Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an NFL player, returning from a year-long suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policies, says he has it turned around.
It’s a song and dance we are all too familiar with. Dallas’ Randy Gregory. Former Cleveland Brown Josh Gordon. They say they are clean — even check themselves into rehab every now and then — but something about that old lifestyle continues to draw them back in. The indefinite suspensions grow longer...and longer...and longer.
If you are a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, you’ve heard the refrain far too often over the last two years. All-Known-Universe running back Le’Veon Bell was suspended for possession, and driving under the influence, of marijuana. A year later, he was suspended again for missing several mandatory drug tests.
Then there is the case of wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who is good enough to be a number-one receiver on at least half the rosters in the NFL, but has yet to show his full potential because of his inability to walk away from a lifestyle the league, and his employer, condemn. He was suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season after a stellar rookie campaign that saw him quickly become one of the most explosive receivers in the league. He followed up that suspension by accepting responsibility for his actions, then once again tearing up the field in an abbreviated season.
Just over a year ago, though, he was suspended for at least a year — “indefinitely”, in official NFL parlance — due to yet another failed drug test.
The demons got him again.
Let’s be clear: I’m not here to argue for, or against, the legal, recreational use of marijuana. I’m not here to argue whether the NFL policy is too harsh or too lenient. I’m not here to discuss the addictiveness of cannaboids. I’m here to discuss the series of decisions Bryant made, their fallout, and the next year or so of this kid’s life.
As Organized Team Activities (OTAs) commenced for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Tuesday, there was Bryant, more contrite than he had seemed at any point since this “saga” began. He stood in front of reporters and, one by one, let them take their shots. He didn’t deflect, he didn’t “no-comment” his way out of anything.
He accepted that he was at fault.
He said that “trust is earned, not given.”
He understands that he let his team down.
He claims he is drug-tested two or three times each week.
He said he sees a therapist twice per week.
Golf clap, please.
It’s not that I don’t believe he is sincere. I want to believe. Badly. And to a great extent, I do believe him. And my hope for him is that he is now on the life trajectory he should have been on all along.
But, as the saying goes, hope in one hand...
Words are fantastic. But words can lie. He can throw out all the platitudes he wants. He can tell us all about his league-dictated testing and care protocols. The bottom line is simpler than that: this is his life’s put-up-or-shut-up moment. This is when he decides if he’s going to man up and take responsibility for himself. This is when he decides what kind of example he wants to set for his newborn baby.
The good news is that he’s already demonstrating it. He’s off to a good start with great momentum: he has moved away from the people and places that influenced him to travel a path that violated league rules. His home is now in Pittsburgh, with his child and near many of his teammates. He spent the off-season training instead of partying, slacking and whatever else it was he used to do, when he would simply “show up and play” instead of actively seeking to improve himself and his vocational skills.
That’s the scary part in all of this: his potential. What we saw for two seasons was an immature child in a man’s body, doing grown-up things, despite the mentality of a carefree, coddled teenager. If he did what he did — 76 catches, 1,314 yards and 14 touchdowns in 21 games behind the best receiver in the NFL — without even really trying, imagine what could lie ahead for the young man if he truly has turned things around and is actually putting in effort. It’s scary.
And that’s why this entire situation is scary. Without Bryant, the Steelers made it to the AFC Championship game. With him on the field, drawing coverage away from Antonio Brown and helping to keep Le’Veon Bell’s touches down, this is an offense that stands a chance of being generationally good — think the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf, with Isaac Bruce, Tory Holt and Marshall Faulk, but with players capable of even more.
But that’s still an enormous if right now. We’ve only reached OTAs. The going hasn’t even had time to get tough for Bryant. How will he respond to a bad game? A bad few weeks? A bad season? Or, worse yet, a season lost to injury? Will he stay with the team and continue to work to be the best Martavis Bryant he can be? Or will he let the same old demons regain their foothold in his life, and cost him his job — and maybe his career? Only time will tell.
But it sure would be hard to not root for the kid.