HENDERSON, Nev. — Sin City. That den of inequity. A Dionysian paradise.
Surely, there are better places — safer locales, so to speak — for someone in recovery to relocate to than Las Vegas, no? Someone such as Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller, whose story of addiction and recovery is inspiring and chilling.
“I think he’s got an appreciation for where he’s been and where he is today,” Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said of Waller. “I think he’s got maturity about him that other players feel, and I worry about him less than anybody on this whole team, being in Vegas. He is starting to grow into being a leader, get outside of himself a little bit.
“So I just see a guy that’s growing into not just a helluva football player but, more importantly even, a better person.”
Waller, whose breakout season in 2019 included 90 catches for 1,145 yards, three TDs and a Pro Bowl alternate nod he had to turn down because of January thumb surgery, just commemorated three years of sobriety. This after being hooked on “opiates, Oxy, pills, stuff like that, Xanax, cocaine,” he told HBO’s “Hard Knocks” cameras last summer.
“It means that I’m not the same person that I was,” Waller said of the three-year milestone. “Before, I wasn’t somebody that was worth looking up to or inspirational in any way. Now, I’m kind of free from that. I can really step into my calling and write my own story, be of service to other people in the process and inspire people.”
A sixth-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2015, Waller played in 22 games through 2018, thanks in part to failed drug tests and suspensions. He was signed by the Raiders off the Ravens’ practice squad on Nov. 27, 2018.
“Me being clean, I feel, is me breaking generational curses in my family,” Waller said. “I feel like it’s changing what’s cool among young people. … So that gives me extra energy as well, so it definitely means a lot.”
Waller’s great-grandfather was jazz icon Fats Waller, and “Ain’t Misbehavin‘” could’ve been a mantra for the Raiders tight end the past three years. Also, Waller is a hip-hop and rap musician in his own right. The Raiders posted his video of the NSFW song “Profits” on the team website when it dropped in May.
“I reached out to him because I watched his video,” Mayock said, “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good, man.'”
It’s almost as good as Waller’s hybrid skill set on the field. Waller is a converted receiver, so he has the hands and speed of a wideout. But at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, he can also get down and dirty.
Enter future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten, signed by Las Vegas this offseason to be, in part, an on-field mentor for Waller.
“There is no limit to what he can accomplish in this league,” Witten said of Waller.
“He’s big, he’s long, he’s athletic, he’s extremely fast … he’s just got great feel and understanding … but how do you get open when maybe the coverage doesn’t say you should get open? That’s where the tricks you have to master [come in].”
Waller has been a quick learner.
“It’s already helping out a lot,” Waller said of working with Witten. “One thing that’s impressive to me is I don’t think anybody gets off on snaps as quickly as [Witten] does. He’s usually the first one to 5 yards. He’ll be quicker than receivers for the first 5 yards. I feel like that is something I need to improve on. Just being around him, I’m like, ‘I want to get off the ball like him.’
“Wish we could’ve been able to be with him in person every day with a normal offseason. But you can’t ask for much more than what he’s doing for us right now.”
Waller signed a three-year, $27 million contract extension last season and has lived up to every penny so far. Throw it all together, and it’s difficult not to root for Waller’s rise.
As coach Jon Gruden said, Waller’s story is bigger than football.
“We think he’s a superstar,” Gruden said of Waller’s on-field contributions — before shifting focus.
“He had a dark portion of his life there for a while that not a lot of people come back from. I hope a lot of young people out there get the real story behind Waller that you can beat addiction. If you just listen to Darren Waller on how he did it, he’s a great source of leadership and proof that you can be great, even though you had some really dark times.”
Waller’s story resonates among both young players and veterans.
“He’s been to hell and back,” second-year defensive end Maxx Crosby said. “I’m so proud of him. Three years down, and he’s still working. I love it. He’s a great leader … he practices the right way. He does it on the field the right way. I’m just super proud of him and glad to have him as a teammate.”
Said seventh-year defensive back Lamarcus Joyner: “Just to see a guy go through that kind of stuff and clean himself up — both off the field and on the field — it’s just amazing. If you can’t be encouraged by that, then you don’t have a heart.”
Waller created his own foundation recently, with a mission statement reading, in part, “to equip youth to avoid and overcome addiction to drugs and alcohol and support youth and their families during their recovery and treatment journey.”
That brings us back to the vices available in Waller’s new hometown.
“Vegas is a pretty good city,” defensive end Arden Key said. “I didn’t realize that you can raise a family here and things of that sort. Once you get off the Strip, it’s just really normal and really just calm. But once you get on the Strip, that’s where everything happens.”
A disciplined Waller is more of a suburbs guy now, even though he still has to blow off steam in the high-pressure world of professional football.
“I guess you could look at me and see that you don’t have to be perfect at any stage of your life,” Waller said. “You just have to try to do right by yourself and do right by other people, and it will eventually pay off for you down the road, as long as you [don’t] really expect anything in return. I feel like the world rewards you for that. The Raiders have helped me out tremendously as far as giving me a new opportunity.
“Then, coming to Vegas, it’s awesome to get into a new city. It’s funny that most people look at Vegas as this crazy place that’s just mayhem at all times. I feel at peace here already. I feel like I live in a great area. I’ve met great people out here. The Raiders organization is taking just as good of care of me now as they were the first day I got there. I’m just excited to write a new chapter here.”