Ex-Georgia Tech receiver Darren Waller is feel-good story of 2019 NFL season

To his coach with the Oakland Raiders, Darren Waller represents “the greatest story in the game this year.” A redemption tale that can make Jon Gruden spin the breathless superlative once more, just like in ESPN days of yore.

“I haven’t seen anything like it,” Gruden said.

To the family friend in Cobb County, the one forever bound to Waller by the yoke of addiction and its devastating fallout, the Raiders tight end is a human signal fire.

“Darren is hope in the flesh,” said Missy Owen, whose son didn’t make it out alive, as Darren did. When Waller decided to start speaking about his own battle with drugs, his first appearance was at Marietta’s Davis Direction Foundation, named for Missy’s late son, Davis Owen.

Oh, and to those who may have wondered about Waller when bumping into him back in late 2017, early ’18 while he was both getting his life back in order and keeping the artichokes in line at the Sprouts in Smyrna, wonder no more. That was just a way station on the road to humility and self-realization. And memo to the less statuesque customers: Get your own cans off the top shelf now. The 6-foot-6, athletic stock clerk just signed a contract extension to play pro football, one reported to be worth an average $7.4 million through 2023, with $10 million guaranteed.

To his parents, Waller has returned to them after a long and turbulent trip – he’s two years and four months clean and sober as of Wednesday, for those keeping score.

“He’s in such a good place right now, mentally and physically, my heart is just soaring,” said Charlena Waller, his mother.

“We’ve seen the light come back in our son’s eyes,” said Dorian Waller, his father.

And to himself he is true.

“The shame and guilt were so hard to shake – the people that I hurt, the people I did wrong and how I was treating myself. Once I kind of let that go, I could say, OK, I’m proud of what I’ve been through and how I got here. I wouldn’t change any of it because I wouldn’t be exactly where I am now,” he can say today.

Yeah, there’s a whole lot going on here, and currently, it is all housed in a small extended-stay hotel room next to the Raiders’ training facility.

You would know none of Waller’s windfall by his surroundings now, this small room with its bare essentials situated between practice fields and the back side of Oakland’s airport. As the Raiders finish their last season here before moving to Las Vegas, its leader in receptions (72) and receiving yards (880) has chosen the most practical kind of temporary shelter. Waller enjoys all the glamour and comfort of a carnival roustabout, only without the substance abuse.

Waller’s first full season on an NFL roster has been revelatory. And what he’s doing ranks as one of the league’s biggest surprises and one of the Raiders’ bright spots in an otherwise lackluster season.

The same one-time Georgia Tech wide receiver seeking throws in Paul Johnson’s option offense, the same twice-suspended tight end in Baltimore – the second time for the entire 2017 season – who could have been easily left behind by the march of new, less complicated talent, has suddenly emerged as someone you really needed on your fantasy team.

From dismissed and all but forgotten to a vital element of a franchise’s future, virtually overnight. “It’s an unbelievable accomplishment what he has done, to get his life together off the field. It’s really a rare, almost unprecedented thing that I’ve seen happen where a guy has come in here really as a rookie tight end and catch 80 passes (not quite yet) and proven he can do just about anything you can ask him to do,” Gruden said.

He’s been a 6-6, 255-pound Saturday New York Times crossword of a matchup. Too fast for linebackers, too physical for defensive backs, where’s the solution?

“It’s a big (matchup) problem,” Raiders cornerback Trayvon Mullen said. “He’s a great player. You can line him up anywhere. He’s a really aggressive guy. He plays physical, plays hard, plays fast.”

All this while wrestling with a monkey on his back.

What follows is a very abridged version of the journey from dependence to freedom.

As Waller remembers it, he took his first pill when he was a sophomore at North Cobb High, a pain-killer a friend liberated from his mother’s medicine cabinet. And the kid who was always one of the few black students in the accelerated class and one of the few advanced students on the playing field – “Once I got around people who were my skin color they were, well, you’re not really anything like us, you speak too properly, you hang out with white kids,” he remembers – found a way to fit in.

By the time Waller reached Tech, his football was being regularly punctuated by drug-induced timeouts. At Tech, he was twice suspended for what he said were pot-related infractions. The first time, the school paid for outpatient therapy. The second time, his parents footed the bill.

“I didn’t think I had a problem because I was always justifying it: I’m a Division I football player, and I’m getting this top-notch education, how can I be addicted to it?” said Waller, who has no hesitation about speaking to his past. By his reckoning, giving voice to it helps both speaker and listener.

“I didn’t realize how slowly it was destroying my life as far as relationships with my family, people that I was close with that I just kept drifting further and further away from because I was so self-centered and just wanted to get high all the time. I was sacrificing everything just to do that.”

Such were his athletic gifts that Baltimore made him a sixth-round draft pick in 2015. But as he clung to a roster spot – and then hit the injured-reserve list with a hamstring injury – Waller was having a tough time deciding which he disliked more, himself or football.

A couple of years later, once he stopped blaming everyone else and started to really dig for the reasons he was so easily seduced by pills, Waller made a succession of important personal finds. Among them was the thought he was actively sabotaging his own career as an “easy way out” of the pressures of trying to please the whole world one catch at a time.

“I was making football into something it shouldn’t have been for me – trying to impress people,” he said. “I had to try to please every single person looking at me and judging me – there are seven billion people in the world, you’ll never win that game. I turned it into something I disliked.”

After his first failed NFL drug test, Waller was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season. The second cost him all the 2017 season. His self-immolation was almost complete. As he continued to use a month into that second suspension, he discovered a new low in August of that year.

Rock bottom was the parking lot of a Baltimore mall where Waller sat in his car while his body revolted against the pills he had just taken. He was parked there for five hours, unmoving, he recalled, waiting out the affects of street pills that he now believes were laced with something, perhaps Fentanyl. Finally, he was scared enough to make his first honest attempt at rehab. Waller said he has been clean since.

While the NFL is often perceived as being indifferent to player well-being, Waller’s family gives the league great credit for what happened next. For it sent a marginal player into a costly month-long rehab program in Maine that Waller or his parents never could have afforded.

“That plan they put him under saved his life,” Waller’s mother said.

When he emerged from that deep dive into himself, Waller had turned a page. His father could read it in the way his boy carried himself back home in Cobb County. “Head up, shoulders back, he was confident,” Dorian said.

Part of the plan involved the structure of a regular job as he awaited possible NFL reinstatement. A family friend got him the gig at the market, and all Waller had to do was show up and humble himself.

“It was tough at first,” he said. “I would see people I knew from high school and college and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, you’re working here, I didn’t know that.’ You could see in their expression: How did you end up here?

“Random people would be like, why aren’t you on a field somewhere instead of working at Sprouts. In my head I’m saying, well, it’s a long story.

“I was just trying to do better, learn how to put forward an honest day’s work. I had no idea how much that experience would pay dividends going forward.”

Waller worked there until about a month to go in his year-long suspension, when he started training full-time in the hope of returning to the NFL. He had no idea if anyone would want him at this stage, but the Ravens did bring him back in 2018. For most of that year, he was buried on the practice squad.

In anonymous labor, Waller found some pleasure. “It allowed me to fall in love with the hard work again, not the end results or what people thought about me,” he said. “I had to fall in love with the work, the grind of it. And I knew if I ever got a chance I’d be in the best shape of my life.”

On a fortuitous late-November game in Baltimore, Raiders coaches caught sight of a large, swift practice-squad receiver running some extra routes after the regulars had retreated to the locker room. Almost on the spot, they determined they needed to acquire Waller. Of this player today, Gruden said, “From the very first day we saw him, I thought he was the most impressive athlete on this team. And now after one year I can say he might be the most impressive athlete that I’ve seen in this league. That’s the kind of special talent that he is.”

The Raiders were featured this preseason on the HBO show “Hard Knocks,” and being good story-tellers, the network naturally latched onto Waller’s saga. He gained some idea of the platform he now commanded when on a getaway to Chicago he heard, “Hey, aren’t you Darren Waller?” while in a concession line at Wrigley Field.

“Ever since ‘Hard Knocks,’ it’s been overwhelming how many people have reached out to me through Instagram, sending me a direct message, saying you inspired me to want to get clean. Or people talking about having relatives who are struggling with it – or who have died because of it – and they appreciate me being honest and up front about it,” he said.

“It makes me feel better than anything I can do on the field. I had no idea I could have that much impact on other people, helping them to want to turn their life around. Back in my day I wasn’t really worried about anything anybody else was going through.”

On Sunday, when the Raiders played host to the Titans, players around the league wore their causes on their cleats. Waller included Marietta’s Davis Direction Foundation, only fitting since he once played travel baseball with Davis Owen. Missy Owen began the foundation after Davis died of an overdose in 2014. She and two board members of the foundation flew to Oakland for the game.

“Nobody wants to be addicted,” she said. “Darren kept coming back because he wanted to be well. People who are addicted to drugs are not bad people trying to be good, they are sick people trying to get well.”

During Sunday’s loss to Tennessee, in addition to six catches for 73 yards, Waller also fumbled for the first time as a pro. It was returned for a touchdown by the Titans. A couple of years ago, such a play would have haunted Waller for weeks. But so much has changed. This truth really hit him in October when he sat down in a Raiders office to sign his rich new contract.

“The contract was for three years,” he said. “I look at the past three years of my life and how erratic it has been and wonder how can you look that far in the future?

“That the team thinks that much of me, felt really good. For them to say, OK, he can be consistent, that was special. Because there was a long time where I didn’t trust myself to be consistent. I feel I’ve come a long way in that. I’m definitely grateful for it.”

He still attends regular support meetings, which includes a weekly conference call with players around the league who have gone through addiction issues.

And now his view to the future, far less cloudy than it has been for much of his youth, includes moving next season to a place built on temptation, Las Vegas. How’s that for a next challenge?

Waller is so ready for the next trial that he can even halfway joke about it.

“Why can’t I be someone who lets people know that you can be there, and it also can be a safe place?” he said.

“And I’m sure a place with that much temptation must have some great recovery meetings.”