DAR­REN WALLER, A COME­BACK STORY

How the tight end is giv­ing thanks for his sec­ond chance

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - SPORTS - By Jerry McDon­ald

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.

AJ MAST — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The Raiders’ Dar­ren Waller be­came a sud­den star this sea­son and one of the best tight ends in the league.

JANE TYSKA — BAY AREA NEWS GROUP

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).

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