CHICAGO — Seven-year-old Kyler Gordon was standing in front of the television in the living room of his family’s Mukilteo, Washington, home. A collection of Michael Jackson’s music videos was in the DVD player, and Gordon was intent on perfecting all the moves to “Bad.”
It was the dance he would take to competitions around the Seattle area and various states. Spending hours making sure those shoulder shrugs were sharp and on beat and mimicking the signature kick was pivotal to Gordon transforming himself on stage.
“I was just getting into Michael Jackson mode,” Gordon, a rookie cornerback for the Chicago Bears, said recently with a laugh.
The routine captivated judges and is one of Gordon’s favorites.
Fifteen years later, Gordon was standing in front of San Francisco 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel. While the moves he was about to perform weren’t scripted, Gordon was confident. The hip movement, balance and flexibility Gordon began developing and perfecting through competitive dance have helped put him on this stage.
It was Gordon’s NFL debut, and he played every defensive snap, making six solo tackles, including one for a loss, while helping the Bears upset the 49ers 19-10. Gordon made some solid plays, but he also experienced teachable moments.
“I definitely had a mistake, a correctable mistake I could have easily fixed,” Gordon said, noting his eyes weren’t in the right place on a 44-yard reception he allowed to Jauan Jennings. “I know what it is, so I don’t really have to worry about going out there and correcting that.”
He’ll need to be on top of his game Sunday night when the Bears travel to Green Bay to face Aaron Rodgers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), who’s coming off a loss to the Minnesota Vikings and will be motivated to avoid an 0-2 start in the NFC North.
“He’s getting thrown in the fire, and he’s doing a really good job so far,” Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “He still has some things to learn, to go through.
“You get burned in the fire, but he’s definitely doing good. He’s on the right track, for sure.”
EVAMARIE GORDON’S FIRST notion that her son was special came during a visit to Kyler’s grandparents when he was 1. Kyler was attempting somersaults and cartwheels. The energy in his movement was different, and ultimately led Evamarie to enroll Kyler and his younger sister, Keaonamarie, in dance.
A former gymnastics coach, Evamarie encouraged her children to stretch and work on their flexibility while watching cartoons at home. She would tell them it was a short-term sacrifice that would yield long-term benefits, not only to become better dancers, but to build work ethic, discipline and most importantly, confidence.
Eventually, the siblings would meet dance instructor Augga Hawkins, with whom they developed a close bond. She choreographed group numbers to Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud,” utilizing Gordon’s high energy and charisma.
“When he listens to the music, his body automatically flows,” Hawkins said. “The musicality is hard to teach. Ballet technique, we can shape them, we can shape the muscle, we can make their turns stronger. But the dancing movement, maturity — it’s the gift you’re born with. He flowed; he could feel the music. He had that gift.”
Gordon’s technical skills weren’t just shaped in the studio, where he spent 20 hours per week after school. Evamarie would insist her children continue their practice at home.
“Whenever he did pick up on [a new sport], he could move his body,” Evamarie said. “I don’t just think, I know the dance made a huge difference.”
Gordon had anywhere from four to six numbers prepared for each competition, mastering the styles of jazz, lyrical, ballet and hip-hop for group numbers and solo performances, all while committing complex routines to memory. He won numerous awards, and former dance teachers believed he had the potential to dance professionally.
“I was living vicariously through my kids because I always wanted to do that kind of stuff, but never had the confidence,” Evamarie said. “I wanted these kids to grow up and have confidence.
“I did not have it. … My goal was to make sure that these kids really loved who they were and felt confident in everything that they did.”
Nothing taught Gordon more about discipline than ballet. Hawkins laughs when she recalls how Gordon didn’t want to wear his ballet shoes because he thought they made his feet look “ugly.” Gordon, a self-proclaimed “goofy dude,” would hear the stern direction from his teachers and immediately straighten his posture and point his toes.
“People don’t recognize how hard it is,” he said. “I feel like ballet is harder than a lot of other sports. It’s so strict and disciplined.”
Eventually, the time demands became too much. Gordon enrolled in kung fu lessons at 5, was in competitive dance from 6 to 12 and he danced with the Seattle Storm’s troupe from 10 to 15. He took up football at 10 and also played basketball and lacrosse.
“People don’t recognize how hard it is. I feel like ballet is harder than a lot of other sports. It’s so strict and disciplined.”
Gordon’s passion for football quickly blossomed, but the rush that came from performing in front of thousands at halftime of Storm games was undeniable. While competitive dance taught him how to master technique in a world of precision and structure, the hip-hop routines he did with the Storm’s dance troupe allowed him to tap into his edginess and swagger with the occasional flip or round-off cartwheel.
“He could jump really, really high,” said Rosa Ekman, who was a captain of the Storm’s dance team when Gordon was a member. “That got the crowd riled up every single time. They loved that.”
But after a few years, Gordon’s passion for football won out. He would go on to star at the University of Washington, where he earned all-Pac 12 first-team honors last season, before being the Bears’ first draft pick in April, No. 39 overall.
FIRST-YEAR BEARS general manager Ryan Poles pulled at the collar of his dress shirt while calling Gordon from the Bears’ draft room on April 30. The moment was emotional for Poles, who got choked up calling his first draft pick.
“We’re trying to build something special here,” Poles told Gordon, “and we think you can help us get that done.”
The Bears finished 6-11 last season and fired coach Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace. Poles and coach Matt Eberflus were hired to rebuild a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2010 season. Former first-round pick Justin Fields is the offensive anchor at quarterback, and Gordon is expected to become a cornerstone on defense.
The Bears had one of the NFL’s worst secondaries in 2021. According to Next Gen Stats, a cornerback was the nearest defender on 27 of Chicago’s 31 passing touchdowns allowed, which was the highest rate in the league.
Gordon was drafted to help fix that. What was initially expected to be a gradual process of working him in at outside corner was quickly scrapped when Gordon grabbed hold of the notoriously difficult nickel role.
“Some of the plays he makes, it’s not even his man,” said safety Eddie Jackson, a former first-team All-Pro. “He’s coming off his man, making plays on the ball. So just seeing how very instinctive he is, he’s smart.”
Watching some of Gordon’s moves on the football field makes it impossible to ignore the connection to his dance background.
“Yeah, hips, change of direction, balance and body control,” Poles said. “If you’ve ever seen someone with bad balance and body control, you trip over things, you don’t stay centered, you can’t stop and start on a dime.
“There’s a clip they showed on TV, he’s in coverage, it’s a back-shoulder [fade pass]. He actually opens up, turns, feet stick, they don’t move, two toes down, grabs it and has an interception. So some of those things are just not normal, and he probably developed it from that background.”
Gordon’s competitive dance days have long since passed, but his spontaneous movements are noticeable. His feet naturally find their way to various ballet positions when he’s standing, and he’ll fight boredom by randomly doing a pirouette or a step-ball-change.
“He’s a dynamic athlete, and some movements that he makes are just not normal movements that we see on the football field, but they help him get to do his job better,” cornerbacks coach James Rowe said.
Kindle Vildor, whose locker is two away from Gordon’s, wasn’t sure what just happened one day when, out of nowhere, he saw Gordon do a backflip from a standing position.
“It was crazy,” Vildor said. “I was like — wow. Real flexible. Explosive.”
It’s the result of years of hard work, from stretching during cartoons as a child to mimicking Jackson at dance competitions to halftime shows at Storm games. Gordon’s trajectory has always involved body control, balance, explosiveness and confidence.
“I just feel like I have complete control, and I know that even if I miss a step, I know how to get my body back on track to balance myself or transfer my weight a certain type of way,” Gordon said. “I feel like I can calculate the way I need to move myself to get to what I want to do.”