By Anna Katherine Clemmons
Special to FOX Sports
Darren Waller sat inside the auditorium, waiting for one of his first official team meetings to begin. The Baltimore Ravens rookie nodded at his new teammates as they entered the room at training camp in 2015.
The sixth-round pick should have been ecstatic; he’d made it to the NFL. Instead, Waller wanted to be anywhere else. He sat in silence, which wasn’t unusual for rookies.
But this particular rookie had a darker reason to keep to himself: He harbored a secret that threatened to destroy his NFL career before it could begin.
John Harbaugh stepped up and addressed the group. “If you don’t love football, just walk out of here and leave,” the Ravens head coach told the players.
It was nothing more than coach-speak, a bit of bravado to fire up the team. But Waller actually contemplated those words.
“I’m going to walk out,” he said to himself. “I do not love playing.”
Still, something kept him in his chair. “Maybe I’m messing it all up,” he thought.
Raiders tight end Darren Waller might be one of the best players in the NFL, but his path to stardom was anything but simple. FOX Sports Digital tells the story of how Waller nearly lost his NFL career to substance abuse before getting clean and returning to the league.
Ever since he was a teenager, Waller had heard everyone tell him that football would make him happy. He wondered when that might happen.
Six years after getting drafted and now a Las Vegas Raider, Waller is one of the top three tight ends in the NFL. He’s a 6-foot-6, 255-pound nightmare for opposing defenses. He is quarterback Derek Carr’s most frequent target, totaling more than 1,100 receiving yards in each of his past two seasons.
At age 28, Waller has the potential to be one of the best to ever play the position — an outcome that seemed impossible for the lost rookie sitting in that room in Baltimore.
That Darren Waller, he says, didn’t care about football. He was destroying himself with alcohol and opioids.
And he almost died in the process.
“What expectations really do is reflect our impatience and our insecurities, our inability to live life on life’s terms.” — Darren Waller, Monday Motivations
Growing up in Acworth, Georgia, Waller was a quiet, shy child. His mother, Charlena, says he was reading by 2 years old, and she realized her son had essentially a photographic memory. When he started football at age 5, he brought that recall ability with him to the field.
In Georgia, football is treated like religion, particularly the Georgia Bulldogs. In addition to UGA, Darren’s father, Dorian, was a New York Giants fan, and his mother followed Washington. The family would gather around the TV on weekends, cheering during SEC and NFL games. Darren loved when that adulation carried over to his Pee-Wee football exploits.
Away from football, though, he was self-conscious. He cared so much about what others thought of him, especially as a light-skinned African-American. Many of his neighborhood friends were white.
“People that look like me, with my skin color, would kind of rag on me [at school], like, ‘Why are you [hanging out with white kids]? Why you talk the way you do?’” Waller says. “I felt like something was wrong with me.”
In high school, he saw that the cool kids were bullies, acting out and shouting takedowns of their peers. Football players were kings, walking the halls with swagger in letterman jackets, a gaggle of girls trailing behind them. He decided that if he excelled at football, he’d have that respect and appreciation.
And he hoped he’d feel a little less lost.
He loved the sport initially. In middle school, he’d return home from basketball games, still in his uniform, and run out to the yard, a football tucked under his arm. But by his teenage years, that love had faded, pushed down by his own fears and insecurities.
One afternoon, while hanging out at a friend’s house, Waller was offered some painkillers. His body was often sore after football practice, so he thought, “Why not?”
“They’ll make you feel good,” his friends told him.
“I’d like that — I don’t feel good very often,” he thought.
At first, he swallowed pills only every couple of weeks. But whenever he took them, he felt so much better. So he started stealing pills from his parents’ medicine cabinet. And if he saw classmates walking the school hallways with their arm in a sling or their leg in a cast, he’d ask for some of their prescription painkillers.
His junior year of high school, Waller was arrested along with a group of friends for damaging mailboxes and other personal property. He was kicked off the basketball team. Still, he kept partying. He’d outdrink anyone and outlast anyone who brought a new drug around.
Darren’s parents had warned him and his older sister, Deanna, about the dangers of addiction. They had watched family members die from drug and alcohol abuse, so Charlena and Dorian reminded their children: This is in our DNA. Don’t fall into the habit.
But for Darren, it was already too late.
Despite his off-the-field issues, he earned a scholarship to play football at Georgia Tech. Then, on move-in day in 2012, 10 minutes after his parents left, a group of upperclassmen walked into Darren’s dorm. They opened the door, one holding a bottle of Everclear.
“Who’s ready to party?” they asked.
“I’m like, ‘This is what I do,'” Waller says. “That just became part of who I was.”
On the field, he was a solid wide receiver, totaling more than 400 yards his junior year. But his mind was elsewhere. He’d get high before practice, after practice, before games. He broke TVs in hotel rooms and cheated drug tests by swapping out urine samples.
Waller was a good receiver at Georgia Tech and athletic enough to catch the eyes of NFL scouts, but he hid his addiction throughout his college years. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
Eventually, the school mandated Waller go to an outpatient rehabilitation facility three nights a week. He’d stay for a while and then bolt. When asked about its efficacy, Waller says, he’d just tell others what he knew they wanted to hear. That way they wouldn’t ask any more questions.
Family and friends knew he was partying, but he did so well in his classes — in 2014, Waller graduated a semester early with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and a concentration in Information Technology Management — that they didn’t realize the severity of his problem.
After selecting Waller in the sixth round in 2015, the Ravens signed him to a four-year, $2.39 million contract. His athletic ability was on par with that of the first- and second-round picks, but rumors had already spread about his off-the-field habits.
In Baltimore, he would wake up early, get high, go to practice, come home and get high again. He was the last to arrive at the team facility and the first one to leave. He’d figured out that his teammate, running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, shared similar habits, so the two would play video games and get high together.
Percocet, marijuana, Adderall, codeine — if it offered a high, Waller tried it. “And if you were trying to help me, I wasn’t trying to hear it,” he says.
He failed his first NFL drug test, then another. His parents received his failed test notifications via FedEx envelopes. After Darren’s first few months in the league, Dorian dreaded the sound of a delivery truck outside.
When the phone rang at night, the Wallers were afraid to answer. They didn’t worry Darren would overdose, only because they didn’t know how deep his addiction ran. But they could see he didn’t care about football. And as a professional athlete in a violent sport, apathy can lead to serious injury.
Darren played in six games in 2015. In the summer of 2016, he was suspended for the season’s first four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. During that time, he was learning a new position, switching from receiver to tight end. He played in 12 games in 2016 but totaled only 103 yards over the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
His mood swings were so stark, Charlena wondered if he were bipolar.
Waller, seen celebrating a touchdown during a game in November 2016, was suspended from the NFL for the entire 2017 season for another substance-abuse violation. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
On June 30, 2017, the FedEx truck pulled into the Wallers’ driveway again. The league had suspended Darren for the entire 2017 season.
Less than two months later, Darren sat in his Jeep Grand Cherokee in a parking lot a quarter-mile from the Ravens’ practice facility. Baltimore had its first preseason game later that day, but that didn’t concern Waller. He had moved out of his apartment that morning and stopped by his dealer’s house on his way out of town.
He swallowed some pills and sat in the parking lot. What happened next was different from his usual high. His head began to spin. He felt like he was going to either throw up or faint. He fell asleep and woke up four hours later, still sitting in his car, drenched in sweat.
Later, he’d realize that he had ingested a batch of opioids laced with fentanyl — one of the leading causes of overdose deaths. And for the first time, he was very afraid.
A month later, supported by the NFL, Waller checked in to the McLean Borden Cottage in Camden, Maine, for a 30-day in-patient rehabilitation program. There had been no staged intervention, no forced enrollment.
This was Waller’s decision. He realized that his choices over the previous decade hadn’t worked, and he was desperate to find a new way to live.
At the Cottage, Waller started to understand himself and who he wanted to be, rather than trying to mold himself into who he thought others needed him to be. He attended small-group therapy and one-on-one counseling sessions. He journaled. He meditated. He took yoga classes. He spent hours writing song lyrics, often focused on sobriety and recovery. He had always been musical, which was partially genetic: His great-grandfather was legendary jazz musician Fats Waller.
For the first time, Darren felt the freedom to be himself.
After a month in rehab, Waller returned to his parents’ house. It was, Charlena says, like a light had switched on. He attended recovery meetings and found an $11-an-hour job stacking produce at Sprouts Farmers Market. He enjoyed the work so much that one time, his boss called Dorian and told him, “Darren keeps forgetting to pick up his paycheck.”
Waller brought attention to addiction awareness as part of the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign in December 2020.
He stayed sober and avoided alcohol and drugs, even if he was at parties or out at bars with friends. And he began working out hard … just in case.
“I felt better about my life at that point than I ever had playing in the NFL,” Waller says.
In August 2018, 11 months after he’d gone to rehab, the NFL reinstated Waller. He felt ready, believing that his body and mind were in the right place to excel. But the Ravens had drafted two tight ends while he was away, so they placed him on the practice squad.
Waller knew he had a choice: He could give in to his ego and be resentful, or he could view it as an opportunity to keep improving. He chose the latter, arriving early to practices and staying late for additional lift sessions. When he felt frustration creeping in, he’d remind himself that he was still alive, even after all those mistakes. This was worth seeing through.
Raiders coach Jon Gruden talks about how the team found Waller and how the young star has “gold-jacket ability.”
Just after Thanksgiving 2018, the 2-8 Raiders arrived in Baltimore for a Week 12 matchup. Coach Jon Gruden stood with offensive coordinator Greg Olson on the sidelines and watched the Ravens’ practice squad working out before the game.
“Who the hell is that guy?” Olson said, pointing to Waller, who was sprinting 15 yards ahead of the other players. Gruden knew Waller had succeeded legendary receiver Calvin Johnson at Georgia Tech, and he remembered him from the NFL Combine. Both coaches couldn’t stop watching him.
The Raiders lost to the Ravens 34-17 that day to fall to 2-9. But on the flight back to Oakland that night, the Raiders claimed Waller, who was fair game as a practice-squad player. He arrived in California two days later.
“He’s been our best player ever since,” Gruden says. “He’s a spectacular talent that has risen from the ashes. I hope every young person that has problems out there researches this young man and patterns their next step after him.”
“How do I treat every day like it could be the last day I could play? How do I love on people as though this is their last day in my life?” — Darren Waller, Monday Motivations
After the 2019 season, Waller founded The Darren Waller Foundation. Often, those in recovery keep their struggles private, not wanting the shame and judgment associated with addiction. But Waller knew that while it might be difficult, sharing his story could help others overcome substance abuse. He wanted to work with young people wrestling with similar temptations and struggles over self-worth.
For the past two years, he has done just that — and more.
When not playing football, he is in Zoom meetings with groups of teens struggling with addiction, or he’s speaking at a DEA-sponsored opioid youth summit in Las Vegas. He might be judging a “Truth Not Talk” video series in which Clark County teens produce anti-drug campaigns, or he’s hosting fundraising dinners to pay for an addict to attend a 30-day, in-patient rehabilitation program (which can cost upward of $30,000).
He also cohosts a podcast, Comeback Stories, with personal development coach Donny Starkins. The two talk with guests about overcoming their struggles to find renewed purpose. They also record Monday Motivations, short reflections for their podcast listeners focused on impermanence, self-worth and similar subjects.
“It’s not lip service,” Gruden says. “It’s something that he really takes great pride in, has a keen interest in and is getting results. He’s competing to help people cure their addictions.”
When the Raiders moved to Las Vegas last season, some worried that Sin City might be the worst place for an addict in recovery. Driving down Las Vegas Boulevard one afternoon, Darren admitted that his old self would be out on this street, partying in the clubs until sunrise, snorting Percocet and cocaine, taking Adderall and popping Xanax.
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t get involved in [then], if it promised a feeling, a certain high,” Waller says.
Since joining the Raiders, Waller has developed into one of the league’s most versatile offensive players. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Now, he’s dedicated to helping others free themselves from addiction. The need is overwhelming: In 2020, 93,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses — the highest number ever recorded.
What’s more, Nevada experienced 23% more opioid-related overdose deaths from January to May 2020 than during the same period in 2019, another reason Waller is working so hard in his newly adopted city to reverse those numbers.
He has also helped teammates. Defensive end Maxx Crosby had struggled with alcohol for years by the time he was drafted by the Raiders in 2019. He listened closely as Waller shared his story during minicamp.
By the end of his first Raiders season, Crosby knew his drinking was out of control. He wanted help, and he turned to Waller. The two talked regularly as Crosby found counselors, attended meetings and entered a rehabilitation facility in March 2020.
“I knew I had to reevaluate everything and really save myself,” Crosby says. “Having Darren in my locker room — you know, that was God right there.”
Initially, even after he was sober, Crosby kept his struggles private. Then on March 11, 2021, marking one year of sobriety, he chose to celebrate by sharing his story publicly.
Waller knows the courage that takes.
“I’ve run from conversations, from relationships and interactions, my whole life,” he says. “Now, I will walk straight toward that discomfort. Because that’s produced more positive results than running ever did.”
When he returned to the NFL, Waller wasn’t sure how he’d feel about football. For so long, he had treated it like something on his to-do list.
But once he was back on the field, he fell in love with the game again, savoring the small moments that led to Sundays. Running drills, pushing through tough workouts, watching film — he focused on every step, however singular.
He also leaned in to his natural talent.
“It’s a challenge for a coach when you deal with a guy of his ability,” says former Raiders tight ends coach Frank Smith, now the run game coordinator and offensive line coach for the Los Angeles Chargers. “He advanced so quickly that it was fun because every day was just, ‘What are we going to get good at today?’”
As he learned the Raiders’ offensive system, Waller would check in with Smith for feedback after each play.
“How was that?” he’d ask.
“Do that for the next decade,” Smith would respond.
“He is the best pick-up I’ve ever had, hands down,” Gruden says. “He’s got gold-jacket ability.”
Raiders coach Jon Gruden doesn’t hold back in saying that Waller has the potential to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Waller’s photographic memory doesn’t hurt, either. In film sessions, Gruden will often show archived footage; a video clip could be from a decade or two ago. No matter — Waller will know who the player is, the team he played for and where he went to school. The athlete doesn’t even have to be a football player. Baseball? A hockey pro from 35 years ago? No problem.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Raiders tight end Foster Moreau says of Waller’s recall. If Gruden quizzes the team on a play it ran 20 weeks ago, Waller remembers every detail.
Moreau met Waller in 2019 during the former’s rookie mini-camp. Following a workout on one of the first camp days, Moreau walked into the weight room. He looked over and saw Waller, a giant force on a stationary bike, drenched in sweat, barreling through a ride.
“Who is that?” Moreau asked the strength coach. “That’s Darren,” the coach replied, adding that Waller’s workout was just getting started. After the bike, he’d go outside for more catching and blocking drills, then back inside for the cold tub, then yoga.
“To think where he was to where he is now, it’s just incredible,” Moreau says. “I don’t feel like there’s anything that guy can’t accomplish.”
The Raiders seem to agree. In October 2019, Waller signed a three-year, $27 million contract extension, and he’ll likely improve on that with his next deal.
On the July 7 episode of Cris Collinsworth’s podcast, Carr recalled an all-Waller four-play stretch. First, the Raiders handed him the ball on a fly sweep. Next, they ran the ball behind him, and he caved the defensive end all the way down into the A-gap. Then, they had him pass set against a premier rusher one-on-one. Finally, Carr threw him a 30-yard seam route, and Waller went for 40 yards.
“I was like, if this isn’t the best football player in the NFL, I don’t know much,” Carr said. “Throwing him the ball is one of the greatest joys of my life.”
Waller has emerged as a leader for a Raiders team that hopes to make its first playoff appearance since 2016. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Likewise, football and sobriety have given Waller his joy back. On a July afternoon, while riding around the city with a camera crew, Waller sat idling in the driver’s seat of his Jeep, waiting to head to the next destination. As a reporter emerged from the building and approached her rental car, Waller looked up from his phone. “Wanna race?” he asked, grinning, eyebrows raised.
That goofy, fun side, Dorian says, was absent for so many years. Now he sees it again in Darren, and he appreciates it almost as much as his son’s intentionality in the way he approaches each day of sobriety.
Darren wakes up at 4 a.m., avoids his phone and instead spends time meditating and journaling during what he and Starkins call “the sacred morning.”
Waller writes and produces hip-hop tracks (he recently recorded an interview with Lil’ Wayne inside a recording studio) and has released several of his songs on YouTube and iTunes. One of his favorite off-field activities is producing beats on his laptop at home while watching “Planet Earth.” Often, his lyrics focus on his journey to sobriety.
i’m fine, i’m cool, matter of fact, I might reach for the sky,
let’s go, what you think if i tell the whole world what i’m feeling inside,
man, i think i would die, it’s crazy, just look at me now,
i believe i could fly, i got control of myself, i can’t go down that slope,
there were days i didn’t have no hope, take every step with integrity,
i gotta shine, how you like me ’cause i’m one of a kind
“I get choked up because of how proud I am of him,” Smith says, tearing up. “I hope that more people realize that addiction is a real thing — but it’s not the end. If you have a problem, seek help. This story normally ends the other way.”
Taliaferro, Waller’s former teammate who played with the Ravens from 2014 to ’16, died in December 2020. Initial reports indicated that a heart attack was the cause; in July, the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported that the cause of death was cocaine and fentanyl intoxication. Taliaferro was 28 years old.
On the afternoon of Aug. 12, 2021, the fourth anniversary of Waller’s sobriety, he addressed the Raiders after practice. The team donated $30,000 to his foundation in his honor. Two weeks later, he and Crosby were voted by their teammates as two of the seven team captains for the 2021 season.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever met a person who is as brave and honest about their journey and using it to help others,” Darren’s sister, Deanna (Waller) Prentice, says. “I don’t think I’d want to yell my stuff out to people. He is just an incredible person — and I tell him that every day.”
“Before, it was all about fitting in and being accepted. Now, I’m not fitting in and being accepted if it involves compromising who I am. I’ve developed the confidence and respect for myself that won’t allow me to make the same decisions or settle for the temporary highs.” — Darren Waller
Just after 8 p.m. on a Thursday night in July, four days before Raiders training camp is set to begin, Waller, microphone in hand, stands before 100 kids sitting on metal bleachers.
“It’s pretty crazy for me to stand here today, honestly,” says Waller, dressed in gray shorts, a white T-shirt that reads “Be A Kind Human” and bright teal sneakers.
The third- through eighth-grade attendees were chosen from underserved communities throughout Clark County to attend the inaugural Darren Waller Youth Football Camp, all for free. They listen to Waller’s welcome before taking the field at All-American Park.
Once indifferent to practice, Waller can now be found going through grueling workouts as he strives to reach his potential. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)
A DJ stands under a small white tent, playing Rihanna and Lil Nas X. Las Vegas Parks and Recreation staff volunteers hand out Gatorade and fruit. An ice cream truck and popsicle stand are set up adjacent to the far field line as the groups begin drills.
“Set … hut!” the quarterback calls out. Waller takes off — long, quick strides propelling him, sweat soaking through his second T-shirt in the past hour in the 90-degree heat.
As he reaches the end zone, he turns, eyes locked and snatches the ball from the air, two hands enveloping the pigskin in perfect form, his megawatt grin so wide and high that his brown eyes squint in the evening light.
Waller explains how the city of Las Vegas has helped his growth and his mission to keep others away from drugs.
“All day!” he yells, grinning at his defenders — a dozen young boys and girls who largely ignored their offensive and defensive assignments in favor of swarming Waller. Several of the elementary-aged kids jump and grab Waller’s left biceps, hanging off his arm as he holds the football aloft with his right hand. Two others bear-hug him around the waist.
“Who’s up?” Waller yells. Every child raises a hand. “You already been up — you up!” Waller points to a young boy with yellow hair, Tyrann Mathieu-style, whose mischievous half-smile focuses on Waller. “We pressing now!” Waller says, grinning again, as Missy Elliott’s “Work It” plays through the speakers.
“He radiates authenticity now,” Starkins says. “That wasn’t always the case.”
Waller admits that he still struggles. Addiction never fully disappears.
“When you really get down to the root of it, you realize that the drugs and alcohol are a symptom,” Waller says. “It’s not the using that’s the battle. It’s your thinking — your self-centeredness at the center of it all. And if you still suffer from that thinking, you’ll pick up something else to be addicted to.
“The antidote is being of service to others. Because that helps you realize you have a greater purpose in the world.”
Which perhaps best explains why, when he could be anywhere on this night, Waller chooses to be here: kids swarming, body sweating, music playing, the sun setting behind the desert mountains amid an orange, purple and pink sky.
As darkness falls, he tosses the football to a volunteer coach and sneaks a glance at his watch. He has an early workout in the morning and another full day ahead. Still, he doesn’t want to leave.
He’s having too much fun.
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a national freelance writer and an assistant professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia.
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