Rough roads are a part of life, but it’s the commitment to not take the wrong exit out of frustration and impatience that increase the odds of you making it to your intended destination in a struggle with mental health, and before it’s too late. Randy Gregory, the Dallas Cowboys talented but oft-suspended pass rusher, has proven he understands this to be true, having lost gargantuan chunks of an otherwise promising NFL career due to his battle with depression and clinical anxiety that led to self-medication — the medication of choice being marijuana, a long-banned substance in professional football heading into 2020.
But with the new collective bargaining agreement (instituted one year ago) catching up with both the times and the legalization of the plant by a growing number of states, the rough road got a bit easier to drive on.
That was only one part of a three-headed hydra that needed to be beat into submission, however, with another being Gregory’s commitment to continue believing in himself and leaning on his support system, which he’s done masterfully as of late and is primed to be a breakout player in 2021.
“It’s a big part of it,” the 28-year-old told media from training camp in Oxnard, CA on Sunday. ” I think it starts with that. I think you have to be comfortable in yourself, confident in yourself. At times in the past I was very anxious individual.
“I was a guy that had low self esteem and I didn’t do very well in situations like this — situations where I had to bring out my leadership skills and really be confident in myself. Like I said, being confident on and off the field kind of go hand in hand. When I’m doing well on one end, I think I’ll do well on the other.”
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In an exclusive Q&A with CBS Sports back in March 2020, Gregory made it clear he would not only return from latest suspension, but that it would be “for good this time,” and there were reasons to buy into that proclamation (as mentioned above).
Many outside of the organization took it with a grain of salt, though — more of a wait-and-see approach that’s now led them to see Gregory become the belle of the training camp ball as this determined and, more importantly, happy version of himself has teammates labeling him “unblockable” going into 2021. His ability to dominate the edge has newly-installed defensive coordinator Dan Quinn levitating with anticipation of what Gregory can be in his defense, as opposed to what a now-fired Mike Nolan and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula had in mind, which was to stake him behind Aldon Smith regardless of how the two performed on the field.
“With Randy, I’m so excited to see what he can be as a featured pass rusher in our system,” said Quinn on Friday. “… I’ve been impressed by where he’s at: mindset, attitude. … Randy’s definitely been a guy who’s opened my eyes because. Like we were talking about with [Trevon] Diggs, I knew he was good.
“Then when you’re around someone in a full-time way you say, ‘There’s some special traits there.'”
Just how special is Gregory’s skill set? Well, according to Quinn and as often pointed out by owner Jerry Jones (and game film):
“I’d say he’s got a rare ability to bend,” Quinn noted. “That’s unusual for a guy who’s [6-foot-5] and you get around the corner? Think if he has to go against big tackles here, but this guy can rip on the edge where you have to make the big guys get down and bend to get to them. A lot of guys can run fast straight ahead and that’s good.
“As a pass rusher, if you don’t have a get a good get-off, it’s hard to be a good rusher. He has that. He’s got initial quickness. But I think it’s his ability to stick his foot in the ground and bend that makes him so unique.
“When it’s time to twist, and he can bend and get outside or inside on a play. He’s got unique stuff and I’m looking forward to seeing, OK, here’s where we’re at and here’s where we’re trying to get to.”
Head coach Mike McCarthy, who didn’t overrule Nolan and Tomsula at the time, won’t have to worry about doing with with Quinn at the helm; and nor would he apparently wish to, after having now gotten a better look at what Gregory can be.
“Just having a chance to watch Randy Gregory work … he looks very comfortable out there,” said McCarthy in June. “When I looked at Randy’s personal evaluation [from 2020], I gave him two arrows way up. Clearly, his path last year, he just continued to rise with every opportunity he had. … Why the hell didn’t he play more?
“I get it. I didn’t have a chance to work with him [last offseason]. … But now I think he can be a primary, premier player for us.”
With that, the third head of the hydra — coaching — lays its head on the sand to allow passage on Gregory’s road to redemption.
“I truly believe the Joneses, as far as the front office, I think they saw this in me before, even if I didn’t see it in myself,” said Gregory of just how supportive the Cowboys have been throughout a years-long process that began with him being the second-round pick in 2015. “Obviously, it kind of took time to get there. But I truly believe that [new defensive line coach] Aden Durde and the rest of the defensive staff, and really all of the coaches in general. I like that they think highly of me, and I try to do the right thing on and off the field right now, and, like I said, putting the leadership skills to the test and just trying to lead the guys in a way I know how.
“I’m not going to be the rah-rah guy. Every guy leads in his own way, and I’ll find my own role in it.”
Gregory has come a long way to get to this point, to say the least.
Selected with the 60th-overall pick in 2015, the former two-time first-team All-Big Ten honoree was available for 12 games as a rookie but suffered a high ankle sprain that cost him four, before then being suspended twice in Year 2 (for a combined 14 games) and then being hammered a third time by the NFL with a year-long suspension that ultimately cost him the entire 2017 season. He worked his way up to reinstatement in 2018 and a career-best campaign for the Cowboys — his longest stretch of availability since joining the team — delivering a career-high six sacks, 15 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 14 games and with only a single start, and putting his rare talent on full display in the process.
The excitement was then cut short when he lost the entire 2019 season due to another suspension.
It’s been a long road back for Gregory, one that even included a very public fight against the NFLPA, but he’s exercised humility and determination with each step — from training despite being out of the game, taking on a part-time job at an Amazon distribution center to remain productive mentally, and engaging in far more therapy sessions than the league would mandate. And to make for a more robust support system, Gregory’s parents were brought into North Texas long ago as he worked his way back into the league, sources told CBS Sports at the time.
Add in the resolve and belief of the Joneses and all within the organization who joined him in refusing to give up, and Gregory has a lot of people he’d like to thank for his return.
“I mean it’s a long list,” said a grateful Gregory in December. “Most importantly [team psychologist Dr. Dina Hijazi, PhD]. I’m sure some of you have heard about here up to this point now. She’s someone I definitely work with multiple times throughout the week and my parents are big in this case.”
But with things finally going his way and those outside of the organization who vehemently called for his release on an annual basis having now grabbed a set of pom poms to finally cheer him on, Gregory isn’t losing himself in all the deserved praise, but is instead making sure he stays focused on the task at hand — unwilling to take his eyes off the road ahead in what is also a contract year that will likely end in a new deal to stick around in Dallas.
“I still got a lot to prove,” he said on Sunday. “I think there’s a lot of talk going around right now that I really believe I’m having a good offseason, but there’s still a lot to prove on the field. So, I don’t want to sit here and say that you did you ever doubt you would get here. I still feel like I haven’t truly arrived.
“So, there’s a lot for me to do.”
And thus far he’s doing it, while also taking time to appreciate how far he’s come — a key factor in managing his depression being a willingness to believe you have value and that you deserve everything you’re working for and toward.
“With that said, I still want to give myself a pat on the back,” he added. “I really feel like I’ve deserved it to get to this point. From this point on, like I said, I got to put some good plays on the field, and stay out of trouble, which I’m trying to do, and be the guy that everyone expects me to be and I expect me to be.”