Darren Waller didn’t miss a game during his first two seasons as a starter for the Raiders. That changed in 2021 when he missed five games with a knee injury, back injury and a brief stint on the COVID list.
Missing time isn’t easy for any NFL player, but it proved especially difficult for Waller. As the Raiders prepare for their Wild Card game vs. the Bengals, the 29-year-old tight end opened up about his battles with substance abuse and addiction were tested while he was out of the lineup.
“Because of my disease of addiction, that can have me thinking all kinds of crazy things,” Waller said, per ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez. “So, I’ve got to make sure that I’m talking about those things when I have all that idle time. I’ve got my therapist. Stay going to [A.A.] meetings. Stayed in the playbook. Working on music. Just staying solid, keeping my head out of that idle time and just into things that I enjoy. And stay into the game of football as much as I can.”
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Waller has been open about his struggles in the past– they nearly derailed his NFL career. He failed multiple drug tests during his time with the Ravens and was suspended twice, missing four games in 2016 and serving a season-long suspension in 2017.
“I sabotaged that whole thing myself,” Waller said of the failed tests in a Sept. 2020 interview with Steve Serby of The New York Post. “I willingly failed my tests to be put out of the league because in my mind I’d rather have them put me out of my misery, so I literally orchestrated that to happen ’cause that’s how much I wanted to get away and just be by myself.”
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However, Waller’s 2017 suspension served as something of a wake-up call. He has been sober for more than four years now and has worked hard to maintain his sobriety. That includes the internal battles he fought during his recent stint out of action.
“It’s tough, honestly, because I’m a human being at the end of the day and I’m still trying to shed my old thinking patterns,” Waller told ESPN. “So, when I’m not out there [playing], I can think these thoughts of, ‘The team is balling without me being in there. Am I useless?’ These irrational thoughts.
“I had to be willing to stay in the practices that I have that bring me back down from that place — ‘Woah, woah, woah, it’s not even that anymore.’ I’m not out there performing, per se, but I still have a role on this team. But sometimes my mind can tell me, ‘Ah, man, you ain’t really doing nothing. You out.’
“So it’s just staying locked in. I have to do that because my mind can take me to those places. And I don’t want to be there anymore.”
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Waller returned to the field for the Raiders in Week 18 and he logged two catches for 22 yards. Now, he’ll have a chance to play in his first career playoff game on Saturday when the Raiders travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals.