It came as a surprise to almost everybody when tight end Darren Waller recently signed a multiyear contract worth a reported $9 million a season. This is a 3 year contract extension coming just as Waller was expected to become a restricted free agent next offseason.
When Darren Waller left the Baltimore practice squad and joined the Oakland Raiders last year, his contract was worth significantly less. Not only was he paid less, but he almost single-handedly destroyed his own career due to drug addiction.
Waller exposed details of his drug addiction on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” In it, he recounts “getting high like literally every day” in 2016. He further described himself as a “vegetable,” not exactly what one looks for in a football player. According to Waller, his substances of choice were opiates, Xanax, and cocaine.
In 2016, Waller ended up getting suspended for the first four games because the National Football League has a policy against substance abuse which Waller violated. His situation seemed to deteriorate even further when he was suspended again in 2017 — this time for the entire year’s season — a season known in the media as the “season of hard knocks.”
Ultimately, getting suspended for the entire year turned out to be Waller’s bottom, since it motivated him to attend much-needed rehab sessions. Since then, he has been clean for a little over two years.
The promises of sobriety started coming true relatively early for Waller, who was reinstated in August 2018 and was signed by the Raiders and head coach Jon Gruden on November 27. Wisely, the Raiders took him in under the condition that he work with them to develop a plan to keep clean over the long term. Many people assume that because someone is no longer drinking or using drugs, they no longer have a problem. But the Raiders understood that battling addiction is a lifelong process demanding the use of a program and associated coping strategies.
The support the Raiders provided Waller allowed him to prove himself far more capable on the field than originally assumed. He recorded a team-best 37 catches for 359 receiving yards and 17 first downs over the first five games. As of November 2019, Darren Waller ranks second among all tight ends in receptions. He has also rapidly become known as a decent blocker in both the running and passing game.
According to Waller, beyond his prowess in football and the huge paychecks he’s now getting, what he’s most proud of is his ability to be there for his team. “I feel like it just shows that I can contribute to a team and just be someone that’s reliable, can be counted on,” said Waller. “That wasn’t the case before, so I just take pride in doing that, and everything else happened. Let the results take care of itself, but I just try to be a good teammate first and foremost and be a part of the family. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
Drug abuse among professional athletes is more common than one might think. While there are many circumstances where athletes are driven to take performance enhancing drugs to improve their physical abilities in their sport of choice, it is often insufficiently remarked upon how athletes abuse other drugs as well.
Many other risk factors exist that make drug and alcohol abuse tempting for athletes. Top athletes are often under enormous amounts of pressure, and substance abuse can offer a way out of reality and temporarily alleviate the stress.
The culture of many sports leagues often disavows the existence of mental illness. For athletes who are suffering from depression, anxiety, or other illnesses, it can be difficult to cope or find support.
It would make sense that Darren Waller would resort to using Xanax, which is a benzodiazepine. Benzodiazepines are a class of drug that is often prescribed to reduce anxiety by affecting the brain and behavior.
Opiates, which Waller also regularly abused, provide a feeling of euphoria and help with anxiety as well. Opiates also block pain signals. While heroin is an opiate and an illegal drug, opiates in the form of prescription drugs are often administered by medical professionals to treat pain. Physical pain is another common reason for athletes to abuse drugs. Because they put their bodies through so many trials, it is common for athletes to try to “power through” chronic pain. Instead of seeking medical treatment or outside help, self-medicating with opiates or alcohol can be a tempting alternative.
Using opiates and benzodiazepines together has an increased risk profile, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
However, as Waller proved, having the courage to seek help not only improves ones performance but increases ones paycheck. You don’t need to be an NFL football player to experience the benefits of sobriety.
Darren Waller took advantage of a residential rehab program to treat his substance use disorder. These programs have a history of helping even the most dire cases get sober.
If you or a family member is interested in exiting the cycle of substance abuse and getting sober, the best course of action is reaching out to a detox center, rehab, or a sober living. These programs can help you get a sense of the path ahead and put you on the road to long term sobriety.