Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020 | 9 a.m.
Darren Waller knew he was moving to one of world’s great tourist destinations. He was more than familiar with the bright lights and unlimited entertainment options of the Strip.
But after a few weeks in Las Vegas in March, the Raiders’ tight end realized there was more in his new hometown. Our community was something special.
“Meeting random people, they were so nice and welcoming,” he said. “I was really impressed with how nice the neighborhoods are. You really don’t think those things would exist here. You really can live here and make a nice home. After two weeks, I realized I could see myself here for a long time.”
Waller wants to do his part to make his new home even better — and through more than scoring touchdowns for the Raiders, who open the season Sunday at the Carolina Panthers.
A recovering drug addict, Waller is determined to share his experiences with young adults to help keep them clean and sober. Not only did Las Vegas get Waller, one of the game’s top tight ends, it is also getting the Darren Waller Foundation to assist youths in avoiding and overcoming drug and alcohol addiction.
“(I tell) these kids that there are other ways to have fun and have peace in your life. You don’t have to use drugs or alcohol,” Waller said.
It’s never too early to reach out to a teenager.
Waller’s dependency on drugs started during his sophomore year in high school when he was 15. He was undersized and didn’t have many friends, and using drugs brought him a certain level of comfort. Around the same time, he hit a growth spurt and became one of Georgia’s top high school players.
“I thought using drugs had something to do with it,” he admits. “It was part of the recipe I needed for my life to move on. I was going to great lengths to defend my habit.”
Despite a pair of drug suspensions at Georgia Tech, it was tough for professional teams to ignore his potential, especially when looking at his measurables: 6-foot-6, 255 pounds with 4.46 speed in the 40-yard dash. And he was peaking at the right time, having caught five passes for 114 yards and a touchdown in the Orange Bowl.
The Baltimore Ravens took him in the sixth round of the 2015 draft and he played 18 games over his initial two seasons. It could have been more, but he served a four-game suspension for marijuana use.
That was just the beginning of his troubles.
He was exhausted with the demands of football and looking for a way out, which included getting high on a daily basis. He was indifferent to the consequences, using opiates, pills, cocaine or “whatever I could get my hands on.” In June 2017, he was suspended for a year for again violating the league’s substance abuse rules.
On Oct. 11, 2017, it all changed. He overdosed in his Jeep and almost died.
“That was enough for me to realize things were slipping away. I was in bad shape. That day was the turning point,” he said.
Getting clean isn’t easy for any addict. There are moments of self-doubt and hopelessness. But there’s also plenty of support, whether it’s from a recovery group or family and friends. For Waller, some of his support came from the confidence the Raiders had in him when they signed him off Baltimore’s practice squad in 2018.
It was a risk that proved to be beneficial.
Waller had a breakthrough season in 2019 with 90 receptions for 1,145 yards in reaching the Pro Bowl. They Raiders, so confident in him as a person and player, signed him to a three-year, $27 million contract.
“They had every reason to be skeptical of me and treat me as my past deserves,” Waller said. “But they had faith in me and who I could become. ... I don’t want to let people down because they care so much about me.”
Raiders general manager Mike Mayock last month said of Waller: “I just see a guy that’s growing into not just a helluva football player but, more importantly even, a better person.”
The foundation is more than his way of giving back. It’s also part of his recovery. If a football star has a weakness and is willing to ask for help, there’s no shame in a young adult doing the same. Waller stresses that he’s there to listen and not talk down to anyone.
After all, he knows the feeling of having few friends and using drugs as an escape.
“As soon as I got clean it was in my mind to give back,” he said. “You try to leave the world a better place than you found it.”
The foundation has many layers of resources, whether it’s a visit to a school or community center from Waller, or online forums he hosts where youths can come together to encourage each other. He will stress being accepting of others, exercising self control, living with resilience, embracing hope and more. His prerecorded “Wall Talks” will be archived online and distributed to schools and church groups.
And by 2022, the foundation says it will provide financial resources for families who can’t afford adequate treatment for their child’s addiction. The inaugural “Beyond the Wall” fundraising event is 6:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at DragonRidge Country Club.
Waller knows he’s fortunate. Not only did he get into recovery, he’s been able to thrive in the NFL. But his work is just getting started. The recovery story won’t be complete until there are success stories of young adults being saved because of his foundation's efforts.
“This is the best thing I can do to service other people,” he said.