- Dan Pompei (The Athletic)
Randy Gregory’s road to redemption: Addiction, divorce and all that the Cowboys hope he can overcome
The player the Cowboys are most excited about has been suspended for 52 of 96 games since he’s been in the league.
He has failed about 100 NFL drug tests, by his best estimate.
He has spent more than 12 months in seven in-patient rehab clinics over the past four years. He also has been treated at three outpatient clinics.
His irresponsibility led to a divorce and alienation from his children.
There was a period when he lived in his car.
But one thing about Randy Gregory — he’s always had a knack to turn the corner.
The worst fear was Gregory would end up like former NBA player Delonte West: homeless and lost, sharing a secluded area of a downtown street with things with long tails and pointy faces.
The thought kept his ex-wife from sleeping.
He came close to West’s lifestyle for about a week in 2019. Gregory was between places to live and burdened by bills he couldn’t pay, divorce proceedings, custody quarrels, rehab and another NFL suspension. Help was a phone call away, but it was a call he would not make. “I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I was struggling,” he says. So he slept in his black 2014 Maserati Quattroporte with black powder-coated rims.
No one who ever rose to their feet at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium after one of his big plays would have believed it. He led the Big Ten in sacks in 2013 and was voted an All-American in 2014 even though he was injured for much of the season. It was a given that Gregory would be chosen in the top five picks of the draft.
Randy Gregory shined at Nebraska with 16 1/2 sacks and 26 1/2 tackles for loss in his two seasons with the Cornhuskers. (Eric Francis / Getty Images)
But then a drug test taken at the NFL Scouting Combine turned up positive for marijuana. Teams started digging deep.
Gregory moved six times during his childhood. He was often trying to fit in with new peers, and often the peers didn’t look like him. He was a victim of bullying, once by a punk half his size. Gregory turned that corner when he decided to fight back, dropping the bully with a single punch, then picking him up and body-slamming him.
When Randy was in his early teens, he cried a lot. His parents suspected he was depressed and sent him for psychological testing. Gregory lied his way through the tests, and the doctors said he was fine. A decade later, he still would be taking the same kinds of tests.
Alcohol never had much appeal to Gregory, but by the time he was 15 or 16, he was taking DMT, acid and mushrooms. He discovered marijuana when he was a senior in high school. He kept smoking through college and failed a couple of drug tests at Nebraska.
When Gregory was in college, his father saw an interview with him that concerned him. “You could tell he didn’t trust the camera, didn’t trust the interviewer,” Ken Gregory says. “He had always been such a good interview that it was kind of shocking. That’s when I first recognized he had discomfort publicly.”
Randy was beginning to show signs of social anxiety, a condition that would worsen.
He would make a friend but then avoid a social situation. He would plan to eat at a restaurant, but upon arriving he would stand at the entrance, nervously looking at the layout of the tables and the number of people. “We would have to leave or I would get a panic attack,” he says. Within the realm of football, he was an uneasy teammate. When he walked into the locker room, he would assess the fastest way to get to his locker while encountering the fewest number of teammates.
The more anxious he became, the more he wanted to self-medicate. “Weed wasn’t the problem,” Gregory says. “It was the solution to my problems, which was another problem in itself.”
Fifty-nine players — including eight edge rushers — were chosen ahead of him in the 2015 NFL Draft. When then-coach Jason Garrett called to tell him he was a Cowboy, he was the last player in the green room.
The Cowboys assigned him an accountability partner shortly after. The partner lived with Gregory, made sure he kept appointments, drove him where he needed to be and paid his bills. Over four years, five accountability partners lived with him, and later with him and his wife and child. It became clear the accountability partners weren’t accomplishing what they were intended to, so eventually the Cowboys let Gregory run.
Marijuana made him feel at ease and always was his first drug of choice. But with the Cowboys, his world expanded.
Gregory says he started dabbling in party drugs — cocaine and ecstasy. However, when he took party drugs, he usually took them at a party of one, in his home.
Every time he failed a drug test, he says, it was for marijuana. His first suspension, for four games, came in his second year in the league. Before he could come back, he was hit with an additional 10-game suspension. He played two games before being suspended for the entire 2017 season. He returned for the 2018 season, but then the following February was hit with an indefinite suspension, with which he missed 22 games.
Everything was a struggle for most of the first four years of Gregory’s NFL career. And all of it, from the way he saw it then, was someone else’s fault.
“He got to a point,” his ex-wife, Nancy Koryga, says, “where he didn’t care about anything.”
It was unsurprising, then, that he did not like himself very much.
“I was talking to myself, calling myself every name in the book, telling myself I amounted to nothing,” Gregory says. “It was all day, every day, to the point there was no chance I was going to be doing anything in my life. During those times when I was like that, if I smoked, the negative talk would go away. I would relax, calm down.”
The skunky, piney stink of weed has followed Gregory.
These days, though, you might notice a hint of the minty, musky smell of sage around him.
Or the fresh, clean, floral aroma of Open Roads incense.
It might be the pungent, crispy-cool smell of wintergreen chewing tobacco. He likes Copenhagen long cut.
Or you could get a whiff of the sweet, rich smell of Black & Milds.
Mostly, though, there is the stale, heavy stench of Marlboro 27s.
Whenever Gregory checked into a rehab center, they took everything from him — Turn your pockets inside out, please — and offered a pack of cigarettes. Counselors typically gave their patients a smoke break every 30 minutes. So while he was becoming less dependent on weed, he was becoming addicted to nicotine. The Marlboros scratch the itch best, but Black & Milds will do. When he’s at The Star, he can’t smoke, so he’ll dip some Copenhagen. It’s so strong, it makes his jaw sore.
He is down to a pack of cigs a day from a pack-and-a-half. Gregory hopes to stop smoking entirely.
Sobriety isn’t always wholly refined or the way we picture it.
He lights up.
“Everybody hates it in my family,” he says. “It’s probably my worst vice, worse than anything I’ve ever done — the absolute worst. And it’s hard to kick.”
It is, without question, the poison to pick for him now.
Randy Gregory has spent more than 12 months in seven in-patient rehab clinics over the past four years. He also has been treated at three outpatient clinics. (Bob Donnan / USA Today)
Gregory walks around his house with a stick of sage. Smudging, or burning sage, is an ancient ritual that Native Americans believed cleared negative energy. “I try to keep some good juju around me,” he says.
It is easier to do now that his ex-wife is back under his roof. Koryga is, as he sees it, “in touch with the universe,” and her spirituality is motivating to him. She plays guided meditations from Spotify and they burn incense. They do breathing exercises and recite affirmations.
I am motivated. I am dedicated. I am empowered. I am abundant. And I am grateful. I release control, and I trust the divine in me. I am a child of the universe. I understand now that life is not happening to me, life is responding to me.
Even while they sleep, Koryga plays affirmations that speak to the subconscious.
On “manifest Mondays,” Gregory, Koryga and their 4-year-old daughter, Sophia, talk about their goals and meditate on how they can make them realities.
“I definitely believe in manifesting, and putting it out there drives yourself to do the right thing so all your actions go accordingly with that goal,” Gregory says. “A lot of people think it sounds crazy, but the more we talk about some of the things we want as a family, the more we keep getting blessed.”
Early rehab efforts had no chance with Gregory because they were forced. It wasn’t until manifestation opened his mind and changed his heart that he had an opportunity to turn a corner.
Therapy happens in white-walled, linoleum-floored clinics. It happens in offices with diplomas on the wall and plastic fig trees beside firm-cushioned couches.
But it also can happen in unexpected places: in the executive suite of the most valuable sports franchise in the world, in a coffee shop that plays yoga music, or in a dimly lit, deep-voiced restaurant with tuxedoed maitre d’s.
For Gregory, it has happened everywhere.
Even on a video call with a storyteller. “When I have low self-esteem, low confidence, low ambition and a fucked-up mindset off the field, it trickles down onto the field,” he says. “And I think it did.”
Formal therapy happens twice a week with Dina Hijazi, a Dallas psychologist who takes a holistic approach to anxiety. Gregory also meets with a group twice a month.
Gregory has been seeing Hijazi for more than three years. Hijazi helped Gregory understand himself by connecting the dots between social anxiety and dependency. “She gets me,” Gregory says. “She can pull back the layers that a lot of people in the past really couldn’t.”
Hijazi gives Gregory back pats when warranted. He needs that. For a long time, he had a hard time forgiving himself for hurting himself and others. With Hijazi’s help, he’s learned to accept what he’s done and tell himself he’s going to do better.
Gregory saw clinicians in the past who were appointed by the NFL. Hijazi is not in the NFL’s network of psychologists.
“There’s something about knowing I have an extra layer of protection from an unbiased clinician when it comes to my mental health,” he says.
Gregory also has benefited from unofficial therapy from others, including his agent, Peter Schaffer, with whom he speaks almost daily. Schaffer, who has been representing athletes for 33 years, helped Gregory develop strategies after making mistakes.
As a child, Gregory believed his father was perfect. He used to say, “My daddy don’t boo-boo,” meaning his father did no wrong. But when Gregory held himself to the standard he thought his father was setting, he was crushed by his failures. What he has realized in recent years is Daddy does boo-boo, like everyone else. He has seen his father make mistakes, and more importantly, he has seen him overcome them.
And if his father could do it, so could he.
“That’s a trait I didn’t have coming into the league, that I struggled with,” he says.
Randy calls his dad his best friend and biggest fan. He says he is becoming more like Ken, who played outside linebacker at Northwestern and flew submarine hunters in the Navy for seven years before becoming an entrepreneur. It’s one of the best compliments he can give himself.
“You have to recognize this,” Ken tells him. “Tomorrow is a chance for redemption.”
Whereas Ken can be an arm-around-the-shoulder kind of dad, his mother, Mary, sometimes takes the shake-you-by-the-shoulders approach. And that has served a purpose too.
“Sometimes I try to inspire people and help them see where they can be,” Ken says. “My wife will tell you where you need to be. She is brutally honest.”
Randy Gregory hugs his parents after being selected by the Cowboys during the 2015 NFL Draft. (Ben Liebenberg / Associated Press)
Randy also says Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has provided hard honesty at times. Theirs is not the typical owner-player relationship. “Randy is Jerry’s guy,” Schaffer says.
Early in Gregory’s career, he and Jones scheduled a weekly meeting to talk about their lives. Jones has shared stories of his struggles, and he told Gregory how he moved past them. Gregory has opened up about his ordeals. There have been tears.
“He’s had my back through all of this,” Gregory says. “Whenever I felt like my career was about to end, I’d get a call from Jerry, and he’d come at me in the most gentle ways possible and be like: ‘It’s all good. Do what you have to do to make sure you’re good. That’s what I care about right now. I don’t care about the football.’ It’s nice to be valued like that because I can guarantee you no other team would have done what Jerry and (Cowboys CEO) Stephen (Jones) did for me, other than maybe the Raiders. I would have been out of the league already. I owe them a lot.”
Squeaky, high-pitched giggles. Giggles with bass.
These are the sounds coming from Gregory’s kitchen.
He has been back with Koryga for about a year and a half now. Koryga’s first language was Polish. When she speaks to her parents on the phone in her native tongue, Sophia and Gregory imitate her. And they laugh.
“They made up their own language,” Koryga says. “If you heard them, you would actually think they are speaking some actual language. If you didn’t know, you’d be like, ‘Where are they from?’ It’s the funniest thing.”
There are more giggles over video games — Crash Bandicoot, Super Smash Bros. and Mortal Kombat. “Whenever Sophia wants to play, she asks him more than me,” Koryga says. “Daddy is the fun one.”
The father-daughter relationship has come a long way.
Koryga says when she and Gregory were married, he was not engaged as a father. After they split, he didn’t even attempt to have a relationship with Sophia. He wasn’t a very big part of his son’s life either, but now R.J., who has a different mother, stays with them every other weekend.
“I really wasn’t a good father at all,” Gregory says. “I wasn’t a healthy father. I wasn’t a present father. It wasn’t necessarily because I didn’t want to be. But I had a lot of chaos in my head.”
Gregory wants to be the kind of father to his children that his father was and is to him. “A lot of times in the past, I felt like I was holding my kids back,” he says. “I want to give them a chance to have anything they want.”
Gregory signed a four-year, $3.8 million deal as a rookie. But after suspensions without pay, refunding portions of his signing bonuses, and fines that reached six figures, he was paid an estimated $1.1 million during his first five years in the NFL. That was before taxes.
What he pocketed went quickly. He splurged on a $5,000 watch but not much else. No house, wardrobe makeovers or chains like other high draft picks. Mostly, he spent on drugs. And gambling. He estimates he lost six figures at casinos playing blackjack and Ultimate Texas Hold ’em.
“It was chasing a high,” he says. “I’d be in there sober as hell, doubling down, splitting, playing two hands, then going to UTH, losing money, and I’d still keep going. At one point I think I went to the casino every day, like a degenerate.”
Koryga was able to pay their bills when she was employed as an office manager. But she was furloughed during the pandemic. In need of money, Gregory started looking for work. That proved another challenge.
“I couldn’t get myself to put an application in,” he says. “I couldn’t figure what to put on my resume. Not saying I’m not talented or couldn’t learn, but I never really had been trained in the workforce like that. It was hard looking for jobs. I couldn’t get employed other than at Taco Bell or something.”
His parents moved to the Dallas area in 2018 and started a company that makes deliveries for Amazon. Through them, Gregory was able to find work. For $15.50 an hour, he loaded trucks and took inventory at an Amazon warehouse. It got him through for about a month and a half until he returned to football and began drawing paychecks from the Cowboys.
Gregory will be a free agent after the 2021 season. Given the kind of market he can create, he is playing for the financial security of his children and his children’s children.
“I’ve kind of beat myself up for the opportunities and money that was lost over the years,” he says. “This is a way to recoup some of that money and validate me.”
As Gregory looks around the Cowboys locker room, he sees only three players who have been there longer. Tyron Smith, Demarcus Lawrence and Zack Martin are still Cowboys because they have been producers at the highest level.
Gregory, meanwhile, is there for the same reason he always has been: potential. That potential was evident from the time he was playing Pop Warner and the league instituted a rule — “The Randall Rule,” his father called it — that if a player had just come off the field as a starter on one side of the ball, he had to sit out the next series on the other side of the ball.
Jones has been enamored with Gregory because of his unique blend of speed, quickness, length, and “Gumby,” or flexibility. “The combination of those things could make him be what we thought he was going to be when he came out, and we thought he was the best pass rusher in the draft,” Jones says.
What Jones always has excelled at is seeing value in things others cannot. It’s how he took his first steps toward becoming a billionaire, betting he could find black gold between dry holes in areas that had been given up on by other wildcatters.
And it’s why he says he is as excited about Gregory as any Cowboy. “I’m a big believer in someone who has been shot at and hit, and shot at and hit,” Jones says. “Randy Gregory has been shot at and hit.”
Randy Gregory entered this offseason with one of the longest current tenures among Cowboys. (Tim Heitman / USA Today)
Yet he is only 28 years old, his body barely scarred, so the night is still young in his career.
Jones believes Gregory is savvy enough to understand some of life’s mysteries as well as how to set up an offensive tackle. “He has to be one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever been around,” Jones says. Gregory reportedly scored a 28 on his Wonderlic, and even though he was a poor student in high school, he says he scored 1860 on the SAT.
“I don’t want to make a comparison here, but we had a player who I thought his greatest forte was his intelligence, the way he played the game mentally. That was Charles Haley,” Jones says.
Despite not coming close to playing like a Hall of Famer yet, Gregory now carries himself the way the other leaders do. He is amiable with teammates — he wonders if he is annoyingly so.
“It’s me being more comfortable in my own skin, more confident in my ability to stay around longer,” he says. “I’m not going to get suspended or do something stupid.”
The confidence is significant. It hasn’t always been there during his NFL career, for good reason. He started to feel it again during a four-game stretch last season in November when he had two sacks and seven quarterback hits despite playing fewer than half the snaps.
Now, he says, there are times he feels the way he did playing Pop Warner. And physically, he believes he has reached a peak, weighing around 260 pounds after dipping to as low as 230 during times when he was not properly caring for himself.
As much as the 2020 season could prove to have been a springboard, Gregory believes he was denied opportunities last year. He thought he had fulfilled the obligations from his indefinite 2019 suspension after a year away from the team, but the NFL saw it differently. His reinstatement was delayed because the NFL didn’t drug test during the pandemic, so Gregory did not have the opportunity to prove he was clean. The league allowed him to return to the facility at the start of the season but prevented him from playing the first six games, apparently to see if he could handle a deliberate reintroduction.
For the rest of the season, Gregory’s opportunities behind Aldon Smith were limited.
“I felt there was a little bit of favoritism going on … refusing to let me outshine their favorite,” he says. “They knew I could do it, so they did what they could to keep me at bay. I had my times when I was angry. I used to talk to Peter about it, and the best thing I could do was just go out there on the field with the plays they give me and make those plays worth it. I did that, but I truly felt I got robbed of a year last year.”
When Dan Quinn was hired by head coach Mike McCarthy to be the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator after the season, he studied every defensive player. Gregory stood out.
“I was surprised he didn’t play more,” Quinn says. “I brought it up to Mike. He was at the top of the list for me as far as defining a role. His playing time is going to increase, for sure. I think he’s going to really take off.”
Quinn and Gregory have been mutual admirers since Quinn worked out Gregory before the 2015 draft, when Quinn was the head coach of the Falcons. Now, Quinn says, Gregory is heavier, but he still moves the way he did back then.
What remains, he says, is Gregory’s “ridiculous ability to turn a corner.”
It is best that Gregory does not listen to some of Wiz Khalifa’s old albums like “Rolling Papers” or “Kush & Orange Juice.”
Why? “I start feeling like I want to smoke.”
It brings him back to a time.
There will be days when a teammate walks by and Gregory gets a whiff — that unmistakable smell. And then, temptation.
Gregory could call himself a former addict, but he’d be conning you, or conning himself. He knows too much about addiction. He knows too much about himself.
“I’m always in recovery,” he says, taking a drag from a Marlboro. “There is never a day that I’m not in recovery until the day I die. I honestly believe I will always have that addictive mindset and am one step away from doing something that’s going to get me high. Have I made mistakes? Yes. Am I going to let that hold me back? No. In the past, I would have made a mistake and then made it worse.”
Those who know Gregory best say he has evolved.
“He’s not afraid to ask for help,” says Koryga, who now is employed as a drug-test collector. “He’s not afraid to admit when he did something wrong. He’s not afraid to speak up. … He is not as childlike as I feel he used to be in the past. He’s come a long way.”
Says his father, “The only thing we ever wanted out of this was for him to be happy, and it seems like right now he really is.”
If Gregory regresses, the consequences won’t be as harsh as in the past. The NFL’s new drug policy, enacted last season, no longer suspends players for failing marijuana tests. Positive tests now result only in fines, but the league could suspend players who refuse to cooperate with treatment plans.
Gregory still is subject to up to 10 drug tests a month. For that, he blames himself. He’s different that way now. And while he has been critical of the NFL for the way he was treated under its old policy, he is grateful the league invested so much in trying to help him.
Nothing he says is to make himself look good or to ingratiate. “I’ve never talked to anybody who spent any time with Randy that didn’t see genuineness,” Jones says.
There is a warmth to Gregory. He’s engaging and thoughtful. He smiles almost all the time. “He’s one of the most popular players we’ve had on the Cowboys,” Jones says. “Everybody roots for him.”
Jerry Jones’ support for Randy Gregory hasn’t faded despite the defensive end’s issues over the years. (Joe Nicholson / USA Today)
This offseason, for the first time, the Cowboys asked Gregory to make appearances on behalf of the team. He was given $1,000 and a 65-inch TV for attending a draft party, but that didn’t mean as much to him as the trust the Cowboys showed in him by making him a team spokesperson. “Back in the day, they never asked me to do something like that,” he says. “They were never comfortable having me as one of the faces of the team.”
Gregory has a platform he never had before. He’s not just someone trying to get sacks. He’s someone trying to show that you can shake the monkey off your back.
This isn’t about him anymore. It’s about his dad and mom, his girlfriend and Sophia and R.J. It’s about Jones and Cowboys coaches and teammates. It’s about the little boy or girl who might want to wear a Randy Gregory No. 94 jersey. It’s about the addicts he smoked cigs with during rehab breaks and the people whose broken lives can be changed — maybe even saved — because of him and what he’s been through.
It is a little intimidating, the graveness of his responsibility. But he knows it’s really the reason he’s here.
“He cares about his example,” Jones says. “His awareness of how he can impact others has me excited.”
Randy Gregory has turned a corner. If he keeps turning corners, what a story he can be.