Even for players who’ve managed to put in the best of all possible careers, retirement in the NRL is a pretty complicated thing. How do you plan a second career when you’re only in your 30s? Alternatively, how do you build enough of a legacy while you’re playing to set yourself up for the future? If the NRL often seems to be besieged by drama and scandal, it’s surely partly to do with the sense of collective anxiety about this professional ceiling, with players often making some of their most dramatic decisions – such as Hayne’s move to the NFL – in their mid-to-late 20s, when it becomes especially important to set up the third act of their careers. Of course, there are a lot of top-tier and even second-tier footy players who earn more in a year than many other people could hope to earn in a decade. At the same time, the NRL has certain strategies and structures in place to help players negotiate the post-game world. But it’s equally true that the NRL doesn’t have the resources of Union or the cache of Aussie Rules, both of which help assist their players – who are often from more exclusive backgrounds anyway – with translating their footy prowess into a new arena.
For a player like Kevin Gordon, the pressure of retirement is even more acute, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Gordon was forced to retire at what was arguably the peak of his career, the moment just before he came into his own as one of the greatest wingers in the competition. At his strongest, nobody could touch Flash, and there was every indication to suggest that he would continue to accelerate. For all that it’s one of the most plosive and punishing of football codes, speed is still a pretty rare asset in Rugby League, or at least in the NRL, which tends to be populated by big players who can’t always handle their weight with as much dexterity as they might. That in itself would have made Gordon’s retirement a bit of an anticlimax, but equally significant is that he had played his whole career for what is arguably the least prestigious and most anonymous team in the NRL – the Gold Coast Titans – which isn’t an indictment of the club but just the inevitable result of a team that’s so new – at least in its current incarnation – and that commands such a sprawling, amorphous catchment area, spilling over into the neighbouring Broncos fanbase with a fluidity you wouldn’t expect to find with any of the adjacent Sydney teams.
For all that the Titans brand can often function brilliantly as an incubation pad for up-and-coming players, as well as a holding pen for players who are too temperamental or erratic to work elsewhere – Greg Bird and Jamal Idris come to mind – it doesn’t work particularly well as a vehicle for the charisma that Gordon had in droves, which is of course what makes the Gold Coast so well-suited to rehabilitate and remediate a Bird or Idris in the first place. As a result, when Gordon retired, it wasn’t merely the case that he hadn’t fulfilled his footy potential – he hadn’t fulfilled his charismatic potential either. Granted, the laidback, relaxed atmosphere of Robina Stadium does allow a certain kind of charisma to flourish outside the histrionic heroics of a flagship team like the Roosters or the Rabbitohs, and in that sense it was a good place for Gordon to launch his particular brand of comic charm. Nevertheless, as he developed as a player and a personality, there was a certain amount of charisma that remained unsatisfied at the time of his retirement, and without his damaging footy performances to contain it, your average Titans fan had to wonder what was going to happen with all that pent-up energy and creativity.
Of course, for those who’ve been following Gordon’s online presence over the last year or so, it came as no surprise when the Titans cult favourite recently announced that he was planning a switch to Hollywood. For my money, there hasn’t been a more endearing, resilient or spirited announcement of retirement from the NRL in some time, with Gordon arguably outdoing even Beau Ryan in the way he managed to subsume what must have been a pretty tough decision into his good-natured comic persona, gaining him more support than ever before. In the few statements he’s made about the decision, Gordon has demonstrated a new level of eloquence, insight and dignity, while not losing the playful touch that made him such a powerhouse on the field. Some players are so identified with the game that their aura can feel a bit diminished when they stop playing – or when they’re off the field full stop – but everything that made Gordon such a dynamic footy presence was intensified by his announcement, which was too frank and immediate to even warrant the term press release, and instead more attuned to the kinds of low-key, casual conversations he has on his Instagram page.
And, if we now need to transition from following Gordon the footy player to following Gordon the up-and-coming movie star, his Instagram page is the best place to see that transition in action. While most NRL stars have a pretty sizeable Instagram presence, their followers tend to be drawn from the game and its culture. Gordon, however, is arguably the most successful NRL Instagram user – certainly the most successful crossover artist – insofar as his comic videos have gone viral sufficiently frequently, and on a sufficiently global scale, to ensure that he’s now got a fanbase that extends far beyond the NRL, and a sizeable following of people that have probably never watched a footy game in their lives. For all the hysterical hype surrounding the Hayne Plane’s bid at the 49ers – and make no mistake, it is an extraordinary achievement, both for Hayne and Australian sport more generally – there’s something about Gordon’s American narrative that I already find more in keeping with the picaresque, playful, low-fi spirit of Rugby League at its best.
So, what makes Gordon’s Instagram videos so memorable in the first place? Part of it comes down to their economy, efficiency and brevity, a critical ingredient in any comic vision, but especially important for a social media-drenched world in which attention spans are decreasing by the day. While Gordon has also posted to YouTube, the Instagram video is his natural medium, a format that – due to the restrictions and requirements of the site – can’t exceed more than about ten seconds, bringing it closer to a gif or a vine than a video in the traditional sense, or even in the YouTube sense. Given that Instagram is above all premised on posting photographs, the ideal Instagram video should be able to be processed in about the same time as it takes to process – or take – a photograph, giving it something of the candid, fleeting intimacy of SnapChat as well. For me, there are very few other Instagram cult figures – certainly very few cult sporting figures – who have managed to use this video option as creatively as Gordon, and that has to be because of how how ingeniously he embraces the constrictions and limitations of the medium itself, turning them into a key part of his comic signature.
In fact, if you think about it, Instagram is also the ultimate NRL medium, since most of the best plays, biggest hits and most serendipitous footy moments tend to occur within the space of about ten seconds or so. Most NRL YouTube compilations more or less play as a collection of gifs or vines, or a succession of still photographs, so it’s natural that online fandom should have gravitated towards Instagram. In Gordon’s case, that often makes it feel as if he’s operating from the position of both player and fan, effectively crafting fan tributes to himself that manage to repurpose his best and most compressed moments on the field into a series of ten-second packages. With another player, that might seem self-serving, or irritating, but there’s something so eccentric and weird about Gordon’s comic style that it comes off as charming instead.
As far as I can see, these videos fall into two basic categories. The first and simplest collection of videos perhaps belong to an older, more YouTube-centric kind of digital fandom, and tend to see Gordon impersonating characters from famous films, such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Zoolander. Given that NRL has the reputation of being the “hardest” sport in Australia, there’s something delightfully irreverent about seeing Gordon take on these nerdy, campy roles, especially since he tends to keep the original vocals and then mime them. I have to admit that I still laugh out loud whenever I hear Ben Stiller or Ewan McGregor’s voice coming out of Gordon’s mouth. The idea is so simple and yet so poised in the way in which it undercuts the cultural pretensions of the NRL while also undercutting the cultural pretensions of this kind of high-concept, big-budget blockbuster as well, but in an affectionate and forgiving manner that I think of as being inextricably camp.
At the same time, there’s something enjoyable in seeing Gordon repurpose his body language for these roles, especially for someone, like me, who’s only really ever seen him out on the field, to the point where it feels like we’re in some strange universe where science-fiction, fantasy and nerd culture have started to converge with Rugby League. Actually, given that lots of NRL fans are nerds at heart – there are lots of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings references on Reddit and other forums – it perhaps makes more sense to say that Gordon has managed to converge Rugby League with its own fanbase, in what often feels like a footy player’s Instagram profile and a footy fan’s Instagram profile in one and the same post.
While these takeoffs are enjoyable, however, it’s arguably the second category of Gordon’s videos that are more striking and more promising in terms of his film career. These comprise original footage and are closer to vines in nature, usually consisting of a single manic movement that propels Gordon from one end of the clip to the other, as if remediating the freakish speed that made him such a force to be reckoned with during his time at the Titans. The best and most famous of these is Gordon’s Aladdin skit, in which he “flew” down a Gold Coast street on a carpet suspended above a skateboard, adding Disney to the stable of guilty pleasures that also includes science fiction and fantasy epics. However, there are a host of clips in the same vein, and if Gordon’s style can be said to “evolve” it’s in the way that this single movement becomes choppier and more creative from clip to clip. In a parody fitness video (http://tinyurl.com/nhstzhl) Gordon provides a kind of spatial corollary to the temporal constriction of the Instagram video, confining himself in the narrow space between a motel bed and wall, where he performs the same workout routine, with a suitcase, over and over again. In another recent video, Gordon uses jagged editing to cram in more speed and movement that would be otherwise be possible in an Instagram video, allowing him to float around his backyard in a weird levitating posture (http://tinyurl.com/njg3ns9). Finally, in what I think has to be one of his best videos (http://tinyurl.com/px3cer8), Gordon leaves behind any pretensions to continuity, mashing up Spiderman, what appears to be Braveheart and a anarchic jam session to create a hyperbolic sense of movement and momentum that is bigger than the sum of any of its component parts.
In other words, if the art of the Instagram video – and the vine and gif – is about condensing and capturing an exaggerated sense of speed in a small amount of time and space, then Gordon’s legendary speed on the field has found an improbable but powerful outlet now that he’s been forced to direct his footy talents elsewhere. From that perspective, the most powerful of his videos may be one uploaded about a year ago (http://tinyurl.com/ohezqly) that depicts Gordon executing a freakish basketball move in his back garden. By all accounts, this should be classified with his levitation video as one of his more surreal and digitally manipulated accounts, not only because it share the same backdrop of his backyard – which is where some of his weirdest clips tend to occur – but because the basketball move itself seems so improbable, remarkable and unbelievable that it feels as if it must be staged. Each time I watch it, I’m expecting to see some glitch that gives the game away, while I’m not necessarily certain, even now, that there’s not some kind of digital manipulation going on. Yet that very ambiguity seems to be the point, since it captures the way in which Gordon’s ability to digitally augment himself through his online presence has imbued him with a superhuman sporting persona that possibly even outdoes his time with the Titans. In other words, transferring his energies from footy to film-making has actually allowed him to supersize his sporting charisma, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him taking on a whole range of sports on the big screen, not least because he’s still got the body and agility to make it feel convincing, even if League hasn’t worked out for him.
Of course, sports films aren’t the only avenue Gordon might follow. On the one hand, his muscularity inevitably lends itself to action cinema, recalling an older, classical brand of action hero whose off-screen physical regimen was a critical part of their onscreen presence. Just as Arnie’s film persona simply doesn’t make sense without his bodybuilding career, and Van Damme’s performances are unthinkable without his martial arts career, so Gordon seems to have found a synergy between his physical prowess and onscreen charisma that would work well in the context of the kinds of classicist action cinema that have become popular once again in the wake of the Expendables franchise. Critical to that synergy is the sense of absurdity and hyperbole that Arnie, Van Damme and Stallone also knew how to muster – although in very different ways – and so I see Gordon drifting towards action franchises with a comic edge as well. Of course, that’s not to discount the possibility of sports films as a very real and tangible bridge between these two sides of his personality, but to instead suggest that his ideal vehicle will probably involve some combination of sports, action and comedy. In that sense, he’d possibly make most sense – at least in his feature debut – as a sidekick in the Fast and Furious franchise, not only because there’s a soulful ingenuousness to his acting style that would work perfectly against Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez, but because the Fast and Furious films are all about collective charisma, charisma that exceeds the function or speciality of any one member of the group. As a former sporting legend who now has a sporting charisma that seems to exceed any one sport, Gordon would work perfectly in this setup, which often feels like a kind of ensemble sports film in which each character embodies a particular sport, or a particular sporting ability.
And yet while Gordon’s basketball video may be a powerful, prophetic link between the Gold Coast and Hollywood, that’s only because the Gold Coast plays such a major part in his Instagram videos as well. In day-to-day coverage of the NRL, there are some fanbases and communities we hear about and witness constantly. Hardly a day goes by without some story about the community at Souths, or at the Bulldogs, while most of the big-name fanbases have their own landmarks, icons and community spaces that form a kind of general background to the NRL news cycle as a whole. Even North Queensland, the remotest team in the competition, has a pretty tangible presence in the competition, such that Sydney fans like me can piece together and visualise 1300SMILES, downtown Townsville, the Cowboys’ home club and the general look, feel and atmosphere of the community in a pretty clear way. The Titans communuity, however, remains elusive in the NRL media, not only because this is the most recent NRL franchise and home ground – at least in its current incarnation – but because the Gold Coast itself doesn’t really have a tangible centre or point of focus, with even Surfers Paradise feeling like a collection of suburbs or districts in search of a city. In any case, Surfers doesn’t even appear to be the biggest hotbed of Titans fandom, which stretches into northern New South Wales as much as it blends into the Broncos catchment area, just as the mass influx of Sydneysiders during Schoolies week means that, at the peak tourist season, there are probably more Blues supporters than Titans supporters in the Gold Coast’s most happening areas.
Of course, that’s largely to do with the urban and geographical makeup of the Gold Coast itself, which is probably the closest that Australia comes to a genuinely American sprawl – and to Florida in particular – as opposed to the discrete cities and towns that are more typical of Australian development. Whereas every other NRL team represents a suburb, municipality or city, the Titans represents a sprawl, which often means that it can be quite difficult to visualise their community, let alone to visualise their community as a distinctively Queensland space, or as coterminous with the boundaries of the Gold Coast. Like any American sprawl, you can only really look at it awry, out of the corners of your eye, or in the background of another image. And that’s exactly what occurs in Gordon’s videos, which may showcase his comic persona but also provide an informal map of his particular region of the Gold Coast as well, with the action playing out against paved backyards, rock gardens, covered back porches and cul-de-sacs that are immediately familiar to anyone who has spent time in the region. Of course, they are anonymous at the same time, but there are different kinds of anonymity, and this mode of suburban sprawl feels like the real Gold Coast, as opposed to the curved glass hotels of Surfers, or the canal development mansions that have emerged in emulation of Florida. The closest Titans fans have come to a footy player’s perspective on this space have been the photoshoots of Greg Bird’s luxurious waterfront home in Southport, but there’s something more immediate and incidental in these fleeting image of Gordon’s home and neighborhood that strike to the heart of what the Gold Coast all about. And, at the end of the day, it’s that local sensibility that may make Gordon so big on the global scale – a homegrown charisma that’s more than resilient enough to survive the homogenising tendencies of the Hollywood machine. Hopefully, we’ll see him in Fast and Furious soon. He’s certainly fast enough.