You Don't Know Darren (cont.)
"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."