Randy Gregory’s 6-foot-5, 242-pound frame was barely through the door at Afters Ice Cream in Oxnard, Calif., before he announced what he wanted.
“You have to get the Cookie Monster here,” he insisted, making a beeline to the bright blue concoction billed as “all kinds of cookies and cream and fudge and yeah.” He ate it coated with Fruity Pebbles and inside a doughnut.
Now Gregory was ready for the first night of training camp.
But first, he wanted to let a young customer know the must-order ice cream. The boy nodded, seemingly unaware the Cookie Monster expert plays for the Dallas Cowboys.
Gregory was not trying to flaunt his NFL affiliation; he’s just always been a natural with kids.
He holds doors for walkers everywhere he goes. He once spent a full two hours signing fan autographs after a game at Nebraska his sophomore year — even while on crutches, after suffering a knee injury that would require surgery the following day. He loves nothing more than FaceTiming or visiting daughter Sophia, who will turn 2 in September.
Gregory is kind, his friends and family say.
“To know him is to like him,” Kenneth Gregory, Randy’s father, said by phone last week. “The only people who don’t like him are the ones who haven’t met him.”
The front of Gregory’s bright blue hoodie said “FIGHT” in capital letters, a word those close to Gregory say he’s epitomized the last nine months on his road back from suspension.
The Cowboys’ second-round pick in 2015, Gregory has played just two games since his rookie year. He was suspended 14 games in 2016 and all 16 last year for violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
He knows what you think.
“I think I’m known for being a pothead,” Gregory said from the ice cream shop table in California, where marijuana is legal, “and I don’t think that’s the case.”
Gregory says he identifies with those battling depression and anxiety, and he turned to smoking to counter their effects. NFL rules forbid marijuana. So came the suspensions of 10 and then four and then 16 games.
Gregory wondered what would come next.
“I just felt like I didn’t see the light at the end of tunnel,” Gregory said. “Everything about my life was unhealthy.”
He tried treatment plans in Texas, at one point working a 9-to-5 job at Genesco Sports Enterprises last fall while balancing workouts and therapy. The schedule weighed on Gregory. A day of spreadsheets, research, emails and client outreach “just wasn’t fulfilling for me,” he said.
“Falling off the wagon was my way of spicing up my life.”
Gregory stopped going to treatment and returned to impulsive behaviors. He fell into what he calls a “deep, dark, vicious cycle.”
“The good, the bad, the ugly, the ups and downs — Randy went through all of that in one year,” said attorney Daniel Moskowitz, who moved in with Gregory.
By December, Gregory had left unhealthy relationships, he says, but lost time with Sophia as a result. He couldn’t rely on Cowboys teammates or coaches because of NFL suspension rules banning contact. He questioned what he had to live for.
In treatment at California, he found answers.
Gregory learned to understand and counter his triggers; to replace substance dependency with outlets like boxing and meditation. Finding joy and fulfillment in substance-free activities and outlets became easier as months passed. Screwing up got old. Gregory remembers during the third week of March when it really clicked.
“I finally realized I had the strength to put my foot down and keep it there,” he said. “I gained a little control back in my life.”
The realization “there’s a better way” arrived, Moskowitz said.
They began wondering: Was it time to apply for NFL reinstatement?
Gregory could have applied as early as November 2017, a year after the league doled out the one-year ban. But he wasn’t mentally or physically ready. In May, Moskowitz began submitting a more-than-2,000-page application detailing Gregory’s health, treatment and the widespread support he had from teammates.
Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lee and Jeff Heath wrote letters advocating for Gregory’s return.
“Guys like him,” Heath said Thursday. “He wants to do right, wants to earn everyone’s trust. We respect that about him.”
In the application, as in training camp this week, teammates saw the good in their long-lost teammate.
“His mistakes he’s made, you can’t let that define your character,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said Thursday. “I’ve made childish mistakes in the past and you just have to get better and learn from it.”
What kind of teammates would they be, Lawrence asked, if they bailed on Gregory?
“Just like soldiers, you have brothers that fall the wrong way,” Lawrence said. “Do you give up on them? No, that ain’t what we (are) trying to build.
“We say togetherness, we say family for a reason. Because that’s what we are. Randy’s my brother.”
It was in New York on June 12 that his chances became more real. Gregory and Moskowitz traveled east for Gregory’s appeal hearing at league offices. Commissioner Roger Goodell made the rare move of accepting the hearing himself. There was hope.
Less than a month later, on July 17, the NFL announced Gregory was conditionally reinstated.
He was ecstatic. He’d earned the right to be happy, Gregory’s parents said.
Mary Gregory left her office to literally scream in elation when she heard. Kenneth Gregory cried.
“But say I screamed, she cried,” Kenneth joked, before adding, “I will not apologize for crying for my son.”
It had been a long journey. It still will be.
Last week, Gregory left the Los Angeles fairy tale-like cottage he had been living in since February to write his own happy ending.
He wasn’t in a rush.
Gregory emerged from the courtyard nearly an hour after his scheduled departure, jovially dribbling a basketball as others packed up his life. A swath of size 16 shoes filled one of the medium white trash bags.
“We’re insanely late,” said the woman who would drive him to Oxnard. Gregory’s black Porsche Macan rental idled in the driveway, one of the steps he earned toward freedom and independence in the program.
Gregory left it all Tuesday, except the mentor who will move with him to Oxnard and Dallas as he follows rules for Stage 3 of the NFL’s drug program, still attending meetings and receiving regular drug tests.
He feels like a rookie again, physically and institutionally. He doesn’t know many teammates on an overhauled Cowboys 90-man roster.
One teammate jokingly asked Gregory if he was a receiver.
Gregory’s a defensive lineman, he imagines new teammates will soon learn, even if he’s starting off training camp working with strength and conditioning staff members to the side. Football will come. But there’s no rush, head coach Jason Garrett told Gregory.
He doesn’t need to be facing the Great Wall of Dallas yet to see progress. He hurdled a dummy between drills at one point in his first walkthrough; exploded from his stance so quickly a few minutes later that the trainer on the other end of the resistance cords stumbled to catch himself.
All of this is progress for the lanky pass rusher whom defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli calls “Bones.” Marinelli doesn’t begrudge Gregory for mistakes or time away, saying that “he’s got my trust right now.”
Those close to Gregory still anticipate challenges. He’ll have to work for mental health his whole life, but they hope the structure and understanding of triggers that he’s spent 2018 mastering will position him to succeed. The less the league and society stigmatize mental health and seeking treatment, the better, they say. Gregory may have bad days. Those close to him hope that if and when he does, people remember he’s human. That they will redefine the allure that followed his falls.
“I want the allure because of who he is as a person,” Moskowitz said.
But Gregory will again get to face his bad days alongside teammates and coaches. He’s again receiving a salary — this year’s $781,813 base is the first time he’s been paid in more than two years.
He’ll again work to make good on the “FIGHT” mantra he repped proudly on his bright blue hoodie at Afters Ice Cream, just a shade darker than the Cookie Monster flavor.
He’ll chase football success and stability in his life. He’s determined. He’s also “being who he’s supposed to be,” Moskowitz said.
“We’re proud of how Randy has persisted,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Wednesday. “We’re proud that he’s at camp.
“We know firsthand what a challenge dependency is,” Jones continued. “(But) make no mistake.
“He’s a player, he’s a person we want.”