Michael Hickey / Contributor

Every morning he wakes up, Randy Gregory is thankful. The veteran pass rusher is back to doing what he loves most -- chasing opposing quarterbacks for the Dallas Cowboys -- but it's the path taken to get to this point that makes the sun shine brighter than it ever has, considering the dark he's now beaten into submission. Gregory returned from an indefinite suspension that sidelined him for all of 2019, on the heels of a promising return in 2018 from a separate one, all predicated upon his use of marijuana to self-medicate for mental illness; a league policy that's since been amended with the installation of the new collective bargaining agreement.

The 28-year-old spoke excitedly in an exclusive chat with CBS Sports in March, noting he'd "be back this year" and "for good this time," also adding he's in a "better place mentally more than ever." Now seven regular season games into his return and with only three remaining this season, he's reflecting on his progress and what it means to be back in uniform -- something he often wondered about the possibility of.

"I would say [I'm most proud of] just the fact that I never gave up," he told media ahead of the team's matchup with the San Francisco 49ers. "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. At the end of the day, I believe that this is the place I need to be, around the people that are here."

And he remains wholeheartedly committed to making good on his promise to remain on the field.

"Football is the most natural thing for me, so I'm going to keep trying to be here," he said. "I'm going to keep coming back. I'm going to keep going out there and playing as hard as I can until I'm not wanted in this league any more or they push me out of this league. I don't know if that's going to be today. I don't know if that's going to be a year from now -- two years, five years, it doesn't really matter to me. Just the fact that I continue to fight, continue to want to come back and play is really important to me."

But what kept him from throwing in the towel on ever playing in the NFL again, and relenting to his demons? In his own words: he's a football player, and it took a lot for him to get to a league many others fail to come close to getting a shot in.

"Just that I knew I had more to offer as a player," he said. "And I just really couldn't live with myself knowing that I missed out on an opportunity that I've been working for for 15-20 years now to this point. That's all I talked about from age 8 to age 9, playing in youth leagues and telling my dad that I wanted to play in the NFL. He would explain to me everything I needed to do to get to that point. 

"I played running back, back in the day. He would tell me that I wouldn't play running back that I'd be playing defensive end. He's a real smart guy because he was right. I've invested so much time physically, mentally, emotionally to the sport that I'm just not ready to give up yet."

So, as a sidebar, in the event the Cowboys need a trick play one day that involves Gregory taking a handoff -- he's ready.

For his part, the embattled RB turned pass rusher has been drooling for a chance to return to the NFL as soon as possible and finish what he started as the Cowboys second-round pick in 2015. He played very well for the Cowboys in 2018, his longest stretch of availability since joining the team, delivering a career-high six sacks, 15 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 14 games with just a single start. Selected with the 60th-overall pick in 2015, the former two-time first-team All-Big Ten honoree was available for 12 games but suffered a high ankle sprain that cost him four games. 

From there, things took a dark turn in his young NFL career.

Gregory, who has since been diagnosed with bipolar depression and clinical anxiety and -- as noted above -- used marijuana to self-medicate, failed a drug test that led to a four-game suspension handed down in February 2016. That was followed by the league handing down an extended suspension due to additional testing issues that added a 10-game ban at the back end of the initial four-game punishment. He'd return to play in the final two games of the 2016 season, landing his first career sack in the process, but yet another run-in with the league's substance abuse policy one month prior led to an eventual year-long suspension -- sidelining him in the playoffs that year and for the entirety of his 2017 season. 

Gregory was reinstated in July 2018 and had the aforementioned best season of his career, before being given an indefinite suspension in January 2019 that cost him the following season. It's been a long road back for Gregory, but he's exercised humility and determination with each step -- from training despite being out of the game, taking on a part-time job at an Amazon distribution center to remain productive mentally, and engaging in far more therapy sessions than the league would mandate.

And to make for a more robust support system, Gregory's parents were brought into North Texas long ago as he worked his way back into the league, sources tell CBS Sports. Add in the resolve and belief of owner Jerry Jones and all within the organization who joined him in refusing to give up, and Gregory has a lot of people he'd like to thank for his return.

"I mean it's a long list," said a grateful Gregory. "Most importantly [team psychologist Dr. Dina Hijazi, PhD]. I'm sure some of you have heard about here up to this point now. She's someone I definitely work with multiple times throughout the week and my parents are big in this case. 

"A few coaches here and there. 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."

Nowadays, it's all about managing triggers and repeatedly practicing established coping mechanisms, things he's much more adept at now than he's ever been in his past. 

"I'd say I am a little bit better equipped," he noted. "I think that goes with maturity. Just getting older, experiencing different things in life, on and off the field so I've always said it -- it's a day to day thing. It's something I'm constantly working on and trying to better myself not only for the sake of my career but my personal life and for my family. 

"So it's something I have under wraps right now. [I'm] very proud of myself, proud of the individuals who helped me get here and I just take it one day at a time."

As far as his play on the field goes, it took a moment for him to ramp back up to game speed, but it wasn't for lack of effort -- instead attributable to the league forcing him to sit six games to start the 2020 season before he could practice with the Cowboys, and then defensive coordinator Mike Nolan opting for a trickle-in plan versus simply taking the reins off, the latter having been the case in 2018 under former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. But despite it all, he's quietly often been the best pressure guy off of the edge for the Cowboys this season. You wouldn't necessarily know it if you point at his two sacks through seven games, but he's producing pressure at an elite rate and has several near-misses -- often forcing the opposing quarterback into someone else's sack tally.

The film is readily available to demonstrate how effective Gregory has been and continues to be, but the reality is he's returning in the most tumultuous NFL season in football history, and one of the most for the Cowboys. That said, he's still technically working his way back into his groove, as scary as that might sound to offensive linemen around the league.

"I think I've done some things well," Gregory said. "Still some things I can improve on. Honestly the biggest thing is getting after the passer. That's the one thing that the coaches expect from me the most and that I try to take pride in the most. So I've been able to get close a few times, a few pressures, a few hits, some sacks, things like that. A big thing for me is not making any mental errors, any misalignments, stuff like that -- pre-snap. 

"I think I've done better job of that. Obviously playing against the run when I am in there, trying to just get better and stronger at the point of attack and just build from there. I think overall, I've had a pretty solid come back. 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 game day."

Doubling down on their belief in Gregory, the Cowboys signed him to an extension that keeps in tow through the 2021 season. And if he can continue climbing as he has, there's likely another deal in his near future. It's one day at a time for Gregory in his mental health management though, but he's currently doing better than he ever has.

"I appreciate everything that led up to me coming back, and obviously I do appreciate me being here," he said. "I've said in the past that football is probably the most natural thing there is on this planet for me. I love the game. There's been times where I haven't loved what it meant to be a professional in the NFL, but I do love the game and everything else that comes with it is just part of being a professional. 

"In any line of work there's stuff you got to deal with that you're not going to necessarily be the best at or like to deal with. Not necessarily just at a professional level -- even as a child in school, I wanted to play football but had to go to class. So there's stuff I had to deal with but, all in all, I'm appreciative to be back. I'm very grateful, happy to be back here doing the things I love being around the teammates and coaching staff I have. 

"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."