They say all addiction stems from trauma. For Darren Waller, it’s the mindset he carried of having to constantly prove himself to those around him, even if it meant going down the wrong path. At 16, he started smoking, drinking, and doing drugs. In this episode, he joins Tim Westbrook to share with us his comeback story, his journey to recovery, and how he found peace and purpose in his life. Darren takes us through the highs and lows in his life—how he went from being arrested, getting suspended in college and NFL (including a yearlong ban in 2017), going to rehab, and working at Sprouts to going back to the practice squad to back to back 1,000-yard seasons, the Pro Bowl, and becoming the all-time single-season record holder for receptions in a season in Raiders history. Follow along this conversation to learn how Darren pulled himself back from the dark place he found himself in, got comfortable with the uncomfortable road to sobriety, and took off the mask that has been keeping him from truly living life as it should be.
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Get Comfortably Uncomfortable: Coming Back From Addiction To A Season Record Holder With Darren Waller
We started this show because there’s so much misinformation about addiction treatment, mental illness and recovery in general. There’s so much more to recovery than going to inpatient treatment, seeing a therapist and going to twelve–step meetings. Those things are important and AA saved my life. However, to find long-term recovery and live happy, joyous and free, there’s a lot more to it than just stopping the drinking, stopping the drugs or stopping any addictive behavior for that matter. To live a new life, a person needs to learn new healthy lifestyle habits. Those are the types of things that we talk about here on this show. We talk about addiction treatment, recovery, twelve steps and we bring guests on the show that have gone through recovery and have made it out the other side.
I’m here with Las Vegas Raiders, Darren Waller, to talk about his struggles with addiction along with his comeback story. Darren Waller was born in Landover, Maryland and raised in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. He was involved in a lot as a kid including football, basketball, baseball and tennis. He graduated from North Cobb High School in 2011 and earned a Business Degree from Georgia Tech in 2014. He was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens as a wide receiver in the 6th round of the 2015 NFL draft. He went from being arrested three times, suspended multiple times in college and the NFL, which included a one-year long ban in 2017.Once you get used to drugs, you build up tolerance and stamina. Click To Tweet
He got cut. He went to rehab and after that got a job working at Sprouts, the grocery store. He was back on the practice field and that led to back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, the Pro Bowl and an all-time single season record holder for receptions in a season in Raiders history. I’m so grateful and excited to have Darren here with me on the show to learn his comeback story. We’re going to talk about his journey to find recovery, how he found peace, his purpose in life and how his messy life became his message. Darren, welcome to the show. I’m grateful to have you here.
Thank you for having me. I love what you’re doing.
Shout out to Donny Starkins. Donny Starkins is a good friend of mine and Donny introduced us. He thought we might be a good fit. We’re here, I’m super excited and I know a lot of people out there are excited to know your story. What happened? First, tell me what it was like for you growing up as a kid in Maryland. You grew up in Maryland. You grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.
I was born in Maryland but when I was a baby, we moved to Colorado for a couple of years but all I remember is growing up in Georgia. We got there when I was five years old. Growing up there for me was great on paper. I had both my parents, they’re still together to this day, a great neighborhood. I had an older sister. I never experienced any kind of violence, trauma or negativity from my parents. They were always encouraging and challenging us to be great without being overbearing. They let us try new things and experiment. I went to good schools. The thing that was tough for me was I started going out, hanging out with the kids in my neighborhood because they were doing the things I like to do. They all happened to be white but they were my friends because they were cool and I liked hanging out with them.
You didn’t grow up in a broken household, homeless or halfway on the street. You grew up in a normal house. Your parents are still married and you had one sibling?
Yes. I had an older sister.
Tell me what happened from there.
These are great kids in my neighborhood that I was hanging out with. The thing that came from it was all the kids that looked like me, other black kids like me, I started getting made fun of for it. They were telling me I wasn’t black enough and that I was white. Those things hurt me from elementary school. It made me think that something was wrong with me by the way that I acted or the people that I associated with. From then on, it became tough for me to view myself without thinking something was wrong with me. That carried on up into middle school. You see the guys that were popular with the girls and everyone wanted to hang around and be around them. They were the complete opposite of me. They were loud and bravado type, try to be cool and impose their will, whereas me I was quiet, sensitive, I cared a lot about what people thought. I felt I had to be like those guys and be the complete opposite of me in order to be accepted.
When did you first realize that you were being treated differently by other people? You grow up and you have other kids that “look like you.” They were making fun of you and telling you that you weren’t black enough and that you were too white. That’s traumatic.
That was the end of elementary school, at the beginning of middle school, it was that early 9, 10, 11 years old when I was already feeling hurt by it.
They say all addiction stems from trauma. I can only imagine how you must have felt as a 9–year–old kid, 10–year–old kid and being made fun of that.
I carry that mindset all the way through college and even into the NFL, I still felt myself having to do these outlandish things to impress other people or to be accepted by other people. After doing the work, I traced it all the way back to when I was little and the pain that I felt from that, I still was trying to overcompensate for several years down the road.
You clearly played sports from a young age. Were you always one of the top players on any of the teams that you ever played?
I was good out of the gate. I started when I was four and I was naturally good at it, all the sports I played. That continued all the way through middle school. Once we hit high school, people started growing a lot faster than I did. I wasn’t always bigger than everyone else. There was 9th grade and 10th grade year, I was the smallest person on every team that I played on. These guys are getting bigger and hitting the weights. I was riding the bench on the football my freshman year. When I did get out there, I would get hurt because I was frail physically so I had a lot of injuries. People will make fun of me, I always had a cast on or I wasn’t built for this.
I had a coach who told me I should play a non-contact sport because I couldn’t stay healthy and I was small. That was 9th and 10th-grade year. At that time, I was already feeling down about myself. Being in the South that if I played football and was good at football, that would be my way to impress people. They would accept me. The fact that football wasn’t going well or other sports for that matter, it was like, “I don’t feel like I have anything else to offer. I don’t have anything else to get these people to like me or approve of me.”
Around that time when I was fifteen, my sophomore year, I remember I had friends, I was over at their house and they pulled some pills out of their parents’ medicine cabinet. They were like, “Try this, it’ll make you feel good.” At that time, I remember I was like, “I’m not going to drink or do drugs.” At that time, I was like, “I don’t feel good. I would like to feel good.” I tried it and from that time I knew that was what I wanted to do or that was how I wanted to feel. It started from there. I probably started smoking and drinking when I was sixteen.
To your point, it’s a solution to the pain. You just wanted to feel better.
It started every now and then with the pills and then it was every weekend then it was during the week, a couple of days because I was good at school and I had a high GPA so I could do these things and get away with it without it hurting my performance. As I continue to do that, it became almost every other day. At that time, it was weird because once I started doing drugs, my life got better in a weird way. I started growing. With growing, there became a spot on the football team and the basketball team. With being a main player on those teams, people want to be my friend and girls like to hang around me. I was thinking, “All this started because I started doing drugs.” Doing the drugs, it eased my anxiety and made me feel calmer but it also could be in friend groups that I wanted to be with cool people. I was like, “It’s making my life so much better ever since I started doing drugs. I’m never going to give this up. This is how I’m going to live life.”
You said that you had a bunch of injuries. Were you not playing sports for a couple of years? Did you take a break around 15, 16 years old?
When I was fifteen, my second year, I had a lingering elbow injury from baseball. I played 1 or 2 games of football and it made my elbow that much worse. I had to have surgery on it. I was out for around nine months. I was out for a good amount of time from that injury. I didn’t have much to do. That’s what led me around that crowd and got me into experimenting with drugs. I was out. I had a cast on for a long time, a sling, this thing on my elbow. I felt down about myself at that time.
You started experimenting with drugs. When were you cleared to get back on the field and start playing again?
The spring of summer right before going into my junior season. In that time, I had a crazy growth where I went from 5’9” to 6’2” over the summer. I came back. That’s what made things different. It gave me opportunities. They saw me and my new stature and the coaches wanted to put me in. I started lifting. By the time I got healthy again, I was so fed with people saying I was weak and frail. I went to one of the strength coaches that were there. He helped me with all my form and was pushing me. I was getting stronger and was able to handle the beating of playing football and multiple sports on top of that. By that time, I was ready. At the time, drugs were my friend. The anxiety was subsiding long enough for me to go out there and perform and not care about what people thought or so I thought at the time. I thought that I had the recipe for success at that point. No one was going to stop me or anything.
I also remember my junior year, I got kicked off the basketball team. That was one of the first consequences from using that stuff because there was a situation where I was high at the time but there are these guys on my football team that wanted to throw rocks and bust people’s windows out. I was like, “I’ll drive for you all because I wanted to be a part of that.” They looked at me like, “He’s cool. He was the getaway driver.” It was in the neighborhood next to my parent’s neighborhood, which is a great plan of action. While they were doing it, I was in the street, waiting. Somebody got my license plate and gave it to the police.
I remember coming home one day from basketball practice and my parents were like, “The police came by today looking for you. You need to turn yourself in.” I remember I was like, “Dang,” at first but after that, it was like, “People are going to think I’m cool for getting arrested.” I already was not even considering that drugs or alcohol was the problem. It was like, “No, there was some credibility that I was going to get from it.” I didn’t know at that time I was already starting to rationalize my actions and my habits so early and that could have risked going to college. It eventually got swept under the rug but it cost my parents a lot of money and disappointment. Now, it’s the beginning of all that kind of stuff.
I can relate. As a high school kid, even younger than that, I got in lots of trouble as well. It goes with the territory. It’s like the alcoholic behavior. The lying, cheating, stealing starts even before the crazy addiction progresses and gets to its worst point. What I’m hearing is that you were a chameleon. You were an athlete, you got good grades, you were in the band.
I was in the middle school band but I quit because I was laying when I got to high school.
You were an athlete, you’re in the band, you were smart in school, you were getting good grades, getting in fights, and getting in trouble. You had probably many different groups of friends and you could change on a dime. You could fit in wherever you wanted to.Putting on a different mask, depending upon who you're spending time with, can become your main coping mechanism. Click To Tweet
It was like I had different masks for every time I was around all of those groups. I was trying to be tougher when I was around athletes or guys that were getting in trouble a lot with everyone else around. There were certain classes, AP classes and advanced classes where I was the only person that looked like me in there. I had to get my stuff together while I’m in there. I can’t slip at all. I had to have my perfectionist mask on in there. I can’t do any wrong there. Everywhere I went, it got exhausting early on but I felt like it was something that I had to do.
Once you get used to it, just like anything, you build up a tolerance and stamina so switching, putting on a different mask depending upon who you’re spending time with becomes something that you do.
It became my main mechanism of coping and navigating life for probably the next ten years.
Do you think that as you were growing up, were you ever authentic or did you always have a mask on?
If I was authentic, it was rare. It came out at times. There are people that I still know from that time that saw flashes of the real me because they could still see some of it in me now. It was few and far in between because I’m so caught up in being the stage character everywhere I went. I didn’t feel at some point who I was. I was going to get exposed, laughed at, talked about. I couldn’t deal with that. Anything people would say about me or the potential of what they could say about me crushed me to the point where I was, “No, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and keep blending in.”
That’s tough, you’re 9 or 10 years old because it sounds like you grew up and you’re a sensitive kid, a good, quiet kid and then you got crushed.
From that, the definitions of what a man should be I know internally. I felt like my qualities were feminine in a way. I felt like I wasn’t what a man should be. It was like, “I have to do everything differently. I can’t be me. I have to be somebody else.” Those were seeds that I was planting that I thought I could get out of in a quick amount of time but it’s still taking work to get out of those mindsets.
You graduate from high school and you end up at Georgia Tech. When did you realize that you wanted to focus on sports and a professional athlete?
I don’t even know if I truly wanted to play sports after high school. I got so entrenched in trying to upkeep the image of being an athlete. I finally got that. I thought that was what I wanted but it caused so much war and anxiety because I feel like I had to please many people and represent where I was from. I didn’t love football like that. I loved the results of football and that gave me and the status that gave me around people because I was seeking that from when I was younger. I didn’t have dreams of being a professional athlete. I was enamored by the NFL and classic films of those guys but I never thought that I could get there.
I didn’t have a lot of scholarship offers, I had a few and even Georgia Tech, in a way, forced my hand. I remember at the camp, the coaches are like, “If you don’t commit now, we’ll take your scholarship and give it to somebody else.” I was like, “I need to commit now.” I was also one of the lowest–rated recruits in the recruiting class. I didn’t have those big dreams. I just felt like I had to continue on that path because at some point I’ll be happy with it. It was the success formula. It was like, “I’m an athlete. Women are going to be after me or I could make money and then I’ll be happy.” I was prescribing to somebody else’s definition of happiness and not mine. I was expecting these external results to make me feel good on the inside but I was going about it the opposite way.
You were seeking fulfillment and it wasn’t happening. You ended up at Georgia Tech. What was it like being in college?
From the moment that I stepped on campus, it was like, “I have to prove myself here.” At that time, I was already well into my addiction as far as how much I was drinking, how much I was using. As soon as I stepped on campus, I remember within 30 minutes of my parents leaving the dorm room when I first moved in, there were older players out in the dorm and they kicked our door in and had liquor bottles. They were like, “Freshmen, you’ve all got to represent, show that you’re tough.” I was like, “This is the perfect entry point for me right here. I’ll go out there.” I put myself out there. From there on, I go wherever they go. Always people are in frat parties. Wherever we go, if you go out to bars, everywhere I go, it’s a proving ground. I’m going to outdrink people. I’m going to out pop, out snort, out anything people because I know they’ll accept me for that. I know people love a football player at parties and the football player that’s out there and chasing women. It was like that 5, 6 days out the week from Jump Street as soon as I got on campus.
Football took a back seat because I felt like that young freshmen sophomore again. When I was back in high school, I was like, “I was the lowest–rated recruit. I’m not going to play. I’m just here to get an education so I’m here. I’m going to have fun and I’m going to go crazy.” Football wasn’t a priority. I was going through the motions there and started going through motions with school. School wasn’t a priority because my using became such a priority. Every single moment of the day that I had the opportunity to use, I was using. Everything else suffered.
What was your drug of choice?
It was Oxys, Percocets first, alcohol, weed, Xanax and cocaine.
Were you a blackout drinker?
Yes, I’m blacking out every weekend almost. If not every weekend, every other weekend.
How did that affect your performance on the field?You really have to take care of your body and mind in order to take yourself to that next level. Click To Tweet
At the time I could still run fast, lifting weights and getting stronger but looking back, I didn’t feel like I was more injury prone back then. I couldn’t go for long periods of time. I could make it through a day but it was the wear and tear of a season, I would be exhausted from this. My performance suffered and mentally the most because I wasn’t doing the preparation that it took to handle that load mentally. Also, the Xs and Os of things, I wasn’t on top of any of that because that takes extra time outside of the building to hone those details. I was spending that time getting lit as possible.
When did you realize you had a problem with drugs and alcohol?
Probably my sophomore year because I got to a point where I was trying to hide everything from everyone. I didn’t want to be around people that weren’t like me. I was getting so lit. I was throwing up places, passing out, messing my body like scars on my face from falling. I grew farther and farther away from my family and friends that I had grown up with. I was completely isolated and sad all the time, depressed. At that point I knew something isn’t right but I always justify it with like, “I was doing something wrong. At some point I’m going to be happy if I don’t mess this up. I have to stay the course on what I’m doing and then I’ll be happy and my life would be fulfilling.”
When did you decide that you wanted to do something about it? Did you ever try to get clean and sober while you were in college?
I stopped for six months once but that was only because I failed a drug test and they sent me to an outpatient program where I’ll go to for three nights a week for two hours. I wanted to get the school and the administration off my back. I stopped for a little while but then I proved to myself, I was like, “I can stop at any time.” My willpower. I went right back to it after those six months because I felt like I could get over on everyone and fool everybody.
You white–knuckled it for six months?
How did you feel during that period of time? That’s clean and sober, not working a program. There’s a big difference between working a program and digging into the trauma. Life is amazing and we’re going to get to that because life is a lot different now than it was when you white–knuckled it.
It’s funny. I don’t want to look too far ahead but the first six months that I was clean like my clean date now. My first six months I was clean and sober but I was envious, irritable, my defects were flaming. I was clean and everything but it was like, “I still feel bad. I still don’t feel great. I don’t feel anew. I don’t feel these promises but I wasn’t doing any work. I was just clean.” The drugs and alcohol are just a symptom, which is what I learned after that. That’s not the real problem because I take that away, that’s great. I’m improving a little bit but the real problems are still there.
Let’s fast forward. You ended up getting drafted in 2015. At what point did you realize, “I got a shot at making it to the NFL?”
My junior year. I kept getting better and better on the field as time went along in college. People would say that, “You could go to the league.” I didn’t believe it because I didn’t have confidence in myself. My junior year, I was making plays in big games, people were saying like, “You can go to the league.” There would be NFL scouts at our practices watching me go through drills. I didn’t believe it was possible because I didn’t have that confidence. I’m a human being out on that field. When I’m off the field, I’m lying about everything and stealing stuff, not being a great person or the person that I can be that’s going to carry over my performance on the field. I can’t just flip a switch and my mentality is positive now. I ended up getting drafted despite suspensions and probably should have been getting kicked out of school because it was the test that I failed and getting arrested again while I was there. I still ended up getting drafted because of my skillset, if it developed into something, it was a skillset that not a lot of people had.
Were you a hard worker on the field?
I didn’t become a hard worker on the field until I started working in recovery. Before that, at the bare minimum, I would go a little extra sometimes but it was only to give off the impression that I was going the extra mile.
You ended up getting drafted and you’re playing for the Baltimore Ravens. What was your first year like?
I remember I got there in the spring and do the OTA practices and all that and how exhausted I was out of the gate. The weight of playing football to impress people and to continue to put off this image increased exponentially by getting to the NFL from where it was in high school and college. It wore me out. I remember I couldn’t catch a cold in Alaska butt naked in those practices, I was psyching myself out. I was lining up and I was like, “Don’t drop this off. You’re going to drop this.” When on the route with the ball with your side, I couldn’t catch anything. I was over it and wanting to quit after two months of being drafted. Those are things that you don’t hear. I want it to be done that quick but eventually, I made the team because they saw improvement in me. I got hurt seven games into my rookie season and I was on injured reserve. When you go on into injured reserve, you’re not in the building like that. I was in the building until noon and then the rest of the day I was by myself because I’m not a part of the team. I do my work and go home. I’m not in the locker room or in the huddles or around veterans that can pour into me, I’m just at home. Me in a room by myself with a mental state that I was in was not a good thing. I was going out into the streets and started to find what I could find and making relationships out there and they were not the good company.
NFL versus high school versus college, how much more pressure or how much better were the players? How much faster was the ball thrown? How much harder was it? Were you blown away or was it a little step up? How big was the step from college football up to the NFL even on the practice field?
There was a little bit of both. As far as physicality, it was a big step. As far as the mental load of the playbook and the schemes, it was a big step but I feel like the actual playing of the game wasn’t that big of a step. It was still football at the end of the day. The players were more talented in the college level and they hit harder, but I feel like more of the big step was in you having to take care of your body and mind in order to take yourself to that next level. Everybody’s good, everybody’s talented at that point but those that are driven intrinsically, have purpose, and are caring for themselves mentally and spiritually, those are the ones that rise above.
Tell me about the problems in the NFL.
Towards the end of my second season, I was debating quitting. I went to the coaching staff and was like, “I don’t like feel me being here is for my health.” I was finally starting to get a little bit of clarity and being marginally honest with the coaching staff about what was going on. I still remember all this time that I wanted that approval. I went to them when I was quitting with hopes of them saying like, “No, stay. They were like, “That’s okay, just let us know your decision.” That crushed me. I wanted them to want me after all the stints that I had done.
After that, I was like, “Forget this.” I also tore my labrum. I’m like, “The next game I could tell them that.” I finished playing through a season through that. I was like, “That’s it. I’m going to put it into this myself.” I remember the mindset of I’m going to fail every drug test on purpose just to legally put me out of my misery and I won’t look like a quitter. There would be some coolness to me, crashing and burning off of drugs and knowing I had potential, I could have been something instead of saying I quit because I feared what people thought, I feared what they would have said if I were to step away from the game. I didn’t want to have to go through what people might say about me. I’d rather put my body in harm’s way and almost kill myself so I didn’t have to face what the potential of what people could say about me, so I did that.
Was that subconscious at the time?Growth and comfort are opposites. Click To Tweet
Yes. I’m rehabbing my shoulder with the team. Once my shoulder’s rehabbed, that should be around the time where they would suspend me for a year. That’s what happened. I remember I had to practice for a month before I got suspended. I was like, “I’m sure to go out there and play and not care about what anybody thinks. I’m going to go out there and try to have fun because this is going to be the last football I ever play. I’m not going to play football again.” It was like practicing, I was hot and there was nobody there, no cameras, no lights. At that moment, that was the most fun I had playing football since I was a kid because I was not trying to impress people. I was like, “I’m going to go out on a good note.”
I was playing with a sense of urgency because I knew football wasn’t promised to me after that. By the time the suspension got handed out, I was like, “I was just getting to like football.” I could play free of expectations and people’s opinions, I could enjoy the game but that suspension hit. I was out and I was depressed from that. Instead of getting help and turning my life around like I said I would, I kept using and my using increased over the first two months of me being suspended, which led up to the main event that made me want to change.
Tell me about the main event and the crash and burn.
I was going back to Baltimore. This was August 11th, 2017. I was going to move out of my apartment because I was suspended the whole year and didn’t want to spend money on renting somewhere else, I’m moving back with my parents. I got there the day before my dad got there. I was like, “I’m going to get high here one last time.” I went and picked up some pills and thinking that they were what I usually got. They were like fentanyl. I had taken them and was pulling up to this grocery store and I was right up the street from my apartment and right near the practice facility for the Ravens. We’re pulling in the parking lot. I was about to hop out like normal. I couldn’t get out because if I got out, I would have thrown up everywhere and it would’ve caused a scene. I would have fainted probably. I was like, “I’m going to sit in the car until I feel a little better in maybe in a few minutes.” Maybe 30 minutes passed by. I remember it was like somebody pulled a power plug and I woke up and it was nighttime. I was sweating, cold and out of it.
At the time I thought I took a nap. I was high but it was how tired and defeated I felt but the next day I thought I could be something more. It was like an overdose. That could’ve been over for me and that was scary enough as I processed it over the next few hours and into the next day. I was like, “It’s been a ride and I’ve been trusted it but now these drugs are not my friends anymore. It was my friend. It was the key to peace, making friends and having a good time but now it’s none of that anymore. It scared me enough to be like, “I’m not in control anymore.” I thought I had control over it but I have no control whatsoever. Since that day, I haven’t used it from there. After that, I was honest with my parents for the first time and honest with the league. My parents shared my family history with me and was saying like, “Your family has been doing the same thing generation after generation. Are you going to continue to look at that and act like it’s not the truth and continue to do what you’re doing? Are you going to be the person that changes that?” The overdose and my family talking to me like that was enough for me to change and willingly go to rehab.
Sounds like you have a caring, loving family. That approach sounds like it was effective and helpful. That was the moment that was the turning point for you?
There was a little bit of push back on my behalf for the rehab at first. Eventually I was like, “I need to learn new skills and new habits and put myself in an uncomfortable situation for once. My comfort zone isn’t doing a lot for me right now.” I went to a detox place for four days and then I went to a rehab in Maine at this place called McLean Hospital Borden Cottage. I’d never been to Maine before but it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been first off. Second off, the rehab experience was incredible. I remember when we first got there, we went to a meeting the first day and I was terrified. I looked at the way people were speaking and talking about the steps and all the literature they were reading, I was like, “What is this place? How’s this even possible? I was sitting in the back, quiet, listening and taking it all in. I was like, “It’s going to probably take me a while before I’m in here sharing and laughing and smiling.” I was there I’m sweating. I’m looking around. I don’t know what’s going on but I kept going back. The sharing one-on-one with the counselors there and the other patients like me, the people like me that were there and sharing amongst them, that was the first time I’d ever been honest in my life. First time I’ve ever been open and talking about these things. It’s like you feel an instant relief.
There’s still work to be done so I went into a new foundation but like the first couple of times I shared, I was like, “This is what’s cool to me. This is something I want to be a part of. I could feel the unity inside of me, my body, my mind and my spirit. Yes, keep doing this.” I stuck with that and learned how to meditate there. I got a lot of tools to the point when it came to an end, I was like, “I don’t even know if I want to go home. I feel safe here. I feel here is a place where I can continue to grow and be safe.” I remember someone shared there, they were like, “We don’t learn these things to stay here. We learn these things so we can go back into the world and impact the world in a positive way because we’re not meant to learn all this stuff and then keep to ourselves. We’re meant to give it away. We only keep what we have by giving it away.” That was the first time I heard that. First off, that makes no sense but then it clicked and I was like, “It’s more about giving than what I can get.”God would provide His will. He would put you in a situation where you could improve your life and of the others around you. Click To Tweet
As they say, it’s like sober living, “You should stay until you’re afraid to leave.” Being in treatment, you’re there, you’re comfortable. At first you probably were uncomfortable. You didn’t want to be there or a lot of people, they don’t want to be there and then you get comfortable there, you’re afraid to leave and that’s when it’s time to go.
I thought growth and comfort are opposites because when there’s comfort, there’s a tendency to kick your feet up and coast a little bit. Whereas when you’re uncomfortable, that’s where you’re straining like there’s pressure being put on you but good pressure is hard work that requires everything in you to muster up the courage, strength, and the energy to accomplish these tasks. When you do accomplish those tasks, light bulbs go off and you feel an authentic confidence and resiliency in yourself.
When I left there, I was afraid but my family helped me out and stepped in, they were like, “We have an idea.” One of the people that they went to church with was a store manager at Sprouts Farmers Market. They’re like, “We feel like you could benefit from having structure. When you have structure, you can be on top of things.” With continuing to want meetings and working out every now and then. My ego inside of me was deflating. I remember I was like, “I could be an assistant store manager.” They were like, “We need a grocery clerk.” I went with it. I already had humility from the experience up to that point and going to rehab.
I was like, “I’ll do it. I have enough humility to come in here and work.” It ended up being a great experience from teaching me to work and not expect a round of applause or crowds of 80,000 people clapping for me when I did my job. It felt good and a sense of respect for myself for doing my job and went home. That lesson was valuable, which is serving people even if they weren’t necessarily nice to me or they made jokes about why I was being and how I wasn’t on the field. I saw girls in there I used to talk to and they would see me in there and I’ll try to hide. I learned many lessons in that time. I’m grateful for that experience.
I can only imagine. It’s one of the things that we always say to newcomers is, “Just take suggestions.” I’ve seen it and I’m sure you’ve seen it too where people think they’re better than, they have a big, high powered job, they make a ton of money, they’re executives, professional athletes and working at grocery store is beneath them. I drove for Uber for a while. It was the best thing I did. You’re not having people clapping for you when you’re driving around someone in an Uber. I can’t imagine how valuable that experience was for you and being able to put your ego aside and do your job.
That was incredible for me. When I got reinstated into the league, I got back to the Ravens. I thought I’ve got a good perspective going in but part of my mind was like, “I’m going to give an opportunity to bounce back.” I thought my opportunity was going to come immediately but I got cut in training camp because they’d drafted two young Titans who were good players. They cut me and put me on practice squad. That was another body blow to the ego right there but that was necessary. I was back on the practice squad and I was like, “I could take from the Sprouts experience like, ‘I’m here to serve.’” There’s this theme of service that God is trying to teach me.
The Tennessee Titans at the time were the number one defense in the league. I was like, “If I can make plays against them, there’s no one in this league that I can’t make plays against.” It got to a point where it was routinely making plays, routinely going up top. People were like, “Scout team players shouldn’t be doing this.” I felt good about it but it’s about consistency at this point. I can’t rest on what I did yesterday or carry what I did today into tomorrow. I have to be in the moment and be consistent and continue to maintain a positive attitude about this experience.
It went almost 2/3 of the season. I remember seeing Titans were getting hurt around the league but no one hit up my agent to try to get me. I was like, “I’ve got to stick with it.” There was one week where I was down and it was the week the Raiders were playing the Raiders. I was like, “I don’t know if it’s going to happen. It’s Thanksgiving now. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving.” Right before the game, we always have this extra workout routine I would do on the field when everybody else went to the locker room to get their pads on because I wasn’t suiting up.
For me, consistently doing that hours where some of the Raiders coaches saw me working out and were like, “Who is that guy?” They signed me randomly. If I wasn’t doing the work and doing the reps that I needed to be doing to even be seen in that moment, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am now. I learned that from recovery and doing the work there and planting the seeds that wouldn’t grow immediately but at some point, God would provide. His will would put me in a situation to where I could improve my life and improve lives around me.Putting yourself in uncomfortable situations requires you to trust what God is doing in your life and believe in the plan He has for you. Click To Tweet
I was at a meeting talking with some friends and one of the things we talked about was the long game. Prior to being in recovery, we want things now. I want things now and I’m inpatient. However, what I’ve realized is that I do things now and the results may or may not come later but it’s putting in the work now, it’s doing the hard work now. As they say, “Life is easy if you live it the hard way and hard if you live it the easy way.” You do the hard things now. You have the hard conversations now. You put in the work now. The result that may come tomorrow, next week, next month or in six months but it’s not being attached to the result. You weren’t attached to any result. Therefore, you weren’t getting beat down and disappointed, you were just doing your work.
I feel like we want results but if somebody worked to give us the result right when we wanted it, we would even appreciate it like that. Through the process is where you learn and grow the most and gain the things that make your life what it is, make it feel like it has purpose because then when the results come, you reflect. I felt like my greatest gift now is the ability to reflect on where I was and what it took to get to where I am now, not the things that I have now. I’m grateful for recovery teaching me that. It’s still in my brain because I was hard wired to, “I want things now. I want things to fall into my lap with me doing the least work possible.” I know for me to enjoy my life, that’s not a mindset that I can go forward with.
How has your recovery journey enhanced your life?
It’s allowed me to have more intimate relationships with people like my family. I could be more honest with them. I don’t have to necessarily hide anything from them or lie anymore. I can tell the truth and live with the results and experience the love that I have with them. It’s allowed me to be a more reliable employee. I was never reliable before I came into recovery. I was very erratic. I would do some good things sometimes but I wouldn’t put in the work or lay a true foundation to be consistent or to be someone that people can look at it and be like, “I trust that guy. He is going to be there giving it an honest effort day in and day out.”
It’s helped me on my music journey. I enjoy making music and it’s allowed me to create without fear but also to create something with substance and realize that everything that I do or that comes out of my mouth, it can be wholesome and beneficial or help someone in their situation. It’s helped me become a lot less self-centered, a lot more honest and open-minded to the idea that me serving myself and getting what I can get is not what’s going to make life work. It’s not what’s going to make it meaningful to me. If I make it about other people and how I can make the world around me better, that’s where that best feeling comes from. I feel like that’s where recovery has taught me the most.
That’s how you find fulfillment is being of service, being meaningful, helping another person. Prior to getting on this journey of recovery, what we think is that we need to lie, cheat and steal and we need people to clap for us in order to feel good. That’s not even fulfillment. It’s so surface level and it doesn’t last for longer than a second. If we want true fulfillment, we have to be of service. We have to give it away to receive. When did you realize that life was better, clean and sober and being on this journey? You can probably relate to this, it’s like, “I’m never going to be able to drink again. I’m never going to be able to do drugs again. What am I going to do when I’m at a concert? What am I going to do when I’m watching a football game? What am I going to do because drinking and drugs were involved in all of the other activities?”
I was jealous and envious of people that could still do all those things my first six months of recovery. I wasn’t working any steps. I was just going to meetings. I got a sponsor around the six-month mark and I started working the steps. Once I started working the steps and putting pen to paper, things start to open up. From there, I remember times where I was at Sprouts like, “I had dropped this gallon of apple cider that was in a glass jar on the floor on the busiest day, on a Saturday in the store.” Complete goofball move.
I was mopping it up and picking the glass up. People were looking at me crazy and laughing but I remember at that time I was like, “I feel better about myself here at Sprouts. I’m making $11.62 an hour and I’m going to meetings. I feel better here than I did when I was in the NFL making six figures a year and people were in and of this with me in my position, I feel way better here.” In that moment where I look like a fool but I was there and I was like, “I’m honestly here trying to do the best that I can with what I have in the situation that I’m in.” It was a weird moment but a light bulb went off. I was like, “I feel way better here.” It’s the complete opposite of what most people would think but it wasn’t about what other people thought anymore. Right around the six-month mark in recovery is where it started to change. Before that, the thinking and the behavior was stagnant but from there, it was up from there.
Were you taking suggestions in your first six months?
No. I go into the meeting. I’ll listen and be like, “That was good.” They say, “That was real. I felt that before.” I wouldn’t do the extra after that like go talk to them about that and how I felt about that and get a phone number. It goes to meet and sit there and I was like, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing. Let me check this box off.” Instead of, “What can I get out of this?” It’s, “How can I pick these people’s brain or get around them and feel that fellowship and have that nourish me?” I was still in that isolation mindset because I was still that guy that I wanted to hide everything from everyone. I didn’t want them to think about me what I thought about myself. It took me six months to realize in those meeting rooms that people weren’t there to look at me that way or to judge me in that capacity. They were there because they knew how I felt. I was like, “Nobody knows what I’m feeling or nobody understands me.” I was in a room with people that understood me for six months and wasn’t seeking to build anything with them. God was trying to help me realize more, in that time, how my willpower wasn’t enough, how my idea of living and controlling things wasn’t going to sustain me for where he was trying to take me.
You say growth and comfort can’t go together. Explain that to me. What does that mean to you?
I feel like growth and comfort are opposites because when you’re in a comfortable place, in a comfortable zone, you want to stay there. You don’t care about how much higher you can go because you want that good feeling, that safe space of security. As people, we want security and to have clarity. Whereas, if you put yourself in uncomfortable situations, you may not have that clarity but it also requires you to trust what God is doing in your life and believe in the plan that he has from you. If you trust those uncomfortable situations, those are what’s going to challenge you to work your mind and your spirit and challenge it daily because when you challenge it daily, that builds strength.
If you’re lifting weights and you get stronger by lifting heavier, that’s not a comfortable feeling but if you’re lifting light, you can maintain but you’re always capable of more when you’re comfortable. When you’re uncomfortable and you continue to seek uncomfortable situations, that’s where the magic is. I remember my friend James said, “The real service is the one that’s inconvenient,” not the one that everything lines up with what you can do and it fits your schedule. It’s something that you want to do but true services are the one where it’s like, “I’ve got to do that.” Feel comfortable doing it. I feel like the more that you put yourself in situations like that, you’re increasing your opportunities to grow and impact the world in a better way.
I like that, “True service is inconvenient.” What’s on the other side? We’re sitting here talking about being comfortable and I’m thinking about Wim Hof. Wim Hof, The Iceman, he talks about being uncomfortable and he talks about how we wear sweaters, we turn the heater on. We’re also used to being comfortable that we don’t stress our immune systems out. We don’t stress our bodies out. We were so used to being comfortable. When you go in and you do an ice bath, you’re uncomfortable and you have to surrender and go with it and as a result, you feel better, you have more mental clarity, more mental awareness, decreases inflammation and your body functions better. Stress is good. Too much stress is not good. However, we all need to be stressed out. Stress is what creates growth. When did you realize that you didn’t respect yourself?
I don’t think I had that self-awareness until probably when I got to rehab and started sharing for the first time. That was September of 2017. I started sharing honestly and I was getting responses like, “That’s okay. Thank you for sharing that.” I was like, “I wasn’t supposed to be hiding this all the time. All the time, all opportunities that I could have had to speak up or to change or to view myself, “How can I take care of myself?” I never gave myself those opportunities. By that point I was like, “I haven’t been respecting myself. I haven’t been loving myself. I haven’t been caring for myself because I haven’t allowed my true self to breathe or come to light in any form of fashion. Anytime he wants to speak up, I stuff it back down and don’t give him an opportunity to speak.” Around that time, once I let a little bit of honesty and it was like, “There’s no way I can say I love myself.”Stress is what creates growth. Click To Tweet
How are you looking for uncomfortable situations now going back to the comfort zone?
I’m trying to get better. I still have a fear of confrontation like tough conversations. That is still a hurdle for me when it comes to relationships especially creating boundaries when it comes to those relationships. It’s something that I will beat around the bush a little bit. I’ll talk to people that I respect and close with in recovery about it but it’s taking that step towards. I don’t willingly go to that uncomfortable situation. The results from that may come quickly and slowly but I’m trying to work at it. Whenever that breakthrough comes is when it comes. That’s something that I’m trying to improve at.
It’s thinking about what’s on the other side, that’s what we always have to look at. You have the hard conversation now, things are going to be easier on the other side. You connected with Donny Starkins, tell me about Comeback Stories. You have created the show. I want to hear what’s that all about?
Donny and I connected via Instagram. Donny has done a lot of work with some great athletes on the mental side and the yoga side. He saw Hard Knocks which was the first time that I was vulnerable about the things I went through. He connected to my story and reached out and wanted to work together. We started working together. He’s been a great resource for me and also has become a good friend for me. I was in Arizona, staying in his house for four days but in that time, we were having these conversations and they were great conversations, he was like, “What do you think about doing a podcast?” I was like, “I have no idea how to do a podcast. I have zero idea.” He was like, “Do it, try it. It’s not about you. It’s about who we could affect and who it could impact.” I was like, “Let’s do it.”
We’ve been picking people’s brains about how to go about doing it and creating a format. Now we’re cranking out episodes. The first episode came out, which was my comeback story. We’re trying to reach out to guests in all walks of life. I have a friend of mine from high school that’s on there and there’s also some household names on there. We don’t want to make it athlete-specific. We love having people in recovery on there but comeback stories can look and present themselves in many different types of ways. We want to have that represented in our show. We’re all about the comeback story and what happened to people’s lives and how that plays a role in who they’re becoming. They have to accept their reality but they don’t have to stay there. They can do what’s necessary to grow, change and walk into a life that they love and respect. That’s all we’re trying to do.
What would you say is the main purpose of the show?
The purpose of the show is to inspire the listener to realize that they have a comeback story of their own no matter how low their low is. They have the power, the tools and the skills inside of them to rise above that and to keep rising in anything that they want to rise in. Inspiring them to see people that they love and respect seeing their story but teaching them that you have your own story and that you can respond to adversity in a strong way.
How is producing this show going to help you?
It allows me to see other people’s perspective, see how they approach life. I don’t think I know very much in the grand scheme of things and I am okay with that because that allows me to learn from people. I’m learning, sitting with you right here, it’s allowing other people’s experience to come into my world and realize that I’m so much more like these people than I ever would have imagined. Feeling that connection and realizing that one common thing that we share is adversity and we have to overcome that. If we can lean on somebody else or pick up something from somebody else to help us in our journey or vice versa, that’s all it is about.
How do you take care of yourself now?
The big things for me are prayer and meditation first thing when I wake up and the last thing I do in my day. Journaling has been a key for me. I didn’t realize how profound writing things on papers for me, let everything out. I have some daily devotional recovery readings that I like to read those and write how I’m feeling on that for the day. Those were my things I love to read. Creating music does something for me in my soul. Making beats, writing lyrics, these are things that fill me up because the profession that I’m in and the things that are being asked of me and demanded from me, it takes a lot for me physically, energetically, emotionally. These things, recovery day to day and my creative habits are what fill me up and allow me to continue to be consistent.
What kind of music do you create?
Rap is my thing but I sing a little bit. My beats are inspired by a million different genres because I listen to pretty much everything. I don’t try to limit myself to just rap music. I feel there’s so much good music out there.
Now we’re in the off season, what are you going to do before you start practicing and gearing up for next season?
I took three weeks off from training. Those three weeks sadly come to an end very fast. I’m back to working out and going to progress into working out, running, and doing football drills. It’s also a time for me to read a lot, to meditate a lot, to be still, to go to meetings as much as I want to. This time is a great time for me to continue to progress spiritually, mentally in my recovery first and foremost because the minute I start thinking that these opportunities I have in my life are more important than the foundation which is recovery, that’s where I start to slip. This is always a good time for me to keep the main things, the main things and to slowly get myself back into shape and not feel like it’s a competition or anything. It’s what the path in which I get back into my shape. The mindset to get ready to play again, I let that play itself out. I handle and trying to control things I can control.
Looking back, what message do you think you want people to take away from our conversation?
The best thing that you can do is surrender the outcomes and the results of things. We have visions and goals that we want to work towards. Be okay with putting one foot in front of the other and immersing yourself in the process, and making it less about what you can gain but more about what you can give to those around you. Your journey is not always going to be perfect. It’s not always going to look like somebody else’s recovery or somebody else’s career but find the simple joys in the gratitude in your journey, how far you’ve come, how much better you are than a day ago, a month ago, a year ago and keep moving forward because God isn’t trying to keep you where you are or have you feeling what you’re feeling forever. There’s better for you on the other side. Trust that, don’t be caught up in the future because worrying won’t fix anything or make anything easier that you have to do. Accept your past. Don’t allow it to dictate who you’re going to be going forward.You have your own story, and you can respond to adversity in a strong way. Click To Tweet
Be present, focus on the journey and don’t be attached to the results. The journey is perfect. As long as we’re not attached to the result and we just focus on the journey, life is good.
I’ve had results and been miserable. Take it from me.
How can people find out more about you? How can they follow you? How can they find out more about Comeback Stories?
If you want to follow me, I’m on Instagram @RackkWall. Twitter is @RackWall83. The Darren Waller Foundation website is DarrenWaller.org. From there, you can find out how to donate and see our vision for what we’re trying to do. The Comeback Stories Show you can follow on Instagram @ComebackStoriesShow and that’ll take you to wherever you need to do. You can go to subscribe to ComebackStories.com to find our first episode. It’ll take you right to Apple Podcasts page as well. We’re also on Spotify and going to be on all platforms soon.
Darren, it was so awesome getting to talk to you. I learned a lot about you. A lot of what you said resonates with me and I can relate. I enjoyed it. Thank you so much, Darren. Thanks, everybody. I will see you next time.
Thank you, Tim. I appreciate it.
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- @RackWall83 – Twitter
- @ComebackStoriesShow – Instagram
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About Darren Waller
Darren Waller was born in Landover, MD and raised in suburban Atlanta, GA. He was involved in a lot as a kid including football, basketball, baseball, tennis, band. Graduated from North Cobb High School in 2011 and earned a business degree from Georgia Tech in 2014. Drafted by the Baltimore Ravens as a wide receiver in the 6th round of 2015 NFL draft (pick #204).
Went from being arrested 3 times, suspended multiple times in college and NFL (including year long ban in 2017), he got cut, went to rehab, worked at sprouts, then he was back on the practice squad which led to back to back 1,000 yard seasons, the Pro Bowl, and all-time single season record holder for receptions in a season in Raiders history.