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How Darren Waller Bounced Back From Rock Bottom to Become One of The Top Tight Ends in Football

“If I had one message of encouragement to the people in my city, my country, and all across the world, it would be to remember who you are.”

An illustration of Darren Waller smiling and running out of the tunnel is the cover image for our profile of Waller's comeback story
Credit-AP/Getty/NFL/Joker Mag

“I feel like if I were to continue down the same path, I probably wouldn’t be alive…”

What does rock bottom look like for a former NFL draft pick?

Getting waived by the team that signed you? Or stocking shelves at a Sprouts Farmers Market?


For tight end Darren Waller, both experiences pale in comparison to what he felt at his lowest point. Rock bottom was a day he’ll never forget.

August 10th, 2017. 

It was less than two months after the NFL suspended Waller for a year – his second suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. 

Waller felt numb to the implications.

He could’ve been throwing away the dream many kids have of playing football at the highest level. So what did he do? He went to his go-to method of release: drugs.

Seated in his car that afternoon in the parking lot of a Giant supermarket, Waller expected to get the same dose of temporary comfort.

This hazy, fleeting form of relief is one he had frequently leaned on. It’d helped him deal with the stress and pressure of being a professional athlete.

Instead, someone gave him Fentanyl, and he experienced what he described as an overdose.

Waller originally thought he’d passed out for a few minutes but when he awoke to pitch-black surroundings, he knew this fix was anything but normal.

That’s when it hit him that he needed help.

He was a heartbeat away from death.

At the same time, he was only a quarter of a mile away from the practice facility of the team that gave life to his NFL career.

Darren Waller on his previous drug addiction: "I feel like if I were to continue down the same path, I probably wouldn't be alive."

Darren Waller grew up in a stable environment in Acworth, Georgia – a suburb northwest of Atlanta. He described his childhood as good, raised by his hard-working parents.

He played multiple sports but truly shined on the football field.

He played wide receiver throughout high school and earned a scholarship from Georgia Tech, a prestigious university in downtown Atlanta known more for its academic accolades than athletics.

Waller excelled in the classroom and the field. He could’ve qualified to attend the university just based on his academic record.

From the outside, it seemed he had everything going for him. But inside, Waller was crumbling.

The pressure from football and finding his identity led him to abuse drugs. He started using at age 15 and continued through his college years.

“I’m going out four, five, six nights a week…I would do anything you put in front of me,” he said.

At times, he was playing football under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Waller even had a system for beating drug tests at Georgia Tech. He would put fake pee inside of an empty 5-hour energy drink bottle and tape it to one leg.  

His talent on the field and ability to hide his addiction kept him on a path to his ultimate dream.

After three seasons at Georgia Tech, he declared for the NFL Draft. At the Combine, he ran a 4.46 40-yard dash with a vertical jump of over 40 inches.

At 6’6’’ and 238 lbs, his athletic prowess made him a top prospect at his position. 

His future coach, John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens, was thrilled to bring him in.

“The first thing I did was look at the tape…my thought is, he’s going to be a first or second-round type guy for sure.” 

But Waller wasn’t drafted as highly as the tape would’ve suggested.

He slipped into the sixth round, as intel surfaced of his two failed drug tests during college. Cautious NFL teams saw this as a red flag for possible character issues.

Harbaugh was convinced he could overcome them and drafted Waller in the sixth round as the 204th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Unfortunately, Waller was unable to conquer his addiction even after getting drafted. He was known to put on a good face for the cameras and coaches, but he couldn’t hide his inner issues forever.

Darren Waller on working at a food store in 2017: "I was stocking shelves, I was bagging at the front and putting in work."

He was suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy in July of 2016.

Not learning any kind of lesson, he was suspended again the following June.

Two months later, he had his rock bottom experience that nearly killed him.

Waller took this close call as a sign of his need for intervention. He checked into a rehab program in Maine at McLean Borden Cottage and completed his year-long suspension.

“Progress was being made,” Waller said. “That was a game-changer.”

He thought his football career was over, so he moved back to Georgia with his parents. Looking for a source of income and something to fill his time to avoid relapse, Waller got a job at Sprouts Farmers Market.

The structure and routine he got from working there helped him for years to come.

“I was stocking shelves, I was bagging at the front and putting in work,” he said.

“And I valued my work. I make those shelves look nice, make a good display. Now I see, looking back, how valuable that experience was working there.”

He started eating healthier, working out harder, and filming his progress. His new and improved mindset and attitude led to his reinstatement by the NFL in 2018.

“The level of excitement from that compared to draft day, I was 100 times more excited being reinstated because I wasn’t valuing football back then”.

Waller’s comeback took a brief halt when he was waived on September 1st, 2018, and signed to the practice squad the next day.

That setback could’ve sent him spiraling backward after all the hard work and dedication. But his new perspective on life filled him with renewed motivation.

He continued to practice hard before games he wouldn’t play in, running routes with game-time speed and intensity. His attitude caught the attention of a coach on the sideline of their preseason opponent: head coach of the Raiders, Jon Gruden. 

The Raiders signed Waller in November of 2018, demonstrating he was still valued by an NFL team.

After getting hurt during the 2018-19 season, Waller had a breakout year in 2019-20. His diligence and recommitment to establishing good habits paid off.

He played in all 16 games that season, catching 90 passes for 1,145 yards and 3 touchdowns. Building on this success, he became one of the best tight ends in football the following year. 

An inspiring quote from Darren Waller: "If I had one message of encouragement to the people in my city, my country, and all across the world, it would be to remember who you are."

In 2020-21, Waller caught 107 passes for 1,196 yards and 9 touchdowns. He was named to his first Pro Bowl and was second-team All-Pro at tight end

Now with the New York Giants, Waller takes nothing for granted.

He chose his jersey number for what it represents. 12 is a symbol of sobriety and recovery. He chose it to stand in solidarity with anyone else in recovery from addiction.

He still attends two substance abuse recovery meetings per week.

“I’ve come a long way, but at the end of the day, it’s all about [stacking] days, and you go to meetings, and there’s people in there with 20-something years. It’s like, you’re doing good things, but it’s a lifelong commitment. Don’t rest on it. Don’t get complacent with it.”

He established The Darren Waller Foundation in 2020 to support a community he sees as a part of his life forever.

He founded the organization with a dual mission at hand:

  • To prevent teens from falling into the trap he did of drug and alcohol addiction.
  • To assist teens and their families through the recovery process.

Against the Wall is the foundation’s signature outreach program, providing grants to qualifying people. These are individuals who can’t afford a portion or the entirety of the treatment program offered.

Founded in Las Vegas, Against the Wall facilitates treatment at Nevada-based facilities. To date, 39 recipients have completed treatment, and 10 others are enrolled.

Waller also engages in a second aspect of the foundation’s outreach called Wall Talks where he goes to local Las Vegas high schools and gives presentations about his personal journey.

He ends each presentation by allowing the teens to sign a S.H.I.N.E. pledge. S.H.I.N.E stands for Self-awareness, Hope, Integrity, say No, and Encourage yourself and others.

Waller has continued to be active in the program even after getting traded to the New York Giants in 2023.

His passionate philanthropy earned him a Walter Payton Man of the Year award nomination in 2021.

Along with the foundation, Waller is a budding musical artist and producer. He uses music as another avenue to keep him on the right track. 

After all, it’s in his blood; he is the great-grandson of legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller. He’s recorded two albums and multiple singles since 2021.

Darren Waller’s journey could’ve been cut short on that fateful day in August of 2017.

He was possibly a milligram of Fentanyl away from his heart stopping.

He uses that day as a reminder to stay grounded and encourage others to practice gratitude.

“If I had one message of encouragement to the people in my city, my country, and all across the world, it would be to remember who you are,” he said.

“We are strong, resilient people who are capable of displaying love, kindness, and patience in the most violent of storms. Remember all of the tough times and uncertain situations you have endured. We’re lucky to still have life.”

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Written By

Rodney is a freelance writer and alum of the University of Georgia. He grew up in the Atlanta area but now resides in Tampa, FL. His interests include sports, writing, reading, and talking smack about his favorite sports teams.



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