, said he would like to see Gordon have some big runs and get into the end zone and Waynes make an impact on a Vikings victory. Keels is leaning in San Diego’s favor, predicting a breakout performance for Gordon.
Whatever happens, it’s probably just a first step in their NFL rivalry.