FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) – His sensational exploits are almost routine now – the sprints to the end zone, the surprising passes over stunned defensive backs. College football fans know all about Darren McFadden, the Arkansas tailback blessed with as much ability as anyone in the country.
If only they knew. If only everyone knew how easily this story could have changed – then they might be even more impressed with McFadden.
“He had so many opportunities for really bad things to happen in his life,” said Leecie Henson, who taught McFadden in seventh grade.
McFadden was once an undisciplined kid who gave Henson nothing but grief. Meanwhile, his mother was battling a drug problem while trying to maintain a close bond with her son.
Then there was the lapse in judgment last year, and the guilt McFadden felt after jeopardizing his entire career by staying out late and getting hurt – just weeks before the start of the season.
Now McFadden is an All-American and Heisman Trophy contender – and in Arkansas, he’s much more than that. He’s perhaps the most popular player ever to suit up for his home state’s most popular team and a source of pride for a close-knit family that’s been through so many difficult times.
“God spared me for a reason,” said Mini Muhammad, McFadden’s mother. “He knew what my son was going to do.”
McFadden began playing football when he was around 6, and he immediately fell in love with the sport. His talent was obvious, but it could have easily gone to waste.
“If it wasn’t for Miss Henson, I wouldn’t be at this point I am now,” McFadden said.
Their relationship was a rocky one at first.
“It was one of those things, teacher-student. We didn’t get along at all. I guess we hated each other’s guts at the time – because I was bad,” McFadden said. “I wanted to do things my way, and she wanted it done her way. … As time went, we just grew closer together. She’s just like another mother to me.”
By the time McFadden reached ninth grade, his relationship with Henson, who taught him study skills, had improved. But he still had plenty of challenges ahead.
“He wasn’t doing well in his classes. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do well, he just didn’t do well. He still was kind of getting in some fights,” Henson said. “I had a conference with his dad and his stepmom. … I just told them that I had been told that Darren had a real talent, and that he probably could play ball in college. … I said he would not be able to go to college if he didn’t straighten up.”
Henson – who now teaches at Springdale High School near Fayetteville – remains a mentor to McFadden, though he draws much of his strength from his family. McFadden is one of Muhammad’s 12 children. His father, Graylon McFadden, isn’t married to Muhammad – but both parents played a major role in their son’s life as he grew up in the Little Rock area.
“I know a lot of folks grow up without their dads … some even (without) their moms,” Darren McFadden said. “I was very fortunate to have both my parents stay right in Little Rock, right near each other.”
Henson describes McFadden as intensely private. She said she found out only recently about some of the dangers he faced growing up. The two watched a documentary together about gang violence in Little Rock.
“He said, ‘Oh, look, there’s dad’s house,”’ Henson said. “He said, ‘Oh, I remember him but he’s dead now.’ I just stopped it, and I said, ‘How did you make it? How did you survive?”’
The credit, Henson says, goes to McFadden’s family, which did its best to shelter him from trouble.
“His dad did everything that he possibly could,” Henson said. “That was his goal … to keep him out of those things.”
McFadden has opened up a bit lately, shrugging off some of the shyness he admits he feels when around people he doesn’t know. Those close to him describe a maddeningly playful jokester – and there are plenty of stories to back that up.
John Mayes, McFadden’s high school coach at Pulaski Oak Grove, remembers his star player dressing up as an old lady, wearing a skirt, boots and a wig.
“That was one of the funniest parts of homecoming week,” Mayes said. “He was not afraid to have fun.”
This is the man that strikes such fear into opposing defenses? Henson reveals another fun fact.
“He’s Imelda Marcos. … He’s got more shoes than I do,” she said. “He had to move to a bigger apartment, because he didn’t have enough closet space for his shoes.”
Then there’s the car McFadden drives around Fayetteville – a red 1996 Ford Crown Victoria that hovers above the ground atop an absurdly oversized set of wheels.
“Football is about having fun,” McFadden said when asked about all of his antics. “I know when to be serious and when not to be.”
McFadden has had plenty of reasons to be serious over the years. Muhammad talks freely about her problems with crack and marijuana, which she says she overcame after being briefly jailed in 2002 on various traffic charges.
“I was just tired, and I just told my children to let me stay in there (for a bit),” Muhammad said. “I’ve been clean ever since.”
McFadden said he wasn’t aware of his mother’s struggle at first.
“As I got older, I had suspicions and things, but I didn’t want to let her know or anything like that. So I just pretty much kept it to myself,” McFadden said. “She’s doing really great. I think she’s been clean five, six years. She’s doing great.”
Last year, Muhammad and her son shared in his newfound success, traveling to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. He finished second to Ohio State’s Troy Smith.
Henson described a text message she received from McFadden during that trip.
“He texted me and said, ‘I just want to thank you for everything. I love you so much,”’ she said. “I cried through the whole thing. I thought – nobody knows what a sweet kid this is.”
McFadden still comes home to central Arkansas whenever he can. He had plans to make the trip down from Fayetteville this weekend – the No. 18 Razorbacks have the weekend off before traveling to play Alabama.
McFadden was back home last year when he dislocated his toe in a fight outside a Little Rock club. Details were sketchy, but McFadden had put himself in a precarious situation – about a month before his team’s 2006 opener.
“I felt like my whole world just went down the drain,” McFadden said. “I felt like I had let the whole state down – our family, friends, things like that. They were all still supportive of me, but at the same time, I know they were very disappointed in me.”
Henson remembers the immediate aftermath.
“He was just sobbing and apologizing and apologizing,” she said. “He was sobbing when he went into surgery. He was sobbing when he came out of surgery. It took days to get him to come around.”
McFadden recovered quickly, and the injury became an afterthought as he rushed for 1,647 yards last season. That and his ability to throw when taking direct snaps from center earned him attention from the Heisman voters.
McFadden is now a junior, and his father says he’s noticed a change after last summer’s injury.
“I think he’s mellowed down a whole lot,” Graylon McFadden said.
The younger McFadden concurs.
“I guess I was a weekend person when the weekend came,” Darren McFadden admitted. “I’m not very much older, but I just feel like I’m 30 because I just like to sit back and relax. I really don’t go out much anymore.”
McFadden has earned praise for his humility. Stardom doesn’t appear to have gone to his head. Janet Forbess, a University of Arkansas faculty member, has had McFadden in several classes.
“As he has got more and more famous, he doesn’t change in the classroom,” she said.
As part of Forbess’ classes, McFadden has gone to area schools to teach physical education to kids. Working with youngsters seems a natural fit for him.
“If he can make you laugh, his day is made,” Henson said. “He’s done his job.”
Behind the scenes, McFadden leaves an impression on people that’s as memorable as one of his 60-yard runs.
“He’s a nice kid. He’s a sweet kid. He tried really hard to not be. For a long time, he didn’t want anybody to know that vulnerable side of him,” Henson said. “But when you get to know him, you know that he’s very giving. He’s a very, very giving person.”