DARREN WALLER, A COMEBACK STORY
How the tight end is giving thanks for his second chance
ALAMEDA >> A year ago, Darren Waller was a recovering addict who was surprised to suddenly find himself with the Raiders.
Waller is still a recovering addict. He is ready and willing to deal with that affliction for the rest of his life. Waller has also become a sudden star, one of the best tight ends in the NFL, and the owner of a three-year contract extension worth a reported $9 million per season.
With five games remaining, Waller is third among NFL tight ends in receptions with 59 for (707 yards), trailing only Zach Ertz of Philadelphia (67) and Travis Kelce of Kansas City (63).
At 6-foot-6 and 266 pounds, Waller’s physical gifts are evident and matched only by his inner resolve to work every day on conquering his demons and telling his story to help others. Years of alcohol and substance abuse began when Waller was 16 as he struggled to fit in at school.
A good student, Waller felt he was too much of a nerd to fit in with the athletes at school nor with the students in his advanced placement classes. He continued using through his college career at Georgia Tech and then as a sixth-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens.
The bottom arrived on Aug. 17, 2017, when Waller sat in his car for five hours after taking pills he later came to believe were laced with fentanyl. It was at that point he sought help. Waller has been sober ever since and tries to attend two self-help meetings per week.
“He’s been astonishing,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. “It’s been a great story for young people. I know there’s a lot of young guys out there, young people that have problems. What a source of strength.”
With the holiday season underway, and this week marking the one-year anniversary of his new lease on life with the Raiders, Waller agreed to sit down and discuss his whirlwind year:
: A year ago on Nov. 25 was the RaidersRavens game in Baltimore. Where did you watch that game?
aller: I was on the sidelines. I worked out before the game and I was in sweats on the sideline, watching the game.
: Did you know at the time the Raiders were interested? Walk me through how it happened.
aller: I had no idea. That weekend, someone had knocked off my driver’s side mirror. That Monday morning I was taking it to get it repaired. It was 8 a.m. and my agent texted me and said the Oakland Raiders are looking to claim you on their active roster. I was in shock, really. He said they’re going to want to get you on a flight in the next few hours. I had just gotten a rental car. I was staying at my dad’s sister’s in Maryland so I wasn’t paying any rent. I got them to get my car when it got repaired and I was on a flight by noon that day.
: When you were on the practice squad, had you thought about the possibility of being signed?
aller: I was thinking towards the future a little bit. It wasn’t taking up too much of my day. Just thinking about getting to a team and being reliable again. I wasn’t thinking of a big contract out of the gate or being featured. It was just getting back into a building, working my way back up, whether it was on special teams or doing anything to show I could be reliable.
: When you walked in the building, what was the vibe you were getting?
aller: They were introducing me to people they knew I would need out of the gate before we even got into the playbook. That was very welcoming to me, that they cared about me as a person. They could have just thrown that week’s install at me and said, ‘Good luck.’ We got to the football eventually but first they made sure it was a priority they were setting me up with a good area for me in my personal life.
: When you think about everything that’s happened in the past year … your production, the new contract … how do you wrap your head around it?
aller: I still don’t from time to time. Reflecting on it, you really can’t make these things up. It’s crazy. I guess it’s a product of doing the right things and that God put me in situations I think he withheld from me before because I wasn’t ready. It’s hard to think how much can happen in a year. It definitely exceeded any kind of expectations I had.
: Holidays can be difficult for recovering addicts. Did you have some Thanksgivings in your past that weren’t good?
aller: There were Thanksgivings where it was just another day for me to drink as much as I could or get really high and just eat a whole bunch of food. I wasn’t taking in the real essence of the holiday and what it really meant.
: Did you hide your problems on those holidays?
aller: I guess I never really showed it. My behavior wasn’t really off the wall or disturbing to people. Somehow I could always seemingly act normal, but I knew inside what I was doing and what I was feeling. My whole life at that point was just a complete fact of hiding things from everyone.
: Are holidays difficult for you now?
aller: Not really. It’d be nice to be with my family. My family will be in Kansas City this weekend — my sister lives in Kansas — but it’s not that tough anymore. Now I have reasons why I’m living the way I’m living. To go back to what I was doing, I’d go back to misery and struggle and confusion. I don’t want to go back to that. It’s not really hard for me.
: How did you determine it was time to get help?
aller: When I overdosed in my car, that was enough at that point for me to say, OK, it’s time to try something different, something new. It almost took death for me to say, now is a good time for me to change.
: You make this look easy and I know it’s not … is it still a daily struggle? Do you have urges to drink or use?
aller: The urges to use are not there. But sometimes the loneliness can be there, the battles with confidence can be there. Just attacking the day with gratitude, having the right perspective and not having the perspective of complaining or being a victim. It can be hard. It’s always a battle. But the urges to use or to go back to that aren’t there anymore and I’m grateful for that. My daily life is about keeping my mind sharp and staying upbeat and staying positive.
: Do you go to meetings now to support others that are there or do they still help you?
aller: It’s both. I’ll never know what I can say to someone there, or just saying hello to someone can do for them. There’s always someone I’ve never met before or someone that’s new that says something that resonates with me that I may not have been cognizant of. It’s a mixture of both. It’s a community of helping each other out.
: You’ve been sober since August of 2017 … when you think about it’s only been two years into the rest of your life … so it’s something you’ve got to maintain, isn’t it?
aller: It’s day to day. There’s a number of people I’ve met in meetings, they’ve had 27 years of recovery and are starting over and picked up the white chip. You can’t ever feel too good about it. You’re not immune to your life falling apart again and going back to it. I could have some tragedies hit me. There could be storms down the road I don’t know about that could hit me and I don’t know how I’d react to it. So it is possible for me to go back. So it’s about staying up on it and not feeling, like, ‘I got this. This is under control.’
: What does it feel like to know you’ve helped somebody with an addiction?
aller: It makes me feel like I’m fulfilling my greatest purpose here on earth. That’s the greatest feeling I can get, when someone reaches out and says, ‘I wanted to get clean because of you.’ That’s happened a couple of times and it just made me freeze and think about what I really value on a day to day basis isn’t as important as impacting the life of one other person. That’s the greatest feeling I could get.
: What advice to you give to people in a similar situation?
aller: I would say, no one else around you is going to be able to help you unless you’re willing to help yourself. You have to want better for yourself. You deserve a life that’s better for you, satisfying, that has joy in it. It will hurt in the beginning, but that pain will turn into satisfaction. You’ll respect yourself more and everything you do down the road will align more with that respect you have
for yourself. If you’re living the way I was living, there’s not a lot of self-respect going on there.
: What does the contract extension represent to you?
aller: It represents that people can see I’m capable of being consistent over time. We can be irresponsible people, be people that can’t be relied on, but turn that around and flip the script and be people that can be relied upon, give their best effort and people will know where their heart is at.
: What takes up your spare time now that you’re doing positive things? I know music is important to you…
aller: Reading, really. Right now, there’s not too much time outside of that. Just talking on the phone to friends and family more than I ever have before. Listening to podcasts, things that keep my mind and my spirit full. I’m not really watching as much TV. I’m trying to control everything that I’m consuming where almost all of it is about my improvement.
The Raiders’ Darren Waller became a sudden star this season and one of the best tight ends in the league.
With five games remaining, the Raiders’ Darren Waller is third among tight ends in receptions with 59for (707yards), trailing only Zach Ertz of Philadelphia (67) and Travis Kelce of Kansas City (63).