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The Best Back In The Land
Phil Taylor
August 20, 2007
He's a fun-loving prankster off the field, and with his blend of power and speed Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden usually has the last laugh on it
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August 20, 2007

The Best Back In The Land

He's a fun-loving prankster off the field, and with his blend of power and speed Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden usually has the last laugh on it

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Team Total Yards Player Yards Player Yards
2005 USC 3,042 Reggie Bush 1,740 LenDale White 1,302
2006 Arkansas 2,815 Darren McFadden 1,647 Felix Jones 1,168
2004 Minnesota 2,617 Laurence Maroney 1,348 Marion Barber III 1,269
2005 Minnesota 2,594 Laurence Maroney 1,464 Gary Russell 1,130
1981 SMU 2,575 Eric Dickerson 1,428 Craig James 1,147

Apparently there are still some residents of Arkansas who don't immediately recognize Darren McFadden, the Razorbacks' multitalented tailback, when he's not wearing his red-and-white number 5 jersey. But even those uninformed few tend to stare at McFadden with a puzzled don't-I-know-you-from-somewhere? expression as they try to figure out if they went to grade school with him or if he's a cashier from the local Wal-Mart. McFadden finds this amusing--actually, he finds almost everything amusing--and he likes to string folks along while they try to place him. "I'm not going to help them," McFadden says. "If they ask, I just tell them I'm a student. If they want to know my name, I'll just say people call me D." It's typical McFadden, a bit comical, a bit devilish, but it's a game he doesn't get to play as much as he used to. "These days," he says, "people pretty much tend to know who I am."

No wonder. It's hard for McFadden to keep a low profile after his dizzying ascent last year from a freak preseason injury to a second-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting (behind Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith), the highest ever for a Razorback. Only a sophomore, he flashed into the national spotlight by leading Arkansas to the SEC West championship with 1,647 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, including a collection of breakaway runs so breathtaking that asking his coaches and teammates to pick their favorite often sends them into a lengthy internal debate. Was it the 80-yard touchdown run against LSU? Or the 63-yard dash against Auburn? Or maybe it was the 70-yard scoring run as a freshman against Georgia, on which he accelerated so quickly the Bulldogs couldn't lay a finger on him? "You can take your pick," says Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. "He had so many runs where he hit the hole and he was gone, like everybody else was playing in mud."

The only group more familiar with the 6' 2", 215-pound McFadden than Razorbacks fans may be Heisman voters, who surely have him on their short list of leading candidates for this season's award. As the highest returning vote-getter, he has to be considered the favorite, although quarterback John David Booty of top-ranked USC is also getting early buzz. But even if he had not won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back last year, even if he didn't break off highlight-reel runs and show off his quarterback-caliber arm--he took direct snaps out of the shotgun in Arkansas's Wildcat package and completed seven of nine passes for 69 yards and three TDs--McFadden would likely still be the center of attention around the Fayetteville campus and in his hometown of Little Rock. Fun-loving, prank-pulling, cross-dressing tailbacks tend to get noticed.

McFadden is always in search of a smile, no matter how small. He's the guy who taps you on your left shoulder and then disappears, chuckling, behind your right. When he returned from the Heisman ceremony in New York City last December, he called his friend Razorbacks trainer Dean Weber and tried to persuade him to drive to the airport to pick him up because he had been left behind by the Arkansas staffer who was supposed to give him a ride. Weber knew McFadden's sense of humor too well to fall for the trick. "He'll do anything for a laugh," says Felix Jones, who teams with McFadden to give the Razorbacks perhaps the best running back tandem in the country (chart, page 74). "Ask anybody who knows him, they'll tell you he's a clown."

On at least one occasion, that was literally true. Last Halloween, McFadden attended classes looking like a refugee from Ringling Bros., with a multicolored wig, oversized glasses, a floppy green bow tie, suspenders and yellow pants wide enough to hold his offensive linemen. "I wanted to come up with something more original," says McFadden, "but it was the only thing they had big enough to fit me."

McFadden has always had a weakness for costumes. He once saw a 1970s-era Razorbacks helmet on a shelf in Weber's office and immediately decided to wear it to practice. In his most memorable episode, as a high school senior, he pulled a dress out of his grandmother's closet and wore it to school. "It was the ugliest dress you've ever seen," he says. "It had these fluffy, frilly things on the bottom and shoulder pads. It was just something crazy to do, and sometimes I can be pretty crazy." The seniors from last year's team can attest to that. The scooter-riding marauders who pelted them with water balloons in a fast-food parking lot last October were led by McFadden.

But McFadden knows when to stop going for the laugh in order to go for the throat. He has a fierce competitive streak, which Nutt discovered during Arkansas's summer football camp for high schoolers when McFadden was in ninth grade. After all the players were timed in the 40-yard dash, McFadden suggested that the campers with the best times race each other head-to-head. "So we lined them up," Nutt says. "Darren won by a wide margin, to put it mildly."

Would-be tacklers have just as much trouble keeping up. McFadden has been timed at 4.33 in the 40, which is see-you-later acceleration even in a Southeastern Conference teeming with speedsters. As a freshman against Alabama, he outsprinted several Crimson Tide defensive backs to the end zone, quickly convincing everyone in attendance, including himself, that he had the stuff to excel in the SEC. (Not that there was ever much doubt. McFadden was heavily recruited, but he never seriously considered playing for anyone other than his home-state Razorbacks.) Opponents who do get close enough to attempt a tackle are often surprised by a McFadden stiff arm that stands them up like a boxer's jab. "If you think the guy is just fast, you're wrong," says former LSU All-America safety LaRon Landry, a first-round selection of the Washington Redskins in the NFL draft last April. "He can deliver a blow like a linebacker."

McFadden wasn't always so powerful. As the 10th of Mini Muhammad's 12 children, he was surrounded by older siblings, some of whom helped make sure he didn't fall prey to the gang and drug temptations in their neighborhood. Money was tight, as were the accommodations in their four-bedroom home, but one thing young Darren never lacked was a set of eyes--though his parents were divorced, his father, Graylon McFadden, lived just a few miles away and helped in his upbringing--to make sure he stayed out of trouble.

The tattoos on his arms are testimony to a childhood that had its share of tragedy. One of them is a tribute to a friend who was shot to death, one is in memory of another buddy who died in a car crash. But the 501 boy tattooed across his biceps, referring to the Little Rock area code, is a sign that he's still loyal to his old neighborhood. He goes back often to visit his family and for his mom's chicken spaghetti, and for the most part he has avoided the dangers that brought down some of his friends, with the notable exception of the episode last summer that nearly ended his career.

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