IRVING, Texas — Anthony Hargrove trudges through mundane conditioning drills while the Dallas Cowboys conduct more spirited offseason workouts on the same fields.
The nine-year veteran defensive end is still getting into practice shape because he sat out the 2012 season after he was among four players suspended in the New Orleans bounty scandal.
Hargrove never actually lost his right to play because his eight-game ban was appealed, reduced and eventually vacated. But he says the phone never rang after Green Bay released him in training camp last year.
Maybe it was the specter of a suspension hanging over him. Or maybe it was missing the entire 2008 season over a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
“Maybe I’m an enigma for trouble,” Hargrove said. “I’m trying to get past this three-year thing where I can maybe get five years in the league without losing a year. Maybe that’s what teams are thinking. I don’t know. We’re going to try to break that.”
The 29-year-old Hargrove first wanted to break the football cycle when it became clear another opportunity wasn’t coming quickly. He spent a couple of months caring for mentally challenged adults at a group home, doing everything from cooking and cleaning to teaching basic life skills.
The look in his eye and the carefully chosen words say Hargrove certainly didn’t think he was treated fairly by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but his choice for something to do away from the game made acceptance a little easier.
“It’s easy to feel bad for yourself because so much stuff happens to you,” said Hargrove, who lost his mother to AIDS at age 9 and never had a relationship with his father. “But when you’re able to sit down with someone who’s much less fortunate than you are, life definitely comes in place. You understand, ‘Hey, my life isn’t that bad. Hey, at least I can get up and I can walk every day.’”
Hargrove had the second-longest suspension among the players punished by Goodell for allegedly participating in a scheme to pay improper cash bonuses for hits that injured opposing players. The players denied there was intent to hurt anyone.
After an appeals panel threw out Goodell’s suspensions just before the 2012 season started, the commissioner restored a full-season ban for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and a four-game suspension for defensive end Will Smith.
Goodell cut Hargrove’s ban to seven, but it amounted to just a pair of games because he was given credit for five games missed as a free agent. Linebacker Scott Fujita’s suspension was reduced from three games to one.
Two months later, all the suspensions were vacated by former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who found fault with everyone from Goodell to the players.
“The way last year unfolded, nothing was surprising from anyone, responses from anything,” Hargrove said. “I’m putting it behind me. I’m trying to move forward, and that’s all I can do at the end of the day.”
The Cowboys are switching to the 4-3 defense, which means they need more linemen. But they liked what they already had enough to skip the position in the draft. The starters at pass-rushing ends are set with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer.
Hargrove figures to have a good shot at a backup role, which fits his career profile. He has 25 starts in 102 career games with 19.5 sacks. He most recently started six games for the Saints in 2009 — the first of the three alleged bounty years.
The last season he played in 2011, Hargrove was among the final cuts in Philadelphia and ended up in Seattle, where he played 15 games.
“Who knows what other teams think of players and where they are in their careers,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “I think with free agency there was a little bit of a frenzy initially but then I think teams were a little bit more conservative in going after some guys and he probably slipped through the cracks a little bit.”
The Cowboys dealt last year with the intoxication manslaughter charge against defensive tackle Josh Brent, who is accused of driving drunk in an accident that killed teammate Jerry Brown. Just weeks later, another defensive lineman, Jay Ratliff, was arrested on a charge of driving while intoxicated.
“Like we talked about with guys we’re trying to bring in, the drafted players or the college free agents, we really try to do a good job evaluating the circumstances behind some of that stuff,” Garrett said. “We certainly got our arms around what (Hargrove’s) role was. We just think he’s a good football player. We think he’s a good person.”
Hargrove’s been through a lot in his personal life — so much in fact that another year away from the NFL is far from his biggest hardship. He was in and out of homeless shelters and foster care in New York, before an aunt in Florida adopted him around the same time his mother died.
“I’m grateful to God for instilling perseverance in my life,” Hargrove said. “Hopefully he spoke to someone’s heart here at the Cowboys and gave me a chance. I’m going to do everything I can for the Cowboys to be the best Cowboy I can be.”
And perhaps finally putting the bounty days behind him.