The questions aren’t hard-hitting in the least, nothing like the vicious hits he’s expected to endure come fall: “Do you still play for the Razorbacks?” “Where did you go to high school?”
“How many years have you been in the NFL?”
And this curveball: “Why is the baseball field so muddy?”
Darren McFadden takes each child’s question in stride. It’s the end of the first day of a football camp he’s headlining at Maumelle High School and there is no reason to hurry. He hasn’t rushed through the passing, receiving and running skills work he’s done with 300 kids this Tuesday morning, and again takes his time with each soft ball thrown his way, smile on his face the whole time.
Finally, an older child throws something that could raise a pulse or two hundred thousand: “Do you like Houston Nutt?” McFadden doesn’t hesitate to praise his college coach of three seasons, a fellow Little Rock native who helped him become Arkansas’ all-time leading rusher in a single game, season and career: “Houston Nutt was a great coach. I loved playing for him, and I even keep in contact with him today.” Cheers erupt from the parents sitting in the Hornet Stadium bleachers.
McFadden, arguably Arkansas’ most popular athlete this century, has this way with people. On the field, the Oakland Raider running back is a nearly sure bet to elicit applause, whether by talking or doing what he does best – blasting through and around very large men using a mix of power and acceleration that, if trained for another sport, could be showcased in London in this summer’s Olympics.
Sherman Cox, a former defensive coordinator at Dardanelle High School, coached against McFadden’s Oak Grove High School team. Cox told his players to try hard to stop McFadden at the line of scrimmage, but if he broke through “it’s over. Just stand there and watch him,” Cox recalled. “We didn’t have anybody who could catch him.”
Off the field, McFadden stays tight with his community and family.
Each time McFadden returns to his home state, he finds another way to reconnect. In early April, he visited one of his high school coaches, Mike Buchan, now Maumelle High School’s head coach. He also spoke to the Hornet players, said Cox, now Maumelle’s athletic director. A few weeks ago, McFadden flew back for a two-day marathon crisscrossing the state, signing more than 1,500 autographs and promoting his cousin Ron Watson’s Sooey Sauce. Last week, he revisited Maumelle, where he’d attended elementary school, for the two-day football camp for 7-to-14 year olds run by ProCamps, an international event management company employing NBA, NFL and MLB stars among its clinics’ coaches.
“It feels great being out here,” he said. “A lot of these kids, I know they’re from the same community I grew up in [downtown Little Rock near Central High] or from around the same area where I went to high school. So it’s just great to be out here and running around and teaching them some of my skills. I just wanna come out here and be a great role model for these kids.”
For Marvell Harris, a recent Little Rock Central High graduate, McFadden has already proven to be a good role model. As a high schooler, McFadden, Harris’ uncle, would take care of Harris, about eight years his junior. McFadden took Haris to his practices at Oak Grove, then drove him home. Harris remembers his uncle, who would be a Parade All-American, was laid-back off the field and never discussed specific football goals. “He would just go hard, you know. Just do it,” Harris said. “He wanted to provide for his family. I want to do the same.”
Thanks to McFadden’s advice, Harris is on track to do this. He’ll play football at Henderson State this fall, which looked unlikely two years ago when he was a sophomore getting into trouble in and out of class. McFadden, though, insisted he had to get his studies in order – that earning a college scholarship in football would be his best bet going forward. “I had a 360 turnaround,” Harris said. “I went from a 1.5 GPA to a 3.5 GPA.”
There is no question that central Arkansas’ most beloved athlete says the right things. Ever since getting involved in a January 2008 ruckus in front of Little Rock’s Ernie Biggs dueling piano bar, he’s pretty much done the right thing off the field, too. And when he’s been on the field, he’s money: in 2010, D-Mac finished as the NFL’s fourth-best rusher; last season, he led the league in rushing through the first six games while helping Oakland to a 4-2 start.
But, as happened in previous seasons, injury cut his year short, and the Raiders sputtered to a 4-5 finish. This time, it was an injury to the mid part of his right foot. Before then, the culprits had been different – toe, shoulder, knee and hamstring problems – but the effect has been the same: 19 games missed in four seasons, a recurrent theme of “what if” instead of “what is.” McFadden says he’s now pain-free and has set lofty goals: lead the NFL in rushing, 1,800 single-season yards. “I’m going to go out there and live up to the hype,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Troy Schulte in May.
This offseason, Oakland has cleared the way for McFadden to emerge as its franchise’s face. The Raiders signed Dennis Allen as head coach and let another top rusher, Michael Bush, sign with Chicago. Therefore, McFadden will likely face more expectations – and scrutiny – than at any other point in his career. Should he or his team stumble along the way, or should fate again hand his health a bad card, the questions will come more fast and hard than ever before.
Just as any great competitor would want it.
This article originally published in SYNC magazine