Sometimes a little patience pays off in a big way. That sentiment was displayed in a big way on Sunday against the Buccaneers. All the Cowboys had to do was win that game and they would clinch their third division title in five years and make the playoffs after starting out 3-5. Dallas was struggling on offense, so their elite defense had to step up and ensure a victory. In fact, the defense even did their fair share of scoring after Randy Gregory stripped the ball from a scrambling Jameis Winston for a sack and Jaylon Smith scooped and scored on a 69-yard touchdown return down the sideline.
Gregory would go on to get a fumble recovery as well, and Smith racked up 10 tackles on the day. The Dallas defense bent but refused to break on several drives, and the Cowboys walked out with a win that capped off their comeback from being counted out at the halfway point of the season.
But for Gregory and Smith, pulling off a comeback like that was nothing compared to the adversity they both went through to get to this point. Both players are incredibly athletic talents who are admittedly overshadowed by their counterparts - Gregory by Lawrence and Smith by Vander Esch - but the importance of these two players to one of the NFL’s best defenses cannot be overstated. And for these two, it’s two very different kinds of comeback stories.
For Gregory, it was a story of overcoming addiction and mental health problems. Born in Jacksonville, Florida to two loving parents, Gregory frequently moved during his childhood due to his father’s job. A side effect of this was an inability to get acclimated to his surroundings, which led to Gregory being bullied in school. He told ESPN in an interview:
“They would do things that would affect me physically and mentally,” Gregory says. “I wasn’t always 6-6. I was always taught to defend myself, but I was never one to look for trouble. I never understood why kids would mess with me.”
Years later, a doctor at one of the treatment centers Gregory attended as an adult would say that Gregory experienced post-traumatic stress disorder from the bullying. He also has dealt with self-esteem issues, depression, anxiety and panic attacks.
For the full, in-depth look at Gregory’s story, check out the entire ESPN article here. But for Gregory, he eventually tried marijuana as a senior in high school; by this time, he was living in Fishers, Indiana and was a two sport athlete in football and basketball. And although he didn’t yet know the exact mental health problems he was experiencing, the effects of marijuana helped to ease those problems, and so he developed a dependency on the substance.
While in college, Gregory reportedly failed two drug tests. This came to a head when he failed the drug test at the NFL Combine, and he went from potentially being a top five draft pick in the 2015 NFL Draft to not even being selected in the first round at all.
That night, Gregory sent a text to Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett pleading for a chance to prove himself, and the Cowboys would go on to draft him in the second round with the 60th overall pick. Gregory wound up playing minimal amounts in his rookie year due to injuries, but flashed a lot of promise towards the season’s end. The 2016 season started with Gregory being suspended four games for marijuana. Months later, he failed another drug test and got ten more games added to the suspension after checking into a rehab facility. Later that year, another drug test brought a year-long suspension in addition to the 14 games he was already suspended.
But the Cowboys kept their patience, and held onto Gregory while supporting his efforts to rehabilitate and get help, both for his substance abuse problems and his mental health problems. Gregory eventually got sober and was fully cooperating with NFL officials to ensure his reinstatement to the NFL, which was granted on July 17, 2018. The defensive end has responded by posting six sacks on the season, good for second on the team, and had the best game of his career on Sunday with the forced fumble and later fumble recovery.
Smith took a very different route to his stardom, but one with a similarly high level of adversity. Smith was a linebacker at Notre Dame who quickly became one of the nation’s very best. In his junior year, Smith posted 115 tackles, nine tackles for loss, a sack, five passes defensed, two fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble. He was a consensus All-American and was awarded the Dick Butkus award, all while earning the designation as the best linebacker in the 2016 NFL Draft, and potentially a top five draft pick.
Smith was playing in the Fiesta Bowl with his team trying to earn their eleventh win of the season when Smith took a bad step after being pushed off by an offensive lineman. He dropped to the ground and clutched at his knee, leaving the game. It was later determined that he suffered a torn ACL and LCL, as well as nerve damage that could be permanent.
In a blink of an eye, Smith went from being one of the first players taken in his draft class to potentially never playing another down of football in his life. Once again, the Cowboys and Jerry Jones decided to take a gamble. They selected Smith with the 34th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, making Smith a surprise early second round selection. At the time, Dallas knew there was a possibility Smith may never play. In fact, he spent the entire 2016 season inactive while still trying to regenerate the nerve in his knee. Through it all, Smith kept a positive mindset and insisted that he would be able to play again.
And on June 7, 2017, he managed to participate in drills for the first time in a very long time. By the end of the preseason, Smith was named the starting MIKE linebacker for Dallas, which was a huge accomplishment in and of itself. Smith’s play in 2017 was at times uneven, but he finished the year with 81 tackles, three for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble. Not only had he come back, but he was contributing to the team in a meaningful way.
But then Smith took another step forward by shedding his knee brace in this past offseason. Smith talked a lot about how much that added to his speed and mobility, and training camp quickly allowed fans to see just how agile Smith looked. And now, he is second on the team in tackles with 106. He has also added 7.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and four sacks.
And of course that fumble recovery was the one Smith returned for a 69-yard touchdown on Sunday that was caused by Gregory. It was Smith’s first career defensive touchdown, and it was fitting that the play was paired with a sack from Gregory. Both of these players have felt their backs against the wall while facing an uphill battle to keep their football careers alive. And in both cases, they were given opportunities by the Cowboys that were chalked up as big risks at the time, and the team’s patience with each player is starting to pay big dividends.
As the Cowboys come to the close of a regular season that featured a huge comeback from a dismal start to the year, it’s absolute poetry that two of their defensive stars have their own unique and moving comeback stories that have gotten them to this point. Now, each of these players will get the opportunity to make an impact for Dallas in the postseason and try to get their hands on a Lombardi Trophy, which would be the ultimate feather in their own personal comeback caps.