McFadden's NFL draft fate still could hinge on character questions
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.