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Like A Champ

As he readies for his return to NFL, Darren Waller talks openly about sobriety, his dedication to football and the human being he’s in love with.


Dec. 21 2023, Published 3:45 p.m. ET

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Photographer: Andrew Zaeh

Photo Assistant: Jack Mallett

Fashion Stylist: Robyn Fernandes

Grooming: Reza Tabassi

Videographer: Dante Williams

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“I always felt like I didn’t really fit in, I wasn’t like a normal Black kid. I was just different—which I didn’t see as something unique at the time”

It’s a Saturday afternoon and we’ve just begun our Zoom interview. Though a member of the NY Giants, Darren is currently not playing due to a hamstring injury he received earlier and is currently rehabbing (including dry needle/acupuncture). He’s wearing an Army green hoodie and tan baseball cap that he wears both frontwards and backwards during our interview.

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At 6 '6 and 245 lbs, Waller, a muscular frame gilded in tattoos doesn’t look like what he’s been through. The stats go as follows: he’s a Pro-Bowler, has played two positions (wide-receivers and tight end), played for three NFL teams and has charted on the NFL’s Top 100 Players list for numerous years (a list voted on by his peers).

Though he moved around a bit as a young child, he claims Acworth, Georgia as his hometown. “Growing up for me was interesting, I was good at sports, I was smart, I feel like I had a nice personality and had manners.”' Waller offers.


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A bit of a late bloomer (“I didn’t have attention from girls”- he mentions) Waller excelled in school and football. But off the field, Waller was starting a bout with addiction to several drugs including oxycodone, marijuana, liquor and cocaine (which he did later in life). This addiction led to several suspensions in both college and in the NFL. Though he had been fined and ordered to rehab before, it wasn’t until he overdosed in his jeep, he realized he truly had a problem. Waller went to a rehab program in Maine (which the NFL paid for). To ground himself, he got a job working at a local supermarket after.

Today, Waller lives a sober life though he admits to having a cigar every now and then. He’s started the Darren Waller Foundation that helps the youth avoid and overcome addiction. He’s also learned to express himself through music, releasing several projects that he writes and produces. Lastly, he’s newly married to Kelsey Plum, a fellow athlete who plays for WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.

Nothing about this man’s life has been normal—but oddly enough that’s the criteria for being a champion. We sat down to chat with Darren Waller about his journey.

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BLEU: Most of us (especially Black men) spent a big portion of our childhood playing or being around sports. What made you want to pursue a career? Why football?

Waller: I don’t know to be honest. I think my parents kind of threw me into it. I think my first year playing football—I was like four years old. I knew I was kind of good at it, early on. I didn’t think I would be playing professionally or even in college—I just felt like I knew what I was doing. The love faded in and out as life happened, but…

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BLEU: Tell us a little bit about growing up in Georgia.

Waller: I always felt like I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t like a normal Black kid. The music I listened to, the things I was into and the way I carried myself—I’d get made fun for it. I didn’t have any attention from girls, I wasn’t really into fashion. I wore random stuff that didn't match. A different kid, really sensitive. Not normal. I didn’t see it as a unique quality at the time, back then you just wanted to be like everyone else, fit in, be cool. I guess I found my footing socially once I started getting good at sports. It’s kinda easy to make friends and be in with the cool crowd. Sports afforded me the chance to go to college.

BLEU: What was it like transitioning from wide receiver to tight end?

Waller: It was definitely a journey. I played one [my rookie] year as receiver. I was still gaining weight and moving at a goodpeed. They saw some traits, the tight end position was changed and they were like “we are going to try you at tight end when you come back”. I went and watched YouTube highlights and films of tight ends like Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, Tony Gonzales, Zach Hurst, etc. At the time, I didn’t give myself credit for my football IQ that I already had. I already had a feel, I just needed the opportunities to go out there, learn and grow. Learning how to block these big dudes like Terrel Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Matt Judon, Darrius Smith—these top guys I had to come in and learn how to block—and they were like fucking kicking my head in. It was rough for a while and it took some time. A very windy road of learning and getting experience. Being better than I would tell myself [in my mind] that I was and getting out there and surprising myself with some of the things I was doing. I was able to take the opportunity [afforded by teams including The Raiders] and run with it.

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BLEU: You’ve talked openly about addiction and sober life. I find stories around this very interesting and not enough people who look like us talk about this? Walk us through the journey from addiction to sobriety?

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Waller: I started using it when I was fifteen. Started with painkillers and graduated to smoking weed, drinking [alcohol] and doing other kinds of pills and stuff as the years went on. At the time, I didn’t know addiction and alcoholism were on both sides of my family—so I was kind of predisposed from the jump. I was already wired with that thinking. You don’t really turn to drugs and alcohol the way that I did unless you’re trying to numb something or run from something. You think you are dealing with a problem but you’re not. That [drug and alcohol use] was from not fitting in, feeling like I wasn’t good enough as I was. It continued through college—I was failing drug tests, getting kicked off teams. The consequences kept coming but I was already deep in addiction—so they didn’t register for me. I had an overdose on pills in August 2017 and that was the last day I used. It was almost a month to the day before my 25th birthday so you’re looking at a 10 year run free of addiction.


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BLEU: Glad you’re still with us ‘cause a lot of people aren’t. Are you still living a sober life?

Waller: Yeah. I mean I like smoking cigars—I'll smoke a few of those a week but I don’t drink, I dont’ smoke weed, I don’t do anything like that.

BLEU: What made you want to start the Darren Waller Foundation and what do you want to accomplish with it?

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Waller: Through my sobriety and growing spiritually, I feel like the greatest thing I can do is give back. We’ve been able to send people to treatment on scholarship and give them sober living when they get out of treatment. Giving them the opportunity to change their life and it’s for people who wouldn’t be able to afford this. I was given an opportunity to go to treatment for free by the NFL and that experience changed my life—so I want to give that same gift to somebody else. We put like 60 something people through full treatment. Being able to do events, hang out with people and see the gratitude on their faces is a really cool thing. It all stems from my own journey, needing a helping hand and wanting to continue to pay it forward.


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BLEU: They say you have to have a vice for every virtue. Would you say your vice now is music?

Waller: It definitely is music. Once I got sober, it turned to women and going through shit with relationships—that became a drug. But you can turn a vice into a positive direction and music is definitely one.

BLEU: Speaking of music, tell us a little about how you discovered your love for music.

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Waller: I'm an avid listener to music and always listened with a deeper ear. My great grandfather was a legendary jazz musician [Fats Waller]. I didn’t really know much about him. My parents had me take piano lessons as a toddler and I was in band in middle school. I really enjoyed music but once I got to high school and got on the football team, it wasn’t cool to be in the band. In college, guys on the team would freestyle—I could come up with good lines but as far as freestyling I was too anxious. After having a jazz history class my senior year, the professor said “You need to learn about the impact of your great grandfather.” I was inspired by that to start writing to beats, making songs and just stuck with it. Through repetition and time, I started getting better and making beats myself. Now, I’ve been able to do a lot of cool stuff and I feel like I’m making the best stuff I’ve ever made. I'm releasing an album coming out in February and a single in January. Just staying on the journey and loving every second of it.

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BLEU: How often do you create music?

Waller: Daily. I’m either working on a beat or writing a verse every day. Working my pen out and getting better at my craft. That’s what I love to do the most. It really fills my cup up and gives me that childlike joy.

BLEU: If you could collaborate with anyone?

Waller: Man, oh so many. I listen to so many genres of music from hip hop to —

BLEU: Give me three.

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Waller: I feel like Drake is so versatile, you can’t go wrong. I’m a big fan of Coldplay, so I'd put them in there. Number 3? Oh man there’s so many people. There’s an artist like Mick Jenkins, out of Chicago, he’s like my favorite rapper right now.

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BLEU: I respect people’s right to keep their personal life private, but also wanted to give you the opportunity to speak on your marital status and your relationship?

Waller: I’m married to a human being. Not really into all of the stuff that comes with it. People look at it for what each of us do individually and that somehow makes our marriage on a different level. It’s really two human beings trying to figure it out. I support her being successful at playing basketball because that’s what she loves to do. I mean if she loved playing badminton or drawing pictures on notebook paper, I would support her doing it and wouldn’t think anything different. Two real people at the end of day, just trying to figure out life yo.

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BLEU: We talked earlier about your growing up and the struggles there. What would this version of yourself tell that earlier version of yourself?

Waller: Be authentically you. It may be rough for a little bit. You may wonder why people are treating you like this or making you feel like an outcast. You’re going to look back and see people that we’re cool or that you wanted to be like—burnt out. They didn’t last because even they weren’t being their authentic selves. There’s going to be a path for you doing what you want to do and what you are passionate about. Trust the journey. Any journey you think is going to be free from difficult moments or tough circumstances—you’re playing yourself. Saying that, the things you go through will play to your advantage and make you stronger. Stay the course.

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