There isn’t a day that passes without Darren Waller being reminded of the daily battle he faces with drug and alcohol addiction. Some days are more difficult than others, though.
The Raiders’ Pro Bowl tight end missed five straight games from December 5 to January 2 while dealing with knee and back injuries. The setbacks created a disconnect with the structured, daily regimen Waller has come to rely on to keep his mind occupied and push it away from the dark place it sometimes takes him.
The 29-year-old Waller is extremely open about his past issues, and the constant fight he wages to remain sober. So he was completely forthcoming this week in sharing the struggles he faced while mending his body.
That includes revealing he meets with a therapist in order to communicate his feelings rather than bottle them up. And that, to keep his mind in a better place during his time away from the field, he tried to create as much structure as possible each day.
“Because of my disease of addiction, that can have me thinking all kinds of crazy things,” Waller said. “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. Stayed going to 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.”
The success the Raiders had in his absence while winning three straight games at one point was also a hurdle he had to clear. In Waller’s mind, he continually had to fight to remind himself he represented value to his team.
“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 said. “So, when I’m not out there, I can think these thoughts of, ‘The team is balling without me being in there. Am I useless?’ These irrational thoughts.”
Waller’s candidness is a reminder of what he still deals with, and the constant work it takes to remain on the right path.
“I had to be willing to stay in the practices that I have that bring me back down from that place,” he remembers thinking. “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.’”
Waller returned on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers and finished with two catches for 22 yards. He and Derek Carr just missed on a couple of big throws, which is understandable given all the time he missed.
For Waller, it was a challenge trying to find his footing while on one hand easing back into things and on the other badly wanting to help his team in a big game.
“It was tough to balance that. You want to come back and it’s like, this is a big game for the franchise and just the culture of the Raiders, getting back into where we want to be,” Waller said. “So it’s like, you want to go out there and make all these things happen. But at the same time, it’s like, I don’t have to go out there and do it by myself. And just realizing that as long as I do my role I have value when I’m touching the ball, or when I’m not touching the ball.”
Simply by getting out there against the Chargers, Waller put himself in position to play a bigger role on Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals in a wild-card round playoff game.
“We’ll continue to target Darren as we move forward as long as he’s up and he’s healthy and he’s playing for us,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. “He’s a difficult player to defend. I think everybody understands that … it’s just great to have Darren back and healthy.”
AFC wild card
Who: Raiders at Bengals
When: 1:35 p.m. Saturday
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
Radio: KRLV-AM (920), KOMP-FM (92.3)
Line: Bengals -5½; total 49½