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  • Jori Epstein (USA Today)

Cowboys DE Randy Gregory opens up on tackling anxiety

FRISCO, Texas — Dr. Dina Hijazi remembers her phone ringing in January.

Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory was calling. His message to the Dallas-based psychologist: Let’s get to work.

Gregory was serving an indefinite ban from the NFL, his fourth suspension since 2015 for violating the league’s policy on substances of abuse. But Gregory didn't consider substance abuse the root of his problems. Rather, he sought treatment for social anxiety disorder. 

That anxiety had mounted in fall 2019, when Gregory’s second child was born to a father suspended from his job and unable to financially support the family. Negative voices in his head reached an unbearable tenor.

“I was like, ‘If football isn’t here, then what am I?’” Gregory told USA TODAY Sports by phone. “‘What am I going to do? What do I have to offer? Will my friends and my family still see me the same way? Am I a failure?’ There’s a lot of things I had to figure out.”

Gregory had first met with Hijazi — whose specialties include intimacy disorders, trauma and addiction — in 2018. When the 2019 NFL season began without Gregory on a roster, his insurance terminated and complicated access to therapy sessions, Gregory's agent Peter Schaffer told USA TODAY Sports. Discussions with the league enabled Gregory to resume consistent treatment with Hijazi in February. That therapy, Gregory says, has empowered him to employ relaxation techniques and self-talk mantras for when his anxiety begins to overwhelm. Each helped him fight impatience from when he applied for reinstatement in March to when he was granted it in September.

Gregory doesn’t envision a time he’ll eradicate the negative voices in his head completely. But Hijazi’s treatment has enabled the 2015 second-round draft pick to return to action with stronger and more effective rebuttals to quiet his doubts, he says.

“I’m a lot more positive about myself,” Gregory said. “I never would’ve thought a year ago, two years ago, three years ago that I would feel this way about myself and be this OK about myself. I’m sure it’s hard for some people to understand…but I had a real bad view of myself and now I feel great about myself, so I’m real proud of that.

“I couldn’t say that in the past.”

Confronting negative thinking

Gregory explains his self-perception as often “not really OK with myself, whether that be physically, mentally or emotionally.” Hijazi’s assessment of Gregory in 2018 was that of an impulsive, reactionary person entrapped in a life so chaotic it would be difficult to elicit joy naturally. Social situations including locker-room conversations with his teammates further unsettled Gregory, who Hijazi says is an introvert. Drugs helped him cope. Violations of the league’s policy on substances of abuse triggered 46 games’ worth of suspensions between 2015 and 2019.

“It’s just not all an addiction problem,” Schaffer told USA TODAY Sports about his client. “He has a social anxiety disorder and that causes him to be uncomfortable in certain situations. Historically, the two things he’d done to deal with that were one, smoke marijuana, or two, just to avoid.

“I told him: Avoiding is not the answer.”

Hijazi has guided Gregory toward alternative solutions. She implores him to challenge his beliefs and question whether his negative first impressions are conclusive or even entirely accurate. “Tell me why it’s good,” Hijazi says when outcomes seem far from positive. Her goal: Build a database of evidence to convince him perhaps things aren’t as bad as his anxiety makes them seem.

“We all have [negative thinking], it’s just how strong it is,” Hijazi told USA TODAY Sports. “Some people have these voices and noises stronger, and he’s one of them.”

That’s why Hijazi recommended a systemic change, from Gregory pruning his inner circle to refining behaviors that calm his central nervous system. Meditation apps reinforce breathing and visualization techniques. He has cultivated a sense of emotional neutrality to assess challenges and seek solutions. Numbing or ignoring pain and discomfort is not the goal. Acknowledging each emotion and then moving toward solutions is.

Hijazi reminds Gregory to picture himself inside a hula hoop then ask: Which factors are and within my control, and which aren't? “I’m not going to allow that to throw me off center,” he tells himself. With a heightened level of calm, he can think more clearly. In twice-weekly therapy sessions, Hijazi and Gregory play out potential upcoming stressors to anticipate best responses.

“It’s sort of like seeing a trailer for a horror movie,” Hijazi said. “We all go, ‘Ahhh, no.’ Then you go, ‘OK, let’s play it out, walk through it,’ and it loses its power.

“We just keep pushing, pushing, pushing, until he gets through to where he really sees now: ‘And I can deal with that. If that happens, I can deal with that.’”

In each step of his return to the Cowboys, Gregory is learning he can.

'Not a straight line to success'

Gregory's application for reinstatement wasn’t granted until Sept. 4. So during spring and summer, he worked at an Amazon warehouse in the North Texas suburb of Lewisville. The 6-5, 242-pound defensive end took stock of inventory, helped load trucks and problem-solved challenges to coordinate efficient package delivery routes.

He made $15.50 an hour. And he was happy.

“I was grateful for what I had, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t playing football,” Gregory said. “I was happy I was making an honest living. I was happy that I was waking up every day with some kind of purpose. I was happy I was coming home to a family that loves me and cares for me. I was truly happy with myself and honestly I was content with the fact that if I didn’t play again, I would move on and be happy regardless.

“There would be some pain in there knowing that I wouldn’t play football, but not necessarily the pain of failure.”

It’s that capacity for happiness that Hijazi, Schaffer and Gregory see as a key to Gregory staying active in the league.

Jerry Jones and the Cowboys hope Gregory can stay available. After missing all of 2017 due to suspension, Gregory collected six sacks, 25 tackles and 15 quarterback hits in 14 games in 2018. Last Sunday, in his first meaningful 2020 playing time, he notched four tackles and a quarterback hit in 31 defensive snaps against the Eagles. Head coach Mike McCarthy praised his performance as “effective and impactful.”

Challenges still arrive daily. Gregory needed to manage frustration after his first eligible game, when coaches played him just six snaps. Locker room egos still can overwhelm Gregory, who wonders if teammates think he’s rude or standoffish when he abruptly leaves a conversation. But as Hijazi describes it, the scaffolding supporting Gregory is strong. His parents have relocated to North Texas, and Gregory’s motivated to support his wife and two children. He's subject to up to 10 random drug tests a month, per the league's policy and program on substances of abuse. He typically speaks daily with Schaffer, who Gregory says keeps him accountable and grounded. Gregory meets with Hijazi twice each week. Cowboys assistant to the head coach Rob Davis reinforces Hijazi’s messages in the interim.

“[Davis] makes it a point almost every day to remind me to love myself, care for myself, view myself in a good light,” Gregory said, “because I like to tear myself down a lot.”

With eight games remaining this season, Gregory hopes to be part of the solution rather than a problem on the 2-6 Cowboys’ historically bad defense. He knows success has seemed within reach before, only for him to fail another drug test. But he believes shifting his beliefs and his methodology have given him his strongest chance yet of managing his anxiety.  

“Any person that knows my situation or knows people dealing with my situation knows this is not a straight line to success,” Gregory said. “You’re going to take some detours, you’re going to have some hiccups. I’ve had a lot of those. I’ve been in this same spot before in the past where people are questioning whether or not I could stay on the straight and narrow.”

“My anxiety is going to be something I deal with on a day-to-day basis. It’s not something I can really X out of my life.

“But I really truly feel like I have all the tools in place, all the resources and most importantly the right mindset to stay available.”

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