FRISCO, Texas – In the plain, unforgiving lines of the box score, Nov. 26 was a rough day for the Cowboys.
On a national holiday, in front of a primetime audience, they were beaten soundly by a division rival to cap off a season sweep. If the Washington Football Team edges out the Cowboys for the NFC East title, that 41-16 beat down on Thanksgiving will be a big reason why.
At the same time, a box score could never hope to tell the full story. Football is a game played by dozens of different individuals with different circumstances and experiences – 11 unique people coming together to form a collective.
That helps explain why, even in the course of a 25-point loss, it was a day Randy Gregory won't soon forget.
"I had my girlfriend, my daughter, my parents, some other close friends at that game," Gregory said. "My birthday is that week as well, the 23rd. "It's a home game, color rush uniforms, alternate jersey. Just be able to go out there and play against a rival like the Washington football team."
Largely thanks to the ongoing pandemic, Randy Gregory has largely been seen but not heard in 2020. Without the usual level of access, it's surprisingly easy to forget the 28-year-old is seven games into his first NFL action in two years.
Though he has been with the Cowboys since September, following reinstatement from an indefinite suspension, Gregory didn't see his first action until Oct. 25. For those keeping track, that's a 652-day gap between football games.
For the record, Gregory notched two sacks and another two quarterback hits in that Thanksgiving loss. He did acknowledge that it was meaningful to excel on such a big stage. But perhaps even if he hadn't, the very fact that he is once again contributing isn't lost on him.
"I'm very grateful, happy to be back here doing the things I love being around the teammates and coaching staff I have," he said. "My parents and family being able to go to the games and watch me play and just, you know, kind of rebuilding my reputation or whatever it is now. I'm just real grateful, I really am. It's honestly an honor to be on this team and still be valued in this league."
It's gotten difficult to document Gregory's winding road at this point. It feels like a lifetime ago that he slipped to No. 60 in the 2015 NFL Draft, where the Cowboys eventually drafted him – taking a gamble that his football upset outweighed concerns about his reliability.
Both have proven true to some degree. From the end of his rookie season, Gregory has been suspended several times for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He missed the first 14 games of the 2016 season, briefly returned in December of that year and then was suspended for that year's playoff run. From there, he received a yearlong ban and returned for the 2018 season – only to receive his indefinite suspension in February of 2019, which took him until this summer to work back from.
Just the story of that past year is a long one, and probably not one Gregory is eager to recount. But he was sure to mention the support of his psychologist, his parents and some of his coaches.
"I'm not going to name off everyone, but people know who they are that have helped me get here and are continuing to help me every day up to this point now," he said.
Gregory said he's done a lot of maturing over the course of this entire process, and he's embracing the challenges and obligations of being a professional, not to mention the nuances of being a better player. Disciplinary issues, such as pre-snap penalties, plagued Gregory in previous seasons – something he said he's made an effort to clean up this year.
"I think overall, I've had a pretty solid comeback," he said. "Obviously, it came midway through the season so I'm still even at this point kind of getting my feet under me, but I'm just continuing to get better in practice and hopefully putting that out on the field on gameday."
Even amid a disappointing season, Gregory's play has been a definite bright spot. To this point, he has played just 20% of the Cowboys' defensive snaps, but he has managed to produce 12 tackles and two sacks, not to mention 12 quarterback pressures – which is currently third on this team.
It'd be wise not to get too excited, too quickly. Gregory understands better than most the importance of taking things a step at a time. But even still, it's intriguing to think he might have the benefit of a full, uninterrupted offseason – basically for the first time in his career.
It's hard to say where things go from here, but the fact that it's a conversation at all is a testament to Gregory's determination. And that doesn't seem to be lost on him.
"I would say, just the fact that I never gave up," he said. "I've had times where I've doubted myself, I've had times where I wondered what life would be like without football. But the biggest thing for me, the biggest thing I'm most proud of is that I never gave up."