The brain behind the feats began developing on the South Side of Chicago. Antonio Gandy-Golden lived there in the early 2000s with his mother, Mone’t, and grandmother, Dorothy, and the adults often told him to stay in the house because their Englewood neighborhood was too dangerous to roam. The instruction could’ve backfired, sparking boyhood rebellion, but the hundreds of thousands of neurons snapping into place in little Antonio’s head instead pointed his attention inward.
Indoors, putting together jigsaw puzzles was Gandy-Golden’s favorite activity. He did them “like, every day,” he said. They were tests of his intelligence, which appealed to a boy who had inherited his mother’s competitive streak. Gandy-Golden flew through puzzles of Teletubbies and Curious George and, later on, bigger, harder ones with landscapes and people. He became obsessed, accumulating “hundreds,” disassembling and reassembling the same ones over and over, challenging himself to go faster and faster.
“I’ve always liked to complete things and compete with myself,” Gandy-Golden said. “I started noticing this later in my life, but I’m kind of hard on myself in that aspect, as far as beating myself and completing this kind of improvement. I really feel like that just kept me with [puzzles].”
Only years later did Gandy-Golden appreciate how those hours shaped his mind. Puzzles built a bedrock of patience and concentration. They reinforced values of recognition and repetition. They explained everything that came afterward — guitar, painting, sculpting, Rubik’s Cubes, the perfect bowling game as a novice — and developed some of the same traits responsible for his rise from lightly recruited small-school wide receiver to Washington Redskins fourth-round draft pick.
Now, Gandy-Golden’s brain has become the most important part of his offseason. The 6-foot-4, 223-pounder knows that coaches value his length and strength, but he has never worried about his physical attributes. He has honed them since starting gymnastics as a child, along the way breaking the weight-room squat record at Liberty University and developing an uncanny ability to win 50-50 balls.
The real question for Gandy-Golden, and for all NFL rookies during an offseason curtailed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, is how fast he can learn the playbook. It’s thick, tricky and full of calls that — if, under new Redskins coach Ron Rivera, they’re like the ones from the Carolina Panthers’ playbook — sound like this: “Gun Troy Left Flipper K-Gun Left Eight Shield Left.”
The lack of in-person meetings frustrates Gandy-Golden, who says he’s an applied learner, but he understands he must solve the offense’s concepts to maximize his impact whenever the players return to the field. He wants to become a complement to fellow wideout Terry McLaurin and a weapon for quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
“A part of me feels like I can get ahead,” Gandy-Golden said of his time in self-isolation. “I can actually sit down and have study days. I don’t have anything else to do right now.”
In meetings during virtual minicamp, the Redskins haven’t specified a role for Gandy-Golden. All of the receivers are learning all of the concepts, the rookie said, which he likes. He’s the type of player who, while at Liberty, peppered coaches with questions about how cornerbacks and safeties operate in certain defensive looks. He needed an intricate understanding of the offense because, as a freshman, he hadn’t developed into the physical threat he would become — one of the reasons Gandy-Golden landed at Liberty in the first place. College scouts scour the Atlanta metro area, where Gandy-Golden moved when he was 7, but only one other school, Kennesaw State, offered him a scholarship.
Still, the more time then-Liberty assistant Ron Brown spent with Gandy-Golden, the more convinced he became that the kid’s mentality would make him succeed. Brown never felt as though he had to entertain Gandy-Golden or impress him with a big speech, and while Gandy-Golden was “kind of in his own world sometimes,” Brown said, the coach just liked the kid’s demeanor. He compared most recruiting, competitive and cutthroat, to the stress of being trapped in rush-hour traffic.
“Recruiting AGG,” Brown said, “it was like you’re driving near the Atlantic Ocean at 2 a.m. You’re free.”
Later, in wide receiver meetings at Liberty, Brown would sometimes wonder whether Gandy-Golden, curling his hair with a pencil, was even listening. But what impressed the rest of the coaches was his willingness, if he didn’t understand a concept, to ask questions until he did. Turner Gill, Liberty’s former head coach, drew a direct line from Gandy-Golden’s study habits to his ability to contribute as a freshman despite a limited role.
The legend of AGG, as he became known, began in his sophomore year. In the season opener at Baylor, he had 13 receptions for 192 yards and two touchdowns as the Flames, 34-point underdogs, pulled off one of the decade’s biggest upsets. The next year, when Liberty moved up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, Gandy-Golden gained traction as an NFL prospect, and people started noticing his art and puzzles and ability to do backflips.
“You’d constantly hear about the accomplishments, and not just with football,” Liberty Athletic Director Ian McCaw said. “He became a bigger-than-life figure here on campus.”
On the field, even as his body grew, Gandy-Golden still believed he separated himself with smarts. Gill noticed how he always asked the team’s best cornerback to cover him in practice. As his team struggled to cover Gandy-Golden, Buffalo Coach Lance Leipold noticed how he always seemed to play the down and distance. But Gandy-Golden’s proudest moment came last season against Syracuse.
The Orange, then ranked No. 22 nationally, started in press coverage. Gandy-Golden had studied cornerback Christopher Frederick, so when he started jamming Gandy-Golden at the line of scrimmage, trying to prevent him from getting outside, the receiver was ready. Gandy-Golden convinced the coaches to call a play that usually required him to start his route outside, faking a vertical “go” pattern, before cutting toward the middle of the field. This time, though, he only took one step outside to get the aggressive Frederick off-balance, then jumped back inside. Frederick stumbled, a wide-open Gandy-Golden caught the pass, and he turned it into a 56-yard gain. The play was typical of the soft-spoken receiver.
“His actions speak so loud you won’t be able to hear what he’s saying,” former Liberty offensive coordinator Aaron Stamn said.
That same type of problem-solving ability could be seen in Gandy-Golden’s school work. He majored in graphic design and often sequestered himself in the art studio, nitpicking his work there as thoroughly as he did on the football field. Coaches sometimes worried Gandy-Golden was too hard on himself, that it affected his play, but senior associate athletic director of academic affairs Kristie Beitz saw his biggest internal challenge as integral to his success.
“For an outsider, you’d be saying ‘Wow, that’s phenomenal,’” she said. “He’s always saying, ‘I could’ve done a little bit more.’”
Still in Lynchburg, Virginia, where Gandy-Golden is spending most of his time in isolation, he has found himself in a familiar position. He sits with his Redskins-issued iPad and a notebook, writing and rewriting which concepts go together. The playbook is his newest, hardest puzzle, and once again he is competing with himself — disassembling and reassembling it, trying to go faster and faster.