Antonio Gandy-Golden used to run upstairs from the basement of his grandmother's house on the South Side of Chicago, asking if he could play with whatever dusty, unused item he and his cousin had discovered downstairs. Old electronics, especially, practically begged to be taken apart and rebuilt.
Those adventures sparked a fascination with computers. Dismantling them, anyway.
At 6, Gandy-Golden was unscrewing the backs off of circuit boards, removing the motors and building rudimentary "robots" from the spare parts. From there, he began disassembling and reassembling bikes. He wanted to see how lawnmowers functioned. It was something different every week, said his mother, Monet.
"The older he got, the more curious he got," she said. "As he got older, he was really intrigued by the things he could see the end result. … Whatever he was curious about, he would really investigate it."
"Just always how I've been," Gandy-Golden said.
That curiosity led him to football and subsequently to Washington, where he now stands as a 6-foot-4, 223-pound wide receiver whose dramatic rise at Liberty paved his way to the NFL.
As Washington begins its season next Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, its success this year will be measured on the development of players like Gandy-Golden. Head coach Ron Rivera was hired to rebuild a once-proud franchise, and for this year, at least, that process has less to do with wins and losses and more to do with finding players who will be the team's core in the future.
Gandy-Golden might not contribute much in the opener, but the hope is that by the end of the season, he'll have progressed enough to become a valuable weapon on offense.
Football wasn't Gandy-Golden's first sport. In fact, the receiver didn't decide to play until the eighth grade. He'd picked up an interest after watching a close friend practice. Gandy-Golden, his mother said, watched his friend for about a year before he started to beg to play.
When Gandy-Golden took the field, he found his background in gymnastics came in handy. Gymnastics had long been in the Gandy family.
When her son was 2, Monet taught Gandy-Golden to do front rolls and other techniques. The training paid dividends, giving Gandy-Golden rare flexibility. He was able to haul in deep passes with one arm, all while keeping his balance.
"You just started to see these insane, crazy catches," she said.
And her son's five-inch growth spurt in high school contributed to a breakout sophomore campaign.
It makes sense football intrigued Gandy-Golden. Plays are more than Xs and Os designed on a sheet of paper. The best routes and concepts are deeply thought out, designed to fit together. The small details are endless, especially at wide receiver.
It's a game that can never be mastered, but dares players and coaches to try.
Gandy-Golden's mom calls him a "Why-Why-How?" kid. He would press and press to find answers. He wanted to know how things work — and why. And he examined every alternative.
"'What happens if you do it this way instead of that way,'" Monet said.
Hugh Freeze saw up close how Gandy-Golden's mind works. The Liberty coach often pored over tape with his star wide receiver in the film room.
During the sessions, Gandy-Golden would highlight individual routes, asking for feedback. He'd point out ways he could have used his shoulders better to create more separation, zone in on his hand placement on the opposing cornerback, Freeze said.
If the play wasn't successful, Freeze said Gandy-Golden wanted to know what he could have done differently.
"He's very thorough," Freeze said, "very intrigued by having to think through any type of problem or issue to solve something."
The Future Opens Up
As much as football fascinated Gandy-Golden, the 22-year-old didn't see a future in it for the first part of his college career. Liberty was a small school and before then, he had only received one other college scholarship offer to go play the sport at Kennesaw State.
But that changed his junior year when he noticed the influx of NFL coaches now attending Liberty practices, and the Flames' own coaching staff relaying that the reviews had been positive. After all, Gandy-Golden was starting to dazzle on film. He racked up more than 1,000 yards on 71 catches. He was a big body with an even bigger catch radius.
He began to wonder.
"I definitely feel like going into senior year, I took that and ran with it," he said. "I tried to make that my best season."
Gandy-Golden did that and then some. Last fall, the wideout totaled the nation's fourth-most receiving yards with 1,396. By October, mixtapes of highlights started to pop up on YouTube, one with the title "The BEST player you've NEVER heard of." The buzz over the next few months would only grow. Meet Antonio Gandy-Golden: The Uncut Gem who Does It All, touted an ESPN pre-draft feature.
People picked up on the unconventional hobbies that consumed the receiver off the field -- puzzles, painting, juggling, guitar playing. They saw the athletic feats, including the time Gandy-Golden threw a football from his knees 60 yards that bounced off a goalpost crossbar.
Gandy-Golden's rise, though, wasn't just because people started paying attention. The receiver made much-needed improvements to his game.
Specifically, he cut down on the number of drops. When Freeze was hired heading into Gandy-Golden's senior season, one of their first conversations centered around cleaning up that flaw. Freeze was blunt: Gandy-Golden wasn't going to be drafted very high or help the Flames very much if he continued to drop the ball.
"His response -- I was very intrigued with what it was -- was 'Coach, show me, help me,'" Freeze said.
Freeze implemented a plan, one that he used to boost his past receivers like D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown at Ole Miss. They worked on countless drills, spending additional hours on the jugs machine, forcing Gandy-Golden to concentrate.
Still, Gandy-Golden lasted until the fourth round of the NFL draft. Scouts wonder if Gandy-Golden, who ran a 4.6 in the 40, truly has the speed to separate from cornerbacks at the NFL level.
The doubts don't faze Gandy-Golden, Monet says. Her son embraces the unknown. Reserved and mature for his age as a boy, Gandy-Golden was raised by a single mother. It was often his job to pick up his brothers from the bus and cook something to eat.
"Antonio did have to grow up a little bit faster, but he took it all in," she said.