Getty New Cowboys WR Martavis Bryant before his five-year NFL ban

It’s been a long five years for new Cowboys receiver Martavis Bryant. In December 2018, Bryant was suspended by the NFL after repeatedly violating the league’s substance abuse policy, including the entire 2016 season when Bryant was suspended for failing drug tests.

NFL statement: “Effective immediately, Martavis Bryant has been returned to the suspended reserve/commissioner list indefinitely for violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement in April 2017 under the Substance Abuse Policy and Program.”

— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) December 14, 2018

A fourth-round pick by the Steelers over Clemson in 2014, Bryant made an impact as a rookie in Pittsburgh, scoring eight touchdowns on just 26 catches and averaging 21.1 yards per catch. He was eventually traded to the Raiders before his suspension, but all the while substance abuse was holding him back.

But after a grueling process to reintegrate into the NFL, Bryant is back in the league, albeit as a practice squad in Dallas. He was asked where the ban had taken him over the past five years.

“To places you can’t even imagine, man, some really dark places and times,” he said from the team’s practice facility. “I really don’t want to talk about it, you know, because I’ve worked so hard to get through these moments. But it was a dark time for me.”

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The Cowboys’ Martavis Bryant journey began with sobriety

For Martavis Bryant, returning to the NFL began first with sobriety and then with deciding whether a return to football was even possible.

“I’ve been through a lot in the years I haven’t played, you know,” he said. “I beat myself up and wanted to give up football, but at the end of the day I had to look in the mirror, face my own demons and pull myself together.”

Then came hard work in lower-level leagues that weren’t NFL caliber – the Arena League and the XFL. His Arena League experiment was short-lived. He didn’t particularly like the fact that as a receiver you could run into a wall when going out.

Veteran WR Martavis Bryant, who last played in the NFL in 2018, was rehired by commissioner Roger Goodell and is drawing interest from teams, according to his agent James Peterson.

Bryant, 31, has been training for his comeback and played in the XFL last summer.

— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) November 4, 2023

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“I started in the Arena Football League, which was different for me. I hit the wall so I had to give up. I thought I couldn’t do it,” he said.

After a stint in the XFL, Bryant said he first had to clear the way for a return through Roger Goodell’s NFL office. This included numerous meetings and focusing on his sobriety.

“I had to go through a process, steps that I had to take to maintain my sobriety,” Bryant explained. “Meeting with my advisor. I did the things I was supposed to do to show that I had changed. I put in the work, man, and I’m proud of it. First of all, it started with the NFL, I had to go through six months of testing, you know, counselors, and do a lot of things that they asked me to do.”

“The sky’s the limit, man.”

With the league convinced he had changed, it was time to get Martavis Bryant’s name back in NFL circles. The Cowboys were among the first teams interested.

“My agent has reached out to many teams and told them that I will be reinstated soon. And Dallas was interested,” he said.

He still has a long way to go to get back on the field during an NFL game – again, he’s currently only on the practice squad and he says he still needs to get into “football shape.” If that happens, he can be the same explosive downfield threat he was before the suspension, he said.

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“The sky’s the limit for me, man,” he said. “I know I’m 31, but still fast, still tall and still want to play football. I haven’t lost anything, you know? For me it’s more about proving that there are a lot of doubters out there, it’s more about proving to myself that I still have it.”

Sean Deveney is a veteran sports reporter who covers the NBA and NFL for He has been writing for Heavy since 2019 and has more than two decades of NBA reporting experience, including 17 years as a senior NBA reporter for the Sporting News. Deveney is the author of seven nonfiction books, including “Fun City,” “Before Wrigley Were Wrigley,” and “Facing Michael Jordan.” More about Sean Deveney

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