FOR THE second time in a year and a half, Darren McFadden was in the news for being involved in a disturbance outside a Little Rock nightspot. One of his brothers was being escorted from Ernie Biggs' Piano Bar in the early-morning hours of Jan. 10 when a scuffle broke out. Darren didn't join the fray and was neither arrested nor cited, but according to the police report the Arkansas running back and two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up was briefly handcuffed because he was "agitated and ... provoking aggressive behavior." Says Darren now, "You see your brother being choked. What are you supposed to do?" ¬∂ Over the next few days the incident dominated newspapers and sports talk shows in the Little Rock area. The theme was that McFadden, who'd been widely celebrated by coaches and fellow Razorbacks as a good teammate and a better person during his three seasons at Arkansas, was in danger of becoming yet another decent kid from a tough background dragged down by his past.
The fallout weighed heavily on the 20-year-old McFadden, who has no police record and who was preparing to announce that he would forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft. He expressed his anger and frustration to his mother, Mini Muhammad, who had been through her own struggles as an admitted former crack addict. But it was Darren's older brother Bilal Muhammad, who provided him with clarity and perspective. They were sitting in the living room of their mother's cramped one-story house, surrounded by photographs of Darren, his 11 siblings and Mini's 29 grandchildren.
"We've got to start looking at [your life] differently," said Bilal. "You're not the same little D-Dog [McFadden's childhood nickname] who used to run around the neighborhood. You've got to look at the bigger picture. You can't be out there doing things. You've got a lot at stake."
Recalls Darren, "When he said that, it was like I was already thinking the same thing."
Bilal's words were a sobering reminder to McFadden that even though he is the most talented running back in the 2008 pool, the distinction wouldn't prevent him from falling in the draft this weekend if NFL teams decide his potential on the field is not worth the risk of embarrassing headlines off it.
IN APRIL 2007, as NFL players' names were turning up with disturbing frequency in police reports nationwide, commissioner Roger Goodell instituted a stricter personal-conduct policy, with harsher penalties for multiple offenders and the specter of fines and lost draft picks for clubs whose players run afoul of the law. Since then Goodell has meted out lengthy suspensions to Titans cornerback Pacman Jones (one year), Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson (eight games) and Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry (eight games). Suddenly, more teams say they're as concerned with a prospect's character as with his 40 time or his arm strength.
McFadden rushed for 100 or more yards in 22 of his 38 games for the Razorbacks; ranks second on the SEC's alltime rushing list, with 4,590 yards; and has the respect of those who've played against him, including Nebraska coach and former LSU coordinator Bo Pelini, whose Tigers defenses gave up 182 and 206 rushing yards to McFadden in the last two seasons. Yet at McFadden's pro day on March 25, an NFL running backs coach approached another onlooker and wanted to know if it were true that Darren has a brother who is a member of the Crips street gang.
Deserved or not, McFadden had an image problem. His team of advisers—including former Olympic track star Mike Conley Sr. (marketing), Ian Greengross (contracts), Mike Vick (financial planning; no relation to the quarterback of the same name) and Frank Shaw and David Cornwell (legal counsel)—decided to confront it head-on. They told McFadden to be open and honest in interviews with teams and media. Does he have a brother who used to be a Crip? Yes. And another who was a Blood. One brother is in prison for a drug-related offense, and another served five years for possession of crack with intent to distribute. McFadden spoke frankly as well about paternity questions he has faced recently and said he would accept responsibility for two children who may be his.
He also realized he had to stop putting himself in situations in which trouble could arise. This month McFadden chose to stay away from the "End of the World" Greek step show at Central Arkansas, an annual event circled on the social calendars of black college students throughout the region. Last year's gathering was marred by unruly behavior and gunfire. McFadden figured he had nothing to gain—and a lot to lose—by attending.
SOCIOLOGIST Harry Edwards, who has worked as a consultant for major pro sports leagues, says the late 49ers coach and executive Bill Walsh brought him on board in the mid-1980s to develop tools such as personality testing that could help gauge whether a prospect would be a good fit for the Niners. Over time, as signing bonuses and other guaranteed money for top draft picks climbed from a few million to as much as $29 million for last year's No. 1, JaMarcus Russell, clubs began to focus on a player's character and how he might be influenced by associations outside of the team, including his family members.
"We simply have to know what [a prospect's] family is about, what they're doing, what they potentially have set him up for," says Edwards, who recently conducted a seminar on gangs for the NFL. "We simply have to have some idea about that, because when you draft a kid, you don't just draft that kid. You draft his whole family. When a young player arrives in the pros, he doesn't leave the culture that he grew up with at the locker room door."
In the months leading up to the draft, the NFL's security department performs a basic background check (police reports and other public records) on each of the more than 300 prospects invited to the combine. Clubs get additional information on a player's family background from one of two scouting services the league uses, BLESTO and National. Teams do their own follow-up work through regional scouts and, in some cases, private investigators.
While none of the team executives contacted by SI would speak on the record about the extent to which McFadden's background has been probed by interested clubs, several G.M.'s did say that, in general, the research will track a prospect as far back as middle school to determine patterns of behavior. Investigators talk to a player's former teachers, counselors, coaches and girlfriends. One prominent agent says regional scouts will even go into campus bars, posing as fanatical school alums, and chat up bartenders and other patrons to snoop out stories that might not have made the newspaper.
And what would investigators have found on McFadden? In addition to the nightclub incidents and the two brothers with criminal records, interested teams would have heard about the sister who's on the track team at Memphis and is scheduled to receive her degree this year; the brother studying at Arkansas--Little Rock; and other siblings with jobs in healthcare and cosmetology. They would have found that Darren's father, Graylon McFadden, has played a large, supportive role in his life. And they might have heard what Lieut. Terry Hastings of the Little Rock Police Department told SI: "Darren McFadden is a role model for the youth of Little Rock."
Several G.M.'s say they've found nothing to cause McFadden to fall in the draft, where on Saturday he is projected to go at No. 4 to the Raiders or No. 6 to the Jets, barring a trade by another team that wants him. "We really try to stay focused on, What has the kid done?" says one NFC general manager, speaking of how his team views a prospect with a troubled background. "Has he been able to overcome those circumstances? [When] a guy, either through his own inner strength or what a parent has done, has been able to come through that clean or even strong, to me that's pretty darn impressive."
People close to McFadden say the true depth of his character could be seen in the hours after the first nightclub incident, in July 2006, when he fought with someone who, according to police, was trying to steal a car belonging to one of Darren's brothers. Seated in a hospital room awaiting emergency surgery on a toe he injured in the fight, McFadden phoned and texted family, friends, teammates and coaches to apologize for letting them down. There was no self-pity, no mention of the threat to his football career.
"That's Darren," says Leecie Henson, who was one of McFadden's middle-school teachers and remains a confidante. "He is a very determined young man who enjoys nothing more than making people laugh and generally just making them happy. It bothers him when he feels he's let someone down."
Henson has witnessed the highs and lows of McFadden's development since she met him as a seventh-grader. She was the study-skills instructor; McFadden was a sullen, unresponsive student. Before class, Henson says, she'd sometimes stand over McFadden's desk and pray he'd be absent.
Over time, however, the two developed an understanding. Near the end of that school year students were instructed to write a letter of thanks to their favorite teacher, as an English assignment. McFadden wrote to Henson, much to her surprise. The letter so touched her that even now the two rarely go more than a few days without communicating with each other.
IN ITS 1994 documentary Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock, HBO exposed the underbelly of McFadden's hometown. The images that shocked the nation were, for McFadden, part of everyday life. He grew up in one of the neighborhoods where video was shot and knew several subjects of the film who have since been killed in gang or street violence.
Years later Henson watched the documentary with McFadden for a paper he was writing at Arkansas. Finally she turned to him and asked, "Darren, how did you make it? How did you survive?"
"I don't know," she recalls him answering. "God just had a plan for me."
That plan appears to include the NFL. And while some personnel people would be more comfortable if McFadden distanced himself from certain family members, he says there is no need to worry. "I can't turn my back on my family, because they're the reason I'm the person I am today," McFadden says. "But I do know the boundaries and limitations that my family and I have. They know what I have going and the things I have lined up. We can't put any of that in jeopardy."
Asked by Henson how he had made it out of his Little Rock neighborhood, McFadden said, "God just HAD A PLAN for me."
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Photograph by Greg Nelson
TWISTS AND TURNS After winding his way through the predraft process, McFadden is poised to be the first back selected.
Photograph by Greg Nelson
SECOND NATURE A two-time Heisman runner-up, McFadden ranks No. 2 on the alltime SEC rushing list, with 4,590 yards.
NELSON CHENAULT/US PRESSWIRE
Photograph by Greg Nelson
SHUTTLE DIPLOMACY As impressive as his workouts have been, McFadden knows his draft fate may hinge on more than skills.