DURING the darkest period of his ordeal, Ted Gregory usually slept 14 hours a day. He didn't shave, rarely showered, didn't do much of anything. This hypnotic haze went on for weeks.
Gradually, he swung to the other extreme insomnia. He sometimes went five straight days without sleep.
Gregory knew what was happening, but the former Syracuse standout a pit-bull nose tackle selected by the Broncos in the first round of the 1988 NFL draft couldn't defeat this invisible opponent. He was battling depression or, as he called it, "mental gridlock."
"I thought about committing suicide," admitted Gregory, who starred at East Islip H.S. "It was on my mind whenever I was awake. When I was sleeping, everything was OK, so I figured maybe I should go to sleep permanently. I couldn't deal with the pain."
Gregory was dumped by the Broncos before the season opened, a rare occurrence in a league that treats high drafts picks like precious metals. Of the 281 first-round choices in the last 10 years, Gregory is the only one who never appeared in a regular-season game for the team that picked him. He was traded to the Saints, where he suffered a career-ending knee injury after only three games.
In many respects, he still hasn't recovered from that trauma. His post-football life, undermined by bad decisions, bad luck and bad health, capsized before he was 30.
After a dip in the NFL, he dived into the treacherous waters of Wall Street, and he sank so fast his head almost exploded. He took a job in construction, wrecked his back and was told he'd never walk again.
Everything seemed so bright on April 24, 1988, the day he was drafted. He would receive a $500,000 signing bonus and a VIP pass into a society he always dreamed about. Nothing was going to stop him. He was like Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic, gazing at an endless vista and shouting, "I'm the king of the world."
Now, 10 years later, Gregory is thankful to be alive and eager to return to the game that once brought him so much glory.
Before the heartache and mind-numbing chaos, Gregory was a classic overachiever. Despite an underwhelming 6-1, 205-pound frame, he amassed 25 sacks aR>s a senior lineman at East Islip.
Because of his size, Gregory was scarcely recruited, but his coach, Sal Ciampi, convinced Syracuse to offer a scholarship.
Gregory didn't have a Division I-A physique, but he had an A-1 heart, and grew to be an All-America nose guard and a tri-captain on Syracuse's 11-0-1 Sugar Bowl team in 1987.
"In my eyes," said former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, East Islip's favorite son, "Ted Gregory was a bigger success story than I was, because no one expected him to do what he did."
At Syracuse, he became the cog of a very good defense, which included six future pros on the Sugar Bowl team. Without Gregory in 1986 he missed nine games with a broken leg Syracuse's run defense was ranked 105th (dead last) in the country. The following year, it soared to No. 1 before slipping to 16th after Gregory injured his knee in the seventh game.
"In my 10 years at Syracuse," former coach Dick MacPherson said, "we had four impact players, people who affected the whole program Tim Green, Don McPherson, Rob Moore and Ted Gregory. When they stepped on the field, they made a difference."
Combining his trademark tenacity with quickness and exceptional balance qualities that made him a state wrestling champion in high school Gregory became one of the most feared defensive linemen in the country.
Nose guards aren't supposed to make highlight-film plays, but there he was against Maryland, destroying an end-around by tackling the quarterback and wide receiver at the same time. And there he was against Navy, breaking the quarterback's ribs with a shot so hard that Gregory's wife, Tomasina, swears she heard a crunching sound from the stands.
Gregory's starry senior year was interrupted by a senseless knee injury, sustained in the second half of a 52-6 rout of Colgate. He had convinced the coaches to let him play.
"I was trying to pad my stats," admitted Gregory, hungry for post-season honors.
Gregory lasted only a handful of plays in each of theR> next three games, prompting arthroscopic surgery. He made it back for the Sugar Bowl against Auburn, but he was finished by halftime.
Then it was time to prepare for the draft, which meant convincing teams he wasn't a medical risk. Basically, he did it by hiding the injury.
Example: In his on-campus workout for NFL scouts, Gregory's knee buckled during the vertical-jump test. He grimaced in pain, but acting on the advice of a quick-thinking Syracuse coach, he grabbed his ankle. Better a twisted ankle than a wobbly knee.
NFL teams had other questions about Gregory, including then-alleged steroid abuse. Now years later, he confessed to using steroids, revealing he tested positive in '87. (MacPherson claimed he had no knowledge of a positive test, adding that any player who flunked a drug test would've been suspended.)
Gregory insisted his steroid use was limited to one six-week cycle before his senior year.
"I had to do it so my numbers looked right on paper," he said. "A 6-1, 255-pound nose tackle isn't going to be a first-round pick, so I took something to get to 270."
The Broncos, ignoring the knee problems and steroid rumors, chose him 26th overall, bypassing future stars such as Eric Allen and Dermontti Dawson.Just as commissioner Pete Rozelle approached the draft podium to announce the selection, the Broncos phoned Gregory in his apartment.
"It all came to a head at that moment," said Gregory, smiling at the memory. "I couldn't believe I got myself into that position."
Former Denver coach Dan Reeves was overcome with bad vibes the first time he met Gregory, which wasn't until after the draft.
"I remember thinking he was the shortest 6-1 I'd ever seen," Reeves said. "He didn't even look like he was 6-feet. That was my first impression. Otherwise, everything else about him is vague."
It's no wonder; Gregory wasn't around long. His knee gave out in training camp and the Broncos, scolded by the local media for investing in damaged goods, jeR>ttisoned him to New Orleans.
"I guess they figured, `Out of sight, out of mind,' " said Gregory, who was swapped for another first-round disappointment, defensive tackle Shawn Knight.
In retrospect, Reeves said he "always wondered if (Gregory) had a problem with steroids, because he was a totally different player than he was in college. That was a time when the league was cracking down on steroids, so maybe that had something to do with it."
Gregory's fresh start in New Orleans was like a tornado brief and disastrous. In a late-season game against the Broncos, of all teams, he blew out his troublesome knee. He would never play again.
His blip-on-the-screen career consisted of one fleeting moment of euphoria a sack of Denver's John Elway. A photo of the play showing Gregory standing over Elway, with both arms raised, was re-created in a painting which hangs in his home.
Now that moment must answer a lifetime of what-might-have-been questions.
"At least, for my own personal knowledge, I know I could've been a good NFL player," Gregory said. "I'm not talking about the Hall of Fame, but I think I could've been a productive NFL player."
That thought provided little solace over the next few years. He missed football terribly, a loss reinforced by constant reminders the smell of dirt, a song on the radio, a crisp autumn breeze.
"It was like experiencing a death, a bereavement," he said. "It took so much heart and desire to get as far as I got. When that part of me got cut out, it left a huge hole. I tried to take that same tenacity and direct it toward the business world, but it didn't work out."
After working as a $30,000-a-year clerk for a brokerage firm, Gregory decided to gamble, leasing a seat on the stock exchange and trading natural-gas futures with his own money. Within three years, he had depleted most of his savings. It also didn't help that his $230,000 dream house on Long Island turned out to be a money pit, sucking another $100,000 from his pocket.
"I almost had a nervous breakdown. Some people will say I did," Gregory said. "It wasn't just the money; it was what the money represented 10 years of blood, sweat and tears."
Gregory went from Wall Street to Marco Island, Fla., where he opened a restaurant with his stepfather. The restaurant fizzled, so he returned to Long Island and took a $40-an-hour job as a construction worker. He needed the money to support his wife and two children, Nicole and Teddy.
One day, Gregory felt a sharp pain in his back and numbness in his feet. It was a ruptured disc, which caused nerve damage and a condition known as "drop foot." Both feet were rendered useless.
Gregory underwent surgery, leaving him house-bound for six months. The once-virile lineman was reduced to wearing braces on his feet and needing a walker. The psychological burden was too much. Though he never sought professional help, Gregory believes he was "definitely clinically depressed."
Now he knew the pain Wes Dove must have felt a few years earlier. Gregory's former college teammate and roommate, who had a two-game NFL career, shot himself in the head after a break-up with his girlfriend.
"I couldn't comprehend how a person could get so down and out to actually do that," said Gregory, who delivered the eulogy. "Then, pffft, there I was.
"People might think it's better to feel pain than feel nothing at all. Believe me, I was there, and I didn't want to feel anything."
Gregory said he never acted on his desperate thoughts, but friends said he once attempted suicide by jumping from a car he was driving on a parkway near his East Islip home. Gregory acknowledged he was involved in a crash and was hospitalized, but claimed it was "just an accident."
"I talked to him the week after that happened, and he seemed way down," said former Syracuse teammate Paul Frase, a member of the Jets at the time. "I knew he was on the edge."
Said Gregory: "If there was a loaded gun in the house, I might've killed myself."
This story doesn't have a happy ending, but Gregory is trying to make one happen.
His back is healed, and his old fire has returned. He doesn't have a full-time job, but he's pursuing a dream: Gregory wants to enter the coaching profession, and is looking for a college that will hire him as a graduate assistant.
He expressed that desire in a letter to Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary, Gregory's position coach at Syracuse, the man who opened the door for him 15 years ago. Gregory hasn't received a response from O'Leary, who didn't return calls for this story.
"I'd like to give back a little of what football gave me," Gregory said. "I may not know what it takes to get a struggling business over the hump, but I know what it takes to be the best."
A few years ago, he never could've imagined himself as a coach. Being that close to football and not being able to play would've hurt too much.
"Now it's like I'm playing through my son," he said of Teddy, who likes to wear his dad's old Sugar Bowl jersey around the house. "I look at him and I see myself."
And that person is a lot different than the old Ted Gregory.
"Ten years ago, I thought I was going to take over the world," he said. "I thought I was invincible. Now I realize I'm human and I have a lot of shortcomings. I know what's important."
He realized that on June 20, 1997, when he took his wife and children out to dinner to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary.
Gregory called it the highlight of his life after football, the best he's felt since sacking Elway. For this celebration, he had to conquer a lot more than just a quarterback.