This week we watched Cowboys DE Randy Gregory test positive yet again, and begin undergoing treatment at a drug rehab center. This week I spoke with former Giants WR Bobby Johnson, who played three years in the NFL and then watched his career dissipate into thin air. The parallels were striking.
Johnson holds a permanent place in Giants lore despite his fleeting time in the NFL. In 1986 he hauled in arguably the most important pass of the season, a 4th-and-17 at the Metrodome in Minnesota. The Giants were 8-2, but still figuring out their mettle. With just 70 seconds left in the game, and New York trailing 20-19 nearing midfield, Phil Simms uncorked a pass under pressure and found the waiting arms of Johnson on the sideline. A yard past the sticks, the third-year wideout tapped his toes before sliding out of bounds, and the Giants remained alive. They would kick the game-winning field goal to cap that drive and never look back. New York would win its next nine games en route of the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.
Super Bowl XXI ended up being Johnson’s last game in the NFL. He battled a drug addiction throughout his career, and was traded that offseason to the Chargers. He was cut shortly after that and out of work.
“I knew (the end) was going to come,” Johnson told me. “If you’re addicted, you want to stop, but it’s an addiction, a disease. I thought I was stronger than the drug, but I wasn’t. Not even close. I knew when I went out (to San Diego), I was going to get cut. I wasn’t going to get a second chance.”
There’s still plenty of time for a rebound for Gregory, but the early returns are worrisome. He slipped from a top 10 pick last year to the end of the second-round because of a positive test at the scouting combine. He didn’t record a sack in 12 games as a rookie, and could now be suspended until Thanksgiving. He’s got company on the Dallas defense. Third-year DE DeMarcus Lawrence will serve a four-game suspension for a substance-abuse violation. Linebacker Rolando McClain is banned for 10 games for the same thing.
There’s plenty of criticism you could lob at the Cowboys front office. For years Jerry Jones drafted poorly and stockpiled pricey free-agents without building a sturdy roster. With an aging Tony Romo and Jason Witten, Dallas has felt forced into taking wild chances to flesh out the rest of the roster. That’s built a house of cards with additions like Gregory, McClain and Lawrence, plus Greg Hardy and Jaylon Smith. But more importantly than the Cowboys win-loss record, is Gregory heading down Johnson’s life path?
Johnson at least experienced a few personal shining moments and a Super Bowl championship, which affords him opportunities to be around the support and friendship of his former teammates at their reunions. For Gregory, there’s no place in history yet for him. No reason for fans and media to cover him in warmth and nostalgia during rocky times. For Johnson that’s helped him stay clean and optimistic despite having to pawn off his Super Bowl ring and losing three fingers in a post-career machinery accident.
“Can I say one thing?,” Johnson asked me as we wrapped up. “I wanna thank all the Giants fans that still loved me and supported me throughout all my ordeal. I love them. Thank you.”
The good news for Gregory is the current NFL drug program provides a much stricter set of guidelines, a series of game-suspensions, and blinking stop lights to wake players up. The NFLPA also employs a Director of Player Wellness to assist those battling through personal issues.
Johnson didn’t have that padding, but he says he’s now 14 years clean. “I just need to say this,” he told me. “I wish they would have had (these drug) programs back then… Once you’re addicted, you’re addicted for life basically. It’s just you have to make the right decisions daily.”
“I think (my teammates) knew that I was addicted to something,” Johnson says. “But nobody knew how to react. They all would’ve helped me, I promise you. To this day, we talk and they make sure I’m doing the right things, which I am. Nobody knew how to react back then.”
Let’s hope someone knows how to talk to Gregory, Martavis Bryant (suspended for 2016), Josh Gordon, Johnny Manziel, and the other players who have short-circuited their careers with drugs and alcohol. You never know how far down the path goes.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.