To many who knew him in his college days, Darren Waller had the ideal life: a star football player at Georgia Tech who had caught the eye of NFL scouts, he seemed predestined for a picture-perfect future. However, beneath this glossy veneer was someone who was struggling with opioid use, whose self-confidence was flagging, and whose passion for the game he had loved since he was a boy was evaporating. Two suspensions and several years later, this culminated in a near-fatal overdose in August 2017 that would prove to be game-changing.

Now four and a half years into recovery, Darren has started a foundation to help youth struggling with addiction, has helped a teammate into recovery and looks back on his past with gratitude and without shame. Join Elizabeth as she speaks with Darren about the value of honesty in recovery, the importance of humility, and why he does not wish to shut the door on his past, but rather, sees it as the greatest possession he has.

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Episode transcript

Elizabeth Vargas:

Darren Waller, welcome to Heart of the Matter. It’s great to have you here.

Darren Waller:

It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Oh my gosh. I’m a huge football fan, like feels like the rest of the country is. Having you on, one of the few NFL players in recovery who’s really been public about it and still having an amazing, incredible career and really paying it forward, I’m really, really excited to have you on. First of all, I was interested when I was reading the background of your story, that you started using substances when you were just 15 years old, still in high school. Because you said you were anxious and isolated and … But I was very struck by this, you didn’t feel Black enough, you didn’t feel white enough, and you didn’t feel cool enough. And as I look at you right now, I’m like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” But tell me about that.

Darren Waller:

I mean, I grew up in Acworth, Georgia. It’s a suburb of Atlanta. We moved there. The first friends I made in my neighborhood were white, but I mean, it was really just because they were doing the same things that I like to do outside. So I was just hanging out with them and that’s who I just roll with most of the time. People that look like me just, I mean, we were so trained and it’s passed down to generations to have a disdain for each other in some way. And it’s just weird like, “Why are you hanging around them?”

Everything I was doing was so different. I was just into different things. I talked different than most Black kids, Black people. I talked too proper. I dressed different. I automatically assumed that I was doing something wrong. When really the whole time, it was me being different was what was unique about me and what was going to set me apart from people. But I couldn’t see it that way as a five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10-year-old. And then through high school. It was just – I want to fit in, do what everybody else is doing. And I couldn’t find a way to fit in to save my life.

Elizabeth Vargas:

That’s a very common thing for kids. They just want to be like everybody else. They’re not saying, “Hey, I’m unique and I’m special and I’m different this way.” They just want to be like everybody else. So how did that feeling like you never fit in, how did that lead you to pick up a substance at the really young age of 15 years old?

Darren Waller:

Just because there wasn’t really much working out. I mean, I was always, “I’m never going to do drugs or alcohol.” But then the way it was presented, it was presented in a way that it’ll make me feel good. And I was like, “I would like to feel good. I don’t think I feel good most of the time.” And it was also a way for me to be accepted by people that were considered cooler than I was. Then the feeling that it gave me once I did it, all those things together was the beginning of my journey.

Elizabeth Vargas:

What was it that you took?

Darren Waller:

It was opiates, hydrocodone, oxycodone was the beginning, more of those pills. Then higher dosages of those.

Elizabeth Vargas:

How did you get prescription pain pills? As a kid, how did you get those?

Darren Waller:

My friends had them in their parents’ medicine cabinets. I was smart as a kid and very aware and very good at manipulating things. So I could see somebody with a cast on and I could go up to them and talk to them without anybody seeing me and being like, “I’ll pay you for these. You could put them in your mailbox or we could figure something out.” Anytime I would go to somebody’s house, I would raid their medicine cabinet. I’ll say, “I’m going to the bathroom.” And I’d go to the medicine cabinet. And if you had something, cough syrup, pills, anything, I’m snatching it.

Elizabeth Vargas:

But you didn’t drink or did you?

Darren Waller:

I started drinking probably the end of my junior year. I started smoking weed when I started drinking, too.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Okay. And in high school, you joined the football team. As you said, you grew up in Georgia. Football is king in the south. And you said that you joined the football team as a way to be cool and fit in.

Darren Waller:

I’ve actually loved football since I was four years old, but eventually it became a people pleasing tool just because I could see like, “Well, if I’m good at football, they’ll always accept me.” So I would just use it as that and the joy of the game evaporated as I made it what it was. By the end of being in high school, I didn’t really enjoy it that much because it just … When you play the game of pleasing people, you could never win. There’s no end. There’s always going to be more people to impress and there’s seven billion people in the world. It just became kind of eh, by the time I went off college.

Elizabeth Vargas:

You went to college, Georgia Tech?

Darren Waller:

Yep. Georgia Tech.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Full scholarship?

Darren Waller:

Yes.

Elizabeth Vargas:

You were obviously super good even then. Did you develop a love for the sport even playing for Georgia Tech?

Darren Waller:

No. I hated it more and more as I went through college. Then even my first few years in the league up until I got suspended for a year. There wasn’t much joy in it. It was just more anxiety and fear of failure and failure and getting in trouble.

Elizabeth Vargas:

We’ve had a couple other professional athletes on the podcast who have dealt with addiction and were able to take substances and compete at an incredibly high level. How did you do that? I mean, you went from high school to a huge D1 college on a full scholarship and then get drafted into the NFL, to the Baltimore Ravens. I mean, how did you perform at such a high level while you were doing these drugs?

Darren Waller:

I mean, I feel it’s mostly God-given ability. Then when I was there in the building, I would practice with pretty good effort. I would know the plays, I would know what to do, and could make things happen off of that. But I mean, on the back end, when it came to things to do outside the building, taking care of my body and doing extra field studies and stuff like that, I never really did any of that. So that’s why I was like – I could do good at times, I could do some, have some great flashes, but as far as overall consistency, I just wasn’t investing enough just because I was investing in my addiction.

Elizabeth Vargas:

You once said that you would get up early in the morning and use and then you would go to practice and then you would come home and use more. Is that really how it happened?

Darren Waller:

Yeah. I mean any gap in the day that I had, I would take advantage of to go back to my dorm or go meet somebody where they were at or figure out whatever the easiest way for me to do that and still be where I had to be on time. That was my focus.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Did any of your teammates or your coaches notice this? Did anybody say, “Hey, this isn’t good”?

Darren Waller:

I mean, the teammates I was rolling with were doing the same things I was doing. So it wasn’t really a problem to them.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Holy cow.

Darren Waller:

I mean, like I said, as far as manipulating, I’m a master at going somewhere and making it seem everything’s great and that I can be respectful and have a smile on my face and tell or crack a joke and things like that. So nobody could ever pick up or have a sense of what I was doing. I’m sure, I smelled like alcohol a good bit of the time. But they weren’t seeing that as a problem because a lot of other dudes were doing the same thing.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Is there enough monitoring in the NFL players who might be abusing drugs or alcohol, do you think?

Darren Waller:

I mean, they have a drug program, but if you’re not in the drug program, you only have to pass one drug test a year. And it’s like a window between April and August. If you pass that test, there’s no other tests for you to take, so you can really just do whatever you want. I mean, nobody’s really monitoring anybody on a day-to-day basis. It’s really just when you get in trouble, then they punish you or then they offer something, but there’s no monitoring.

Elizabeth Vargas:

What about your mom and dad? Could they see that you were in trouble or were you able to hide that from them, too?

Darren Waller:

I mean, they knew that I was smoking and drinking and stuff, but they didn’t know the frequency at which I was using and mixing all other types of stuff. And doing it as far as to escape and everything because as far as everybody else was concerned, on paper, I had a great life and everything looked like I should be enjoying it and loving it, but it wasn’t the case.

Elizabeth Vargas:

I mean, I felt the same way when I was in the grip of my addiction to alcohol. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt so lonely in my whole life than during that time period. Mostly because you’re putting up this complete front. I’m pretending to be fine when I don’t feel fine. And I’m pretending I’m not drinking when in fact, I’m secretly drinking. And I’m pretending I’m confident when I’m anxious as hell. I mean, I see you nodding. Do you feel the same way?

Darren Waller:

Yeah, that’s exactly it. I mean, from all the frat parties and bars and all this other stuff that we used to go do, there’d always be a ton of people around, but I never felt connected to any of them. And it’s just even with all my guys in college that I roll with and stuff, as far as a day-to-day basis and really considering somebody a friend, I don’t keep any of them because it was just that was what our connection was … they would just help me escape my reality for a little bit.

Elizabeth Vargas:

I’m always struck by the fact that, as you said, anybody from the outside looking in thinks, “My God, what a blessed, amazing life you’re having.” And yet you, at the center of it all, are thinking, “I’m really miserable and I want to numb myself.” It just goes to show you just can’t always tell what somebody might be feeling.

Darren Waller:

Never know.

Elizabeth Vargas:

So you ended up getting suspended for four games in 2016 because you tested positive for drugs?

Darren Waller:

I was suspended twice in the league. I got suspended twice in college. Yeah.

Elizabeth Vargas:

And still nobody came to you and said, “Hey, you need help? You want to go someplace and get help,” even after the suspensions?

Darren Waller:

People were doing that. They sent me to a couple outpatient programs in college. Like I said, master manipulator, I could tell anybody what they wanted to hear and be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But just go do exactly what I wanted to do. Same thing in the league, nobody was going to tell me that I wasn’t going to use. I came into the league in the drug program and people knew I was in the drug program. So I was like, “I’m not hanging out with none of y’all.” So I was just by myself. I had one teammate that I would hang out with and that was it, in Baltimore.

So people were trying tell me like, “Hey, what are we doing? Snap out of it.” People, they don’t really have any idea about what addiction is. They’ll be like, “Snap out it.” My coach in Baltimore was like, “You’re not mentally tough.” I’m just like, “Screw you, dude. There’s no reason for me to associate with you anymore if it’s just a put down thing.” It was a wide range of things. Most people were trying to support me. A lot of people that were maybe a little bit ignorant how addiction works, but they were really trying to help and try to see me be the best version of myself. But when you’re in that, you just see everybody as a threat.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Pro tip, “snap out of it” isn’t what works when somebody’s struggling with substance use disorder. Everything changed for you on August 11, 2017, when you overdosed in your own Jeep. Tell me about that day. What happened?

Darren Waller:

I was in Baltimore. I was supposed to be moving out of my apartment because I was two months into my suspension. I was going to be moving back to my parents’ house and I was like, “I’m just going to get high one more time while I’m here, before I go back home.” People had been telling me that in Baltimore, people had been pressing pills and putting something on to make seem like they’re the pill that you usually get, but it’s something different. It was like fentanyl. I was in the parking lot and I was going to get out and go get some food and some beer, I think, but I couldn’t get out of the car. I knew I was going to fall out or throw up everywhere. So I just stayed in the car and just had the car off and then I passed out in the car.

It was like I just laid my head to the side and just woke up and it was nighttime. And I was covered in the biggest beads of sweat I’ve ever seen. It felt it was just the craziest experience ever. I’m just lucky to be alive and went home. I knew then, I was like, “I’m not doing it. I’m not doing these pills anymore.” That was enough for me to be like, I’m not doing pills anymore. I wasn’t sold on not drinking yet because it’s socially acceptable or whatever. But that time, I was like, “I’m definitely not doing pills anymore.” And I stopped smoking weed before that experience because weed was just making me … I was already paranoid at that time, but weed was making me extremely paranoid so that’s why I stopped smoking weed. That was enough for me to put the pills down.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Do you know how lucky you are? I mean, we know that the overdose rates for opioids and even cocaine are way up because so many of these drugs today are now being laced with fentanyl. Fentanyl kills kids, kills people who take a drug and think it’s what they normally get but fentanyl’s been mixed into it. And you had that happen to you and managed to survive it. It’s pretty amazing.

Darren Waller:

I’m definitely lucky. That’s how I could see God and everything. Especially going through a 12-Step Program, I knew God was real. So it wasn’t finding my higher power, it was just returning and realizing. I was like, “Everything from then until now just makes too much sense. It’s all perfectly orchestrated.” So it was easier for me to see as far as spiritually.

Elizabeth Vargas:

So you went to rehab a month later. Was that the first time you went to rehab?

Darren Waller:

Yeah, it was my first time going to a rehab and being there full time.

Elizabeth Vargas:

28 days, in-patient rehab. And you said literally, you had a track change. Your life completely changed course. Partly, it was the overdose that scared you. It scared you badly, obviously. You could have died and you knew that, but what made you put everything else down? Was it that stint in rehab? Was it coming so close to dying after overdosing all by yourself, in a car where nobody could have called 911 and helped you if you had needed it? What was it that made you … I asked because there are a lot of people who go to rehab and still can’t get it. So why did it work for you on your first try?

Darren Waller:

I would just say that in that time of being scared, I was finally willing to be as vulnerable as possible or just as honest as possible. And then just being able to see how my using and some of that was linked to how I was feeling when I was a kid and things that happened up until that point and just the fact that I wasn’t willing to accept life. I wasn’t willing to be in reality. I had to change everything. I needed the instant gratification of the drugs and stuff because I always needed to be in control.

So just going there and just putting everything out on the table, being as honest as possible, just feeling how liberating it felt to be honest. Even though it was difficult. Just doing that, it taught me that I don’t need to run from uncomfortable things. I need to go through them. Because on the other side, it just feels better. And I have more self-respect, so I just stuck with it because everything that I tried was uncomfortable. So I was like, “That’s what I need to be doing.” So every step of the 12-Step Program, just continuing to be honest and go to meetings and stuff like that, it just felt like it was where I needed to be and what I needed to be doing. So I just stuck with it. And if you just do it one day at a time, like I said, it’s cliché, but …

Elizabeth Vargas:

No, it isn’t. It really isn’t.

Darren Waller:

… woke up and then your life is really different. People will start to notice. People were noticing change in me before I even noticed, honestly.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Tell me about that conversation with your mom and dad when you told them, “I need to go to rehab, I need to get help.” Was that hard?

Darren Waller:

It wasn’t really. I mean, I went to see this addiction specialist. The league suggested that I go. So I went and they were like, “you need to go to rehab immediately.” So I went home and I wasn’t really sold because I was like – my pride and everything. But told my parents, I was like, “They say I need to go to rehab.” And then my parents were like, “It’s probably smart.” And then they were sharing my family history as far as there’s a lot of addiction and a lot of alcoholism on both sides of the family. It’s more so at that point – it was having the power to be different, start something new within my family, generational curses being broken type of thing. So that was enough for me to take it a little more seriously. Because up until that point in my life, I was just – I just felt I was floating through it. There wasn’t any kind of purpose or meaning to it. But that right there was just the first injection of any kind of meaning or purpose. Like, “My family’s dying because of this. I could potentially be someone that switches this and essentially preserves life.”

Elizabeth Vargas:

So you get out of rehab, you go to meetings. Do you go to meetings every day?

Darren Waller:

I don’t go to meetings every day, but I’m going to two to three a week, at least.

Elizabeth Vargas:

But in the months that you get out of rehab before you went back to football, at that point, you were working on your work recovery. You got a job at a grocery store. And you say, actually, and this is what’s so surprising because somebody might say, “Oh my God, look how far he’s fallen. He used to be the star player, a big star in Georgia Tech. Drafted at the Baltimore Ravens. He’s working at a grocery store.” And yet you say you were the happiest you’ve ever been.

Darren Waller:

Yeah. I mean, just because I was doing the work in my recovery and at my job. I just respected myself more and I was breaking out of my lines. I was breaking out of the manipulation and just the – my traits that built on my character over that long period of time. I was like, “I don’t have to perform for all these people. I can just be me and just continue to better myself.” And honestly, looking back, I just see that as an experience where my humility needed to be developed in order for me to handle success well, so I look back on that experience. Because now it’s a lot of things that may give people a big head or make them be full of themselves. I don’t know, I just don’t feel that – I mean, I haven’t always been on top of things. I haven’t always been great. I’m not going to act like my shit don’t stink. You know what I’m saying here?

Elizabeth Vargas:

Yeah, I do. So at some point, you finally go back to the Baltimore Ravens and you’re on the practice team because your spot on the regular main team has been taken by somebody else.

Darren Waller:

Essentially.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Some people might say, “I’m too good for this,” or, “I don’t want to do this,” or, “That’s humiliating to go to the practice team.” You didn’t.

Darren Waller:

I mean, I got cut, put on practice squad and then I mean, just going through the Sprouts experience.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Sprouts is the grocery store you worked in?

Darren Waller:

Yeah. And then working through the 12-Steps, I mean, I want to say, it teaches service and the humility part as well. There’s nothing flashy about the practice squad, but I was able to change my perspective on things. Didn’t always have to be finding what’s wrong with something or finding the bad in something. I always have power in my perspective. So I could see it as: our defense is the number one defense in the league. What better barometer for me than to practice against them on a daily basis? And if I do well there, then I know that if I don’t get an opportunity to play again, it’s not because I wasn’t ready, so.

Elizabeth Vargas:

So you weren’t feeling remorse, you weren’t feeling like, “I’m too good for this.” You weren’t feeling humiliated. You just went there and did your very best?

Darren Waller:

Yeah.

Elizabeth Vargas:

And guess what? Jon Gruden, who was then the coach of the Raiders, noticed you, picked you up, and said about you, you were “the best player he’s ever coached.” You went on to the Raiders where you did extraordinarily well. I mean, holy cow, what a career. Can you believe sometimes that you’ve clawed your way back up to the very pinnacle of the NFL?

Darren Waller:

I mean, I still haven’t really wrapped my mind it around everything and I don’t think I ever will, to be honest. I mean, I’m grateful to be here, for sure. Grateful to have an impact on people, grateful to just be working towards my potential and then not just potential being like, “You could be this.” But me actually working towards it and walking in it feels pretty good.

Elizabeth Vargas:

How do you approach it differently now? How do you approach football differently? How do you approach life differently now that you’re in recovery?

Darren Waller:

It’s just not about pleasing people anymore. It’s about being as present to the moment as possible and just connecting to the joy that’s there and anything. Not trying to figure out what’s wrong, but being intentional with my gratitude, doing my best effort in everything that I do. Just trying to be fully present as possible. Because a lot of times, I’m having shame or guilt over the past or I’m trying to think and analyze and arrange things down the road that aren’t even here yet. So as present as I can stay to the moment, just enhances the quality of my life. I’m able to be who I am and the different things I do.

Elizabeth Vargas:

You don’t feel any more shame and guilt now over your past, do you? Or is that something that still raises its head sometimes?

Darren Waller:

No, I don’t. It’s kind of like in the big book, it says along the lines of “you no longer wish to shut the door on our past.” It’s like another part where your dark past is the greatest possession that you have. So it’s just – I see it like that – my story is helping people now and it’s really what God is using for me to leave a legacy in the world, I guess.

Elizabeth Vargas:

You recently celebrated four years of sobriety. Actually, it’s what? About six months ago?

Darren Waller:

Yeah. It’s four-and-a-half years now.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Four-and-a-half years. But the entire team celebrated your four-year anniversary. That’s pretty cool.

Darren Waller:

That was pretty dope. I mean, I was expecting to just go through the day and maybe hit a meeting that night, but it was at the end of the day so I was ready to go home but they had that. It was pretty awesome for people to recognize that, just reflect on the journey of what it was like before, where I didn’t really have any relationships with people in the building like that. But for them to, I guess, think that much of me to have that, it’s pretty cool.

Elizabeth Vargas:

You’ve also helped a teammate of yours get sober. Tell me about that.

Darren Waller:

Maxx, I was never even with him. He got drafted in 2019, I believe, so I was already sober by then. So I was never with him when he was in his alcoholic, and stuff that. But I guess he said that he looked to me and just saw how my life turned around after I got sober and he was just willing to give it a try. I was in some of the Zoom meetings where he was first coming to meetings and getting into the world of recovery. Just trying to be there for him in that environment. I mean, you got to put the work in yourself, too. He’s done that. You see just see how serious he is on a day-to-day basis about his craft and just a sense of urgency that he works with.

Elizabeth Vargas:

You, in this past season … By the way, you guys made it to the playoffs. I mean, it was pretty incredible. You had battled an injury and you were diagnosed with COVID. But I’m curious especially with the injury, I’m sure the first thing the team doctor wants to do is prescribe you painkillers. How did you handle that given your history?

Darren Waller:

I mean, I always just come up from the jump like, “I’m not doing that.” I had a surgery on my thumb at the end of 2019. I told him, I was like, “Look, if I got to bite a towel or something, whatever, I’m not doing pain meds. I’ll do Motrin and Tylenol and stuff, but that’s pretty much it.” And they’re like, “Are you sure?” And I’m like, “Yeah.”

Elizabeth Vargas:

That’s a test. That you’ve got doctors standing in front of you saying, “Dude, you need some painkillers.” Would’ve been very easy to say, “You’re right. I just had surgery. I just had this big injury. I need to take something.” It’s something I’ve seen other people in recovery struggle with. Even people whose drug or substance of choice wasn’t Percocet or Oxycodone. People who are just alcoholics, some of them steer clear of painkillers because it’s a slippery slope.

Darren Waller:

Right. I mean, I’m willing to go through pain to preserve my recovery and my spiritual progress. If I have to be in pain, I’ll be in pain. I’ll be okay.

Elizabeth Vargas:

You also have started a foundation aimed at helping adolescents who are struggling with substance use disorder. How did you decide to do that and how does it work?

Darren Waller:

As far as the foundation, I just wanted to … I had been sharing my story in a few places, but I feel like service looks bigger on a larger scale as far as my platform is growing. So I thought the foundation was a good way to do that, to help young people. I feel there’s a lot of young people that feel like I felt. If they go to drugs and alcohol and they never come out of it, they could be robbing the world of who they really are. Because I was close to never even being in this position. Just want to share my story and my toolkit, I guess, with them. It looks like, right now, it looks like sending people to treatment. We’ve been paying for people’s 30-day stays and now we’re incorporating aftercare and sober living into it.

Elizabeth Vargas:

That’s amazing.

Darren Waller:

There are no youth centers for kids struggling with substances in Nevada. They always send them to Utah or a different state. So maybe even putting a youth center here for kids to learn about their disease, to have treatment opportunities and just to have other ways of coping like me. I learned how to meditate in rehab. I really started diving deeper into my music in rehab, things like that. So just allowing them to have a safe space.

Elizabeth Vargas:

How does meditation work for you? How long do you do it? Do you do it every day?

Darren Waller:

Yeah, I do it every day.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Wow. I try, I don’t always succeed.

Darren Waller:

When I wake up, I like to do it just in different pockets throughout the day, whether it’s … If I can find a two minute pocket, if I can find a little different three minute, five minute pockets to do it throughout the day, that works. It’s hard, I mean, if we’re busy people, it’s hard have multiple 20 minute sessions – in the morning and maybe before bed. I feel like the ones are just returning throughout the day really helps me stay present and really help teach me from worrying about trivial things.

Elizabeth Vargas:

So that’s what you do to treat the anxiety, so to speak. Because once you get sober, I mean, life still happens. And there’s pain in life and there’s discomfort in life. There’s a lot of high emotions, some of it negative in life. And when you’re not using substances, I mean, let’s get real. I mean, most people, even people who have no issues at all with addiction use alcohol to relax and to fit in in social events and that sort of thing. When you don’t have that anymore, is meditation what helps take the edge off and helps keep you centered? Or is there something else? I know you also do yoga, for example.

Darren Waller:

Yes. Prayer and meditation are the go-to for sure. Music, for me, reading, writing in a journal, yoga, even just going for a walk. There’s a lot of things that I have available to me. It’s going in meetings, it’s a therapist, it’s having a sponsor. I’m never just left to just sit here and just be idle. There’s things for me to do to keep me connected to the work that I’ve been doing for the past few years.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Your team has gone through a lot of turmoil and controversy this football season. How have you weathered your way through all of that? Especially because I know that Coach Gruden was a huge fan of yours. He was the one who spotted you on the practice field and said, “Him. We want him.”

Darren Waller:

That was tough just from dealing with the fact that some of the things that he said are unacceptable, but at the same time, like you said, a lot of love and respect for him for just giving me an opportunity. And for him speaking greatness into me when I first got to the team and I was just like – I’m just trying to keep a job and not mess this up. But he was telling me that I was going to be great and stuff. So it was tough. And then the following week, losing Henry and then other guys on the team getting hurt and then me getting hurt and then as soon I get back from being hurt, I get COVID so it’s just …

Elizabeth Vargas:

One thing after another.

Darren Waller:

I mean, that’s where meditation comes in and just having a relationship with my higher power comes in. It’s not necessarily about what happens. It’s more so the response to it and my perspective through it all. And just realizing that all of these things are really just tests to my faith or tests to what I truly believe. I can have peace through all that. You don’t really know if you have peace until things really get chaotic. So just through the work that I’ve been doing, I feel I could be a source of peace for not only guys on the team, but the coaching staff as well. It’s through all these things, we experience these emotions and we can allow ourselves to feel those emotions to validate them. But at the same time, we can allow ourselves to hurt and grieve and move on. We don’t have to be like, “I’m good now,” – we can feel those things and still move forward and give the best that we can of our ability. So just trying to work.

Elizabeth Vargas:

How did the team, as a whole, move through that whole coaching controversy? I mean, was it helpful to talk? Were people angry? Were people shocked? I mean, you said you were shocked, I’m sure, to read those emails. I’m just curious how in a mentally healthy way, yourself and as a teammate and as a team leader, helped get everybody through that?

Darren Waller:

I mean, I just try to have conversations with guys and say how I really felt. Because I feel in environments when I say how I really feel, I feel people are like, “Wow, I can say how I really feel, too.” Just from the conversation I was having with the guys. But most guys, I mean, they don’t want to show vulnerability or how they really feel because they feel like it’s a sign of weakness. Then any sign of weakness that’s shown could be taken advantage of by another player or the front office people upstairs when they’re keeping the roster together. So a lot of guys don’t want to share. There’s that, but I mean, I always try to do what I can from person to person and have a open conversation with individuals and if it’s in a group setting, so just trying to do it from there.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Did you ever talk to coach yourself?

Darren Waller:

We’ve texted through the season and stuff like that. I haven’t really had a conversation with him. He’s just not a guy that’s trying to … He’s not like one of those guys. He’s not really trying to show that emotion and you can’t really pull it out of them. You have to allow them to learn and come to that place of wanting to be vulnerable for themselves because that’s what I had to do.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Right. That’s how you recover and get better. Finally, I just wanted to … And this has nothing to do with recovery, but I’m just curious what you make as a very successful player in the NFL of the whole Brian Flores situation and his suit against the NFL. And a lot of people feel that in a league where 70% of the players are Black, why aren’t there more Black head coaches and why isn’t the Rooney Rule working? How do you feel about that?

Darren Waller:

I mean, I feel like he definitely has a legit argument because Black coaches aren’t really given those opportunities, and when they are – I mean, like Steve Wilks, they’re getting him out of there in one year. Like David Culley, they’re getting him out of there in one year. The lease is shorter. You look at it and it’s like, “Why is that?” We have to inspire change in the end zone. And we talk about the league, diversity’s at the core of the league. But it seems like some of the same thinking patterns are still being passed down from hundreds of years ago. Things have changed or freedoms have been granted to us, but it’s almost in a way it’s like a, “We want to help you succeed, but we don’t want you to succeed that much.” That’s what it’s like to me.

I wish it was different and that it could be different. And hopefully, we take the steps to have an honest evaluation of self from the higher ups in the league and the people that are cutting the checks to different teams. Hopefully, those people can get to a place where it’s like, “Maybe there is some bias here. Maybe there is some residue of not wanting them to be in charge or that they should be subordinates.” Why don’t we just get real about it and have those conversations? Because we can’t go anywhere unless we know where we’re at right now. So hopefully, those conversations happen instead of just trying to preserve self-image.

Elizabeth Vargas:

I don’t know how anybody can argue that there isn’t bias in the NFL. I mean, there are fewer Black coaches now than there were when the Rooney Rule was implemented in 2003. The text message that Brian Flores got that was mistakenly sent to him clearly shows the job interview with the Giants was a sham. I’m not even sure why he got fired from the Miami Dolphins. Didn’t he turn that team around?

Darren Waller:

Yeah. He definitely turned the team around. I mean, historically, I mean, I don’t know what goes on in that building, so who knows? It just doesn’t make sense when you look at it.

Elizabeth Vargas:

It doesn’t make sense. I mean, obviously the Rooney Rule isn’t working. Something else needs to change, doesn’t it?

Darren Waller:

Yeah. I mean, it looks like that. It’s like checking off a box, honestly, instead of realizing that – kind of like I was telling you when I got on the calls meeting with my coaches, it’s forming that relationship. And I feel like there’s a lot of coaches out there that get these jobs that are worried about themselves and boosting themselves up and their egos and just like, “I’m getting this position and I’m going to make these things happen.” When really, it’s forming relationships with players in the league with a lot of Black players. Young Black men form relationships with Black men and these Black coaches that have fought for their way to get through. So they’re going to value their position. They’re going to value those relationships. So I don’t know, but more work needs to be done.

Elizabeth Vargas:

Clearly. Well, Darren Waller, congratulations. My gosh, what a story you have. Phoenix-like rising from the ashes of a near fatal overdose, to being a star player of the NFL out there every day on the field. You’re a real inspiration. Thank you so much for joining us.

Darren Waller:

Thank you for having me. I enjoyed this.

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