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Darren Waller could sense his star beginning to rise last August, when his journey from drug and alcohol addiction to sobriety, and ultimately the NFL’s Raiders, was chronicled on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”
Selected by Baltimore in the sixth round of the 2015 draft, Waller was suspended from the Ravens due to the substance abuse that has plagued him since his teens. After a near-death experience with Baltimore where he overdosed in his car, he underwent intense therapy, returned to the NFL in 2018 and worked hard to carve out a role to keep the comeback alive, which fans of “Hard Knocks” caught a glimpse of.
Yet, it’s when Waller made the team and started thriving for the Raiders that he began to see the impact his personal journey was having on people.
“People would DM me and they would be like, ‘I got clean because of you’ or ‘What can I do? What can be my first steps back?’ that kind of stuff,” Waller told Yahoo Sports in a recent phone conversation. “It was a bit overwhelming to me … like, it was definitely a positive that people would look to me and want that but at first I was like, ‘Wow, you know, I’m just trying to not necessarily just keep my head above water but I’m just working my own program out. I don’t really consider myself the wisest by any means.’”
Waller, 28, says those messages also helped him stay on his Ps and Qs in regard to his recovery, just so he wouldn’t be “giving people lip service.” He responded to fans when he could, stressing the importance of getting out of the denial stage, allowing others to help and embrace the opportunity in front of them to change their lives.
Using those very same tools, Waller thrived with the Raiders last season, catching 90 passes for 1,145 yards and earning a four-year, $29.8 million contract extension last October.
Using his platform for a greater purpose
Along the way something else happened, says Waller, who recently celebrated being clean for 37 months. A call to action was spurred, one that was driven from a conversation with his best friend, Stephen Fowler.
“He was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to start thinking about what you’re going to do for people now,’” Waller recalled. “Because before, I was always about me and what I could gain when I was getting high. But now it’s like, OK, I feel like I’m in this position where people are looking to me and people are inspired by me. [I’m asking] how can I really use this platform?”
So once the Raiders’ 2019 season ended and the team moved to Nevada, Waller came up with his answer: The Darren Waller Foundation, a charity whose purpose is to help Las Vegas youth avoid and/or overcome addiction to drugs and alcohol, and support them and their families during their recovery and treatment.
“I know there are a lot of Darren Wallers out there, in the fact that they’re struggling to fit in, struggling to find their worth and they may be looking for it in other people,” Waller said. “I just want my legacy to be that I did everything I could to inform them and to let them know that there are other options than the options that I took and so many of us take.”
Waller, after all, knows firsthand how difficult the journey is. It often starts with one’s self, and requires deep, honest introspection about the true cause of the addiction, which for him was feeling alienated growing up in suburban Atlanta, “not Black enough” — his words, which he has elaborated on before with The Athletic’s Dan Pompei — and just not enough, period.
“And I felt like I had to do so many different things to impress people, to be approved because I was craving that, and then I found drugs and alcohol,” Waller explained. “I mean, it was like a double-edged sword — it would help me create relationships, help me be around people and they would see me as cool, but it would also numb me to everything that I was feeling and anything that was racing in my mind, and I just kind of ran with that.”
That is, until rehab helped him realize that he didn’t need drugs and alcohol to get through life, and that a more fulfilling existence remained on the other side.
“I had no idea that my life could have more purpose, more meaning, and I could impact people in a greater way once I could get out of the self-centered nature of how I was using,” Waller said. “And once I was able to do and go to rehab and build a new mental foundation, spiritual foundation, that’s when everything really turned around for me.”
As such, Waller hopes his inaugural “Beyond the Wall” charity event, which will take place Sept. 28 at Dragon Ridge Country Club in Las Vegas, will serve as the jumping off point for the foundation.
“This gala is really just to get people excited, get people on board and to really inform them on what kind of impact I want to have on the community,” Waller said.
Becoming a walking billboard for recovery
Waller wants to do more, too. He’d like to jump-start an online safe space for young people who are struggling with addiction — “the internet can be a pretty savage place,” he said — and he’s interested in forming student awareness campaigns about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and to one day help provide funding for treatment for those who need help.
“I was able to get treatment at an outstanding facility from the league, and … I want to be able to help people go to a facility that maybe they couldn’t afford, maybe they didn’t have access to because of where they live,” Waller said.
Waller, one of the league’s most dynamic pass-catching tight ends, also knows that one way he can continue to make a big impact is by being a walking billboard for recovery through his stellar play on the field.
“If my play inspires them, then I want to go down as the best player I could possibly be because it would symbolize that no matter where you’ve been, no matter where you may have slipped up, that you could do better and you can reach your fullest potential,” Waller said.
To do that, however, he also understands that he must keep walking the walk with his own sobriety, which requires a diligent, one-day-at-a-time approach.
“I’m big on meetings and stuff like that, and you hear about people in there who have decades of clean time, decades of recovery,” Waller said. “But then it’s like one morning — say you haven’t been on top of your spiritual day-to-day — and one slipup, one trigger could send you down a road and that could sabotage you and everything that you’ve ever done. So it really is a daily recommitment, a daily affirmation that this is what I’m going to continue to do.”
One he’s made for himself, and also others.
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