Randy Gregory's return could prove bigger for NFL than the Cowboys

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

With the most difficult 18 months of his professional life behind reinstated Dallas Cowboy Randy Gregory, the defensive end now faces an even more challenging feat: staying compliant with the NFL’s drug-testing program and presenting a map that could change the way the league handles repeated substance abuse offenders.

That’s what is on the line for Gregory and potentially the NFL at large. It’s a pivotal case that one league source hopes will promote tweaks to the drug-testing program and services offered to players in the next collective-bargaining agreement. The source said Gregory’s reinstatement hearing in front of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell illustrated a designed program intended to treat substance abuse and mental health on parallel tracks. As a result, a player whose NFL career appeared to be over at the age of 25 now has one more opportunity.

The Cowboys’ Randy Gregory is back in the league after sitting out the entire 2017 season due to suspension. (AP)
The Cowboys’ Randy Gregory is back in the league after sitting out the entire 2017 season due to suspension. (AP)

“What Randy Gregory does – if this is ultimately successful – has a chance to impact the NFL and the [player’s union] long-term, because there have been some unique efforts and will continue to be some unique efforts,” one source close to Gregory told Yahoo Sports. “I think Roger is open to listening and evolving how the league handles players who have mental health hurdles and whose substance abuse issues are driven by it. …

“It’s plain and simple: some guys are self-medicating with substances for pain, some for depression and some for other things. Recognizing the mental health aspects and being more open to helping players with something other than just passing or failing tests – you could save some promising careers if you can evolve and embrace some new methods.”

Gregory’s issues have been well-known in league

Going into the 2015 NFL draft, Gregory’s drug-testing issues at Nebraska were a widely known concern in the NFL personnel community. To the point that some teams looking for a dominant edge rusher did deep dives into Gregory’s life and came away convinced he was going to struggle with self-medicating substance abuse issues in the league as well.

The concerns proved to be well-founded, as Gregory sent up another red flag by failing a mandatory drug test at the NFL scouting combine. That failure, coming despite knowing he was going to take the test, contributed to Gregory falling from a potential top-10 pick to 60th overall, where the Cowboys took him and hoped for the best.

Gregory repeatedly failed drug tests in the NFL. What the failures ultimately stem from hasn’t been discussed in great depth by Gregory. But he has said that he used marijuana to manage anxiety issues dating back to 2011, when he failed to qualify academically for a football scholarship at Purdue. It was a revelation that recalled those of former NFL running back Ricky Williams, who said significant anxiety issues were tied to his history of marijuana use and failed drug tests in the league.

While those close to Gregory declined to get detailed into the player’s health history, they noted anxiety as a factor in failed drug tests and told Yahoo Sports in June that his reinstatement effort was deeply rooted in both substance abuse and mental health treatment. One source close to Gregory also made note of mental health in general being an “invisible wall” that the league has yet to address.

“Honestly, talking openly about mental health has to become a bigger part of the [substance abuse] equation for the NFL,” the source said. “It still seems like a taboo subject, especially in this league because you’re not supposed to show or talk about any kind of weakness whatsoever. But now you see in the NBA and other sports where you even have some mental health PSA’s – guys like [Cleveland Cavaliers star] Kevin Love and [Olympic swimming icon] Michael Phelps – talking openly about depression and anxiety being a real issue that has to be confronted. …

“It’s time for the NFL to get on board with that and realize some players with substance failures are masking a need for mental health counseling. Seriously, when have you ever heard anyone ask Roger Goodell or [union president] DeMaurice Smith about the mental health of their players when it doesn’t involve a brain injury? That’s a problem.”

What might be next if Gregory succeeds

Gregory’s previous drug test failings in the NFL have been well-chronicled over the past several years, but there’s a whole other chapter of his story that’s taking place behind the scenes. One that may become more public if he becomes comfortable talking about it. One that, according to those close to him, has involved in-patient drug rehabilitation, aggressive private testing and rigorous mental health counseling. Few players are known to have attacked their personal struggles the way Gregory has since last November, and some within his inner circle hope that his continued success could be a blueprint for others moving forward.

More specifically, there are those in Gregory’s inner-circle who hope it could spur investment by the NFL and players union into more aggressive mental health platforms both during a suspension and then with a more amplified effort after a player is reinstated. Something that might involve a conduit to a more localized form of daily support – whether it’s AA meetings or counseling – near a team’s practice facility.

As it stands, the league offers family and mental health resources to players starting with their rookie orientation. But that effort began in 2012 largely to help combat domestic violence or extreme emotional situations where a player might be considering suicide. The hope from some close to Gregory is that the league sees the need for more investment in dedicated – daily, weekly, monthly – mental health efforts after a player runs afoul of substance abuse testing or has other moments of failure away from the facility.

As one source close to Gregory put it: “One example – and this is really a dumb problem – the NFL separates guys from teams when they get suspended. They can’t practice, can’t be in the facility. They’re just out of sight and mind. That can be the worst thing you can do. A lot of these guys are still kids when they come into the league and fail tests. Now you isolate them and cast them out and it only pushes them deeper into problems. … They need the structure and to be part of something. And then on top of it, they need counseling and substance support meetings and other things that keep them going from hour to hour and day to day.”

The last six months of Gregory’s life were deeply rooted in that kind of daily regimen. He had an office job. He worked out. He went to meetings and counseling. He took daily drug tests. All of it in an effort to earn his way back into the NFL.

Now he’s back. He’ll be on hand at training camp for the Cowboys in Oxnard, California, in a little over a week. Eventually, the hope is he’ll be cleared to practice and play again by the league. What comes next – where the blueprint goes each day and week and month – will be critical to his career. But with the league apparently open to evolving on the mental health and substance abuse front, Gregory’s path could shape parts of where the NFL goes next with trying to help players find success inside of failure.

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