Nov. 8, 2023, would have been the epitome of a slow news day locally, had it not been for the struggles of the Razorback football team. In print and over the airwaves, Arkansans from one end of the state appeared to have only one thing on their minds, the precipitous fall from relevance of their beloved Hogs. In public forums and private conversations, fans decried the mounting losses — most recently Ole Miss with Alabama up next — turning up the heat to blistering on players and coaches alike.

 

Few fans saw the more significant Razorback news that day, posted quietly on social media. The post bore a simple photograph of a laser-printed certificate of completion bearing the seal of some entity called ASPIRE Recovery Center of Frisco in one corner, surrounded by a thick blue border. In large script, just above center, read “Darren McFadden.” Below that, in block type was, “One Day At A Time.”

 

“Well idk how to start this or what to really say…” began McFadden’s post on Facebook and Instagram, “but I’m proud of myself right now.”

 

The poignant, plainspoken lines that followed hit the reader like a brick. An Arkansas sports icon, McFadden was revealing his struggle with mental health and alcohol, of how drinking isolated him from his family and “had just turned my life into a shit show, pretty much.” He wrote about his desire to get well and his sense of accomplishment of having reached six months of sobriety. The post, which generated 411 comments from among 92,000 followers, is the last he made to the account, a digital bridge from his old life and the new.

However, McFadden had more to say, and a month later, he sat down to an interview about his life the triumphant and the tragic — in the hopes his story would inspire someone else to get well. He spoke quietly throughout the talk but with a resolve that suggests he personified his illness like a closing linebacker looking to cut his legs out from under him, foiled from doing so only by the force of McFadden’s resolve to hit addiction harder than it can hit him.

 

“One of my earliest memories of football, I never shied away from contact,” he said. “I’m more so prone to going toward it.”

 

Darren McFadden was born Aug. 27, 1987, and raised with 11 siblings in what he called “the not-so-good side, not-too-nice side of Little Rock.” His parents, while split, were both in his life growing up, which helped steer him away from the gangs and addicts that were as common in his neighborhood as weeds on a vacant lot.

 

“As far as growing up in the home, my parents were always big on respect, doing the right thing, staying in school, working, just trying to do better than what was around us as children,” he said. “That was something that kind of molded me through life. I didn’t know as a kid growing up exactly what I wanted to do, but I’d seen enough of what I didn’t want to do.”

 

McFadden was rambunctious, and by age 6, his folks enrolled him in sports programs to channel his energy. He made friends easily with the kids in the neighborhood, and his immediate talent on the football field did not hurt his popularity.

 

“At 6 years old, I was already naturally faster than a lot of kids,” he said. “As time went on, I realized me being faster than everybody meant something. I would say probably 9, 10 years old was when I started gaining confidence that I knew I could play sports better than this kid or that kid.”

 

Honed by his father Gralon and supported by his mother Mini Muhammad and stepmother Ella McFadden, the only thing that could keep up with the young athlete was his growing legend on the football field. Raw talent morphed into an acute understanding of the game — its angles and curves — stoked by a billowing competitive fire.

 

At Oak Grove High School in North Little Rock, McFadden would letter in three sports, but the unquestioned feature attraction played on Friday night. Punishing at safety, electrifying at tailback and skilled at many things in between, McFadden was a video game come to life. By the time he graduated, he had racked up nearly 5,000 career yards and almost 60 touchdowns. Easily the best prep player in the state, he was a 2004 Parade All- American, and the high school player of the year by both the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Landers Award.

 

Rivals.com ranked him the 23rd best player in the nation, but a simple eye test was all it took for most recruiters, a string of which looked to follow Arkansas’ star to pay homage in the McFadden living room. McFadden saved them all the trip.

A “Razorback through and through,” McFadden committed to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville as a high school junior and never wavered from that decision.

“For me, it was hands down, I was a Razorback through and through,” he said. “I would say it probably started to kick in as I got older and I realized that I can actually do something. Once the University of Arkansas offered me a scholarship, I knew.

 

“I remember talking to my high school coach and him saying if you already know where you want to go there’s no point in wasting nobody else’s time and no point wasting your own time. I had a visit scheduled with Alabama and I ended up canceling that visit. I committed to Arkansas as a junior, and I never wavered from that.”

Darren McFadden

Arriving on the Hill, McFadden created instant buzz that would only grow louder with each passing week. For three years, he thrilled fans with the anticipation of every handoff. Lethal to bring down and impossible to catch, he made a mockery of opposing defenses in the most competitive conference in the sport. As a true freshman, he amassed 1,113 yards on 176 carries, averaging 6.3 yards a tote and scoring 11 times. He followed that up with 1,647 yards on 284 carries his sophomore campaign, a 5.8 yards-per-carry average that hit pay dirt 14 times, plus one through the air and one on a kick return.

 

As a junior, the fireworks continued. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover of the college football preview issue, and McFadden delivered, racing for 1,830 yards on 325 carries, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He scored 16 touchdowns on the ground and threw four more out of the innovative Wild Hog set.

 

Such production gave him hardware to spare. In three years, McFadden collected the 2007 Walter Camp Award denoting the game’s best overall player, was a three-time first-team All-SEC (2005 to 2007) and claimed matching Doak Walker Awards as football’s best running back, the Jim Brown Trophy, SEC Offensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American, all coming in 2006 and 2007. Both seasons, he was also squarely in the Heisman conversation, especially as a junior. It is as mind-boggling that he was second twice in Heisman balloting as it is inconceivable anyone would ever have thought him second-best.

“With the Heisman, in my first year I just felt like I was making a name for myself. I came into the Heisman conversation probably four or five games up in the year,” he said. “I just played football, and that’s what I did. The accolades that came along with it, I couldn’t care less about at the time. It was something that wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. I wanted the team to be better.

 

“Going into it as a junior, I knew that I was going to be one of the Heisman candidates, and I had a goal to win the Heisman at that point. I expected to win it, and once my name wasn’t called it surprised me. I can’t take anything from what [Tim] Tebow did that year. He put up great numbers and everything, but that one hurt right there. I didn’t let it take control of me or depress me or anything like that; I just put it in the back of my head. I get asked about it a lot, and that’s always my answer to it.”

 

McFadden insists his drinking, which began at age 15 in what he describes as normal teenage experimentation, never posed a problem through high school or college. Yes, he drank, and so did thousands of other college kids who did not carry the hopes and vicarious aspirations of thousands on their back every Saturday and whose missteps evaporated on the ether of anonymity.

 

“It started with so many teenagers hanging out, some teenagers drinking, offer it to your friend, friend takes a drink, and I was one of those friends that took the drink. I didn’t see anything wrong with it or anything like that,” he said. “As a kid, you know you’re not supposed to drink or whatever, but we felt like we could handle ourselves and be mature about it. It wasn’t any type of situation where anybody was like, ‘Go ahead, just do it, man.’ I pretty much did it on my own; once it was presented to me or I had opportunity to, I did it.

 

“In high school, we’d go hang out at a party and have some drinks and everything. Same thing in college for me, pretty much. I was never a kid like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a class in the morning; let me go get a couple drinks in the hallway.’ It was always a social environment — hanging out, drinking and stuff at parties, college kids getting together to have a good time.”

 

In truth, fans were far more concerned over McFadden returning for his senior year than if he tipped a few beers on the weekend, and they had reason to be. Most were disappointed, if not altogether surprised, when he entered the NFL draft early. An impressive showing at the NFL Combine paid off with his being selected fourth overall by then-Oakland Raiders which, having been burned by touted but ultimately busted quarterback JaMarcus Russell in a holdout, was eager to lock up the former Hog.

 

McFadden agreed to $60.1 million over six years, $26 million of it guaranteed, Despite what is often said about football turning from game to a job overnight, said he found the transition to the pros a natural one.

 

“It was still just the game of football to me,” he said. “I never understood that thing about guys going to work and everything because I just looked at it like guys going to football practice. That’s what I was doing. In hindsight, it is a career at the end of the day, and that’s the way you have to approach it. As you get older and you understand it’s a career, a business, how you take care of your family and everything, you have to approach it that way, but, like, at first, going from a game to a career, I didn’t really look at it that way. I felt like I was still playing football.”

 

McFadden may have still looked at the game the same way, but the pro game did not reciprocate. After receiving much hype in training camp, he turned in a decent rookie season in 2008, with nearly 800 total yards and four scores. His high-water mark came in 2010, with 1,157 yards rushing, 507 yards receiving and 10 total touchdowns. Overall though, much of his pro career alternated between flashes of former brilliance and the reality of nagging injuries that cost him playing time and effectiveness. The nicks took as much toll on his mental state as on his physical gifts.

 

“Going through something one year and you miss four, five, six games, come back the next year with such high hopes and injure the same thing,” he said. “It makes you question yourself some, for sure. Like, man, what am I doing out here? Can’t stay healthy. Am I even worthy of being on this team still? All the doubts and thoughts start creeping into your mind.

 

“You can definitely feel the doubt and tension of the people that’s around you and some of your own teammates and stuff. You just have to keep ahead of it and keep working. I knew at the end of the day, I wasn’t faking injuries or anything like that. Just, I can’t go. I can’t go. It’s just part of the game. I just always was like, I know what I can do when I’m out there. No matter how much you tell yourself that, you still have those doubts creep into your mind. For the most part, I just tried to stay focused.”

 

In 2015, McFadden signed with the Dallas Cowboys, and the change of scenery seemed to bode well as he again topped 1,000 yards rushing, becoming the only Razorback to have two 1,000-yard NFL seasons, but injuries followed him to Texas. As time wore on and new, younger faces replaced him atop the depth chart, McFadden grew increasingly frustrated. In November 2017, he asked for and was granted his release from the Cowboys. He retired from football two days later.

 

In the grand scheme of things, McFadden had led a relatively incident-free, if statistically modest run in the NFL. Other than a well-publicized lawsuit against a former business partner that alleged fraud and mismanagement, he avoided negative headlines off the field. What the world did not know was the social drinking of his youth had intensified during his pro career, and, with retirement bringing ample time and resources, McFadden had finally met an opponent he could not outrun or bowl over.

 

“As I got older, being able to drink on my own and not have any big responsibilities as far as having to get up and go do something, I could come home in the evenings and have a couple drinks,” he said “Two, three times a week, I’d have a drink at the house or whatever. Over time, those two or three times turned into every day, and the later I got into my career, when I could feel I was getting pushed to the side, I think I probably started drinking a lot more then.

 

“After retirement, it pretty much turned into drunk on the daily. I didn’t feel it was affecting me in any kind of way as far as my day-to-day habits or what I did. I was a functioning alcoholic pretty much. As time went on, it increased, and there were plenty of signs but I just didn’t think about it.”

 

Looking back, McFadden can see the spiral he was in, accelerated by depression and a rising tide of booze. What he did not know was his was a textbook example of the surge in mental health and addiction issues among elite athletes. Athletes for Hope reported in 2019 that a third of all college students experience depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, but while 30 percent of the general population seeks help, only one in 10 athletes do.

 

Worse, the higher an athlete climbs in their sport, the deeper mental illness sinks their claws into their back. Athletes for Hope data shows up to 35 percent of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis, and without proper help, this often leads to self-medication in the form of alcohol abuse or drug addiction. In a study, the NCAA found that between 32 percent and 38 percent of female collegiate athletes and between 40 and 50 percent of male collegiate athletes reported regular consumption of more than four drinks of alcohol at a sitting. More concerning, 30 percent of student athletes in the study reported experiencing blackouts, a red flag for alcohol addiction. The same percentage said they did something they later regretted under the influence.

 

Such habits in college only accelerate among pros who have the resources to get drunk or high and the invincible mentality that the odds will not catch up to them, but catch them it does, be it in Olympic sport (gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps), individual sports (PGA golfer John Daly, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard), or team games (Super Bowl quarterback Brett Favre, World Series champ Darryl Strawberry), each to varying degrees ensnared by mental illness, pressure to perform or dealing with the end of their prime playing years. It is a tune McFadden knows by heart.

 

“Football changed everything for me, gave me something to do, gave me a sense of purpose,” he said. “Retiring from football, what do I do now? OK, I’m not doing anything, I can kick back, do whatever I want to, have as many drinks as I want to and not think about whatever. Eventually that drinking grabs ahold of you, and it’s hard to kick it, for sure.”

 

McFadden’s issues came to a head in 2019, when he described getting into altercations and pushing his family to the breaking point. That year, he was arrested, drunk and passed out behind the wheel at a Whataburger drive-thru, forcing police on the scene to break out the vehicle’s windows to get him out of his SUV. During the melee, in bodycam footage, which was broadcast by TMZ Sports, McFadden appears to inadvertently step on the accelerator, wedging the nose of his truck against the side of the building. As the tires continue to spin, the screech of rubber sounds akin to a call for help, one he would eventually follow into treatment.

 

“In my mind I’m like OK, I’m going to get it together. I’m going to stop drinking and figure it out,” he said. “You’re losing your family, drunk, had an accident, pretty much had to be thankful that you were able to walk home and the other person was able to walk home. That was a real eye-opener for me at that point right there. It was time for me to get myself together. I want to do well for myself and be healthy physically and mentally and everything.”

 

Six months does not a recovery make, but reaching that sobriety milestone in November was enough to make the intensely private McFadden open up on social media about the journey he had been on. If he felt any discomfort over discussing his struggles, the cat was let permanently out of the bag the next day, when David Bazzel and Roger Scott gave him a platform to discuss it on 103.7 The Buzz’s Morning Mayhem. Today, McFadden is much more knowledgeable about his issues, and that brings an ease talking about it.

 

“Going into [rehab], I told the counselors, ‘I’m going to walk in here and try to get sober, and maybe one day I can drink like a normal person,’” he said, “but the more I heard people talk about their stories, my mind started to change. I realized I had to first admit to myself that I was an alcoholic. Every time I heard somebody telling their story that they’ve been sober for 10 years, I was like, damn. That opened my mind that this is not something that just goes away. You have to continue to work on that every day.

 

“I started to think this is not something I can do by myself. I’m not just a normal drinker. When I drink, I go on a binge. Listening to people and talking to different counselors just opened my mind up.”

Darren McFadden

McFadden’s time with the Dallas Cowboys initially showed promise but was soon marred by the injuries that plagued his earlier career.

Possessed of a football mind and the skills to analyze on the fly, McFadden seemed to know instinctively where to go on any given play. Finding a crease, exploding through an arm tackle and accelerating smoothly into the clear were all given to him at birth and refined through hours of practice over miles of turf. The field that stretches before him today is not as familiar, his opponent lurking in the crevices of his mind, looking for an unguarded moment to bring him down. The game of his life, barely at halftime, plays out from here with no playbook to guide him, yet he moves into it, slower maybe, but with no less resolve, hoping to help others, as well as himself.

 

“I’m to a point that I don’t mind opening up about things. You’re embarrassed about it and you don’t want people to know the extent, but that’s part of what kept me in a darker place as far as with the drinking and not being able to come out of there,” he said. “I don’t want to be telling somebody I’m this, I’m that, and then I’m here passed out drunk. Being able to open up and being able to talk about it is something that helps me hold myself accountable.

 

“There’s people who struggle with things, and you may not even know. Maybe somebody you talk to every day, and you don’t even know. I want people to know they’re not alone in it and it’s OK to talk to somebody about it. I want to be able to help people say, ‘He had this problem. He got over it. He can talk about it. Maybe I can try to talk with somebody about it.’ Then you have to take it one day at a time. I don’t try to look out and say, ‘What am I going to do two years from now? Will I be drinking, or will I be doing this?’ I take it one day at a time. It helped me to not worry so much about what other people are saying or thinking. It definitely taught me what I am, a very resilient person.”  

 

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