Darren McFadden began running at an early age, 4, 5 years old, sprinting as fast as his little legs would take him and trying to keep up with his older brother. It wasn't so much that he was trying to impress him, although he did in keeping up, but rather it was more about the gunfire from which they were running. Much more difficult to hit a moving target, one of the first lessons taught when growing up in Little Rock in the early-1990s.
This was the Crips and the Bloods, perhaps the most violent and vicious gang war the country has ever seen, and McFadden, the current Dallas Cowboys running back, was situated at ground zero in the city. The 10th of a dozen children, seven boys and five girls, McFadden had an older brother on each side.
His parents never married, but lived in the same neighborhood, on Schiller Street near Centennial Park. His father was a carpenter; his mother was addicted to crack.
Of course, for children, normalcy is their everyday surroundings, and while incomprehensible for just about anyone else to fathom, this was McFadden's world. He didn't know anything else.
"That's my thing. It's hard to even explain because to me, it was normal," McFadden said. "It was just the environment I grew up in. Growing up, it was always a big family. We struggled when I was younger, it was just hard times, but for us, we were always resilient and just kept pushing forward and kept fighting through anything that presented itself or any obstacles that came and met us.
"For me, I just carried that through life. Anything that presents itself to me, I feel like for what I've been through in my past and growing up, that there's nothing ahead of me that could be any worse."
Entering the league in 2008 as the No. 4 overall pick of the Oakland Raiders, McFadden was supposed to be the next great running back, following in the footsteps of Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson. He was a two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up at Arkansas, and to many, along with Peterson and Reggie Bush, the most electrifying collegiate rusher of his generation. His games were must-watch television, especially when he was taking snaps out of the "Wildcat" formation. Heck, he even threw – yes, threw – seven touchdown passes during his final two seasons with the Razorbacks.
Over his seven years as a Raider, before signing with the Cowboys this past offseason, McFadden never quite became the next Marcus Allen or Bo Jackson. Sure, he could conjure up memories on occasion, the talent was there. There was even the 2010 campaign when his 1,664 yards from scrimmage ranked fifth in the league.
But, well, there were injuries. He missed 29 games over his first six years, and outside of that one stellar campaign, McFadden never rushed for more than 707 yards in any season. By no means has he been a bust, but Canton isn't exactly working on his bust, either.
"I definitely don't feel like I can say I lived up to my expectations," McFadden said. "I haven't fulfilled what I've wanted to do or the impact that I wanted to make on the league as a player coming in. I wanted to be the Adrian Peterson guy, have seven great years and keep going, but I had to deal with injuries and that slowed me down a lot.
"I basically got an 'injury-prone' tag thrown on me over the years and that's something that I have to deal with as a player because that's me. I made that bed and I have to lay in it. But to me, I always tell people I can't control any of that. If I go out there playing 110 percent and get hurt, I'm fine with that. I can deal with that. It's not like I'm out there standing around, taking time off and then getting hurt. If I'm out there going 110 percent and something happens, I can say I was giving it my best when it did happen."
While McFadden wasn't an angel growing up, he stayed out of trouble, at least in terms of what trouble was in Little Rock at the time. His older siblings kept an eye on him, tried to keep him away from their world, pushed him toward sports, toward football and school.
His father, Graylon, coached him on the football field, sometimes driving as many as 15 of his teammates to practices and games in his van. He also started bringing Darren along with him on jobs, mostly when building houses. At first, Darren would pick up as the carpenters were finishing their work, but as he grew older, he was up there on the roof shingling as well.
"That was his main thing, just to show me that you had to work. You're not going to be given everything free. You have to go work," McFadden said. "I can remember going to work with my dad in the summers as young as 7, 8 years old, and as I became older, maybe 11 and 12, it was like, OK, you're old enough for some real work. I wasn't used to that part of it. I wanted to go and run the errands with him instead of staying there and cleaning up the whole day.
"I would say that was probably the hottest time when you were doing roofs. When you're doing inside work, carpenter stuff inside, it was fine, but doing roofs in the middle of the summer, in Arkansas, and being on top of those shingles, yeah, that was extremely hot."
For the most part, Darren lived with his mother, Mini Muhammad, and his siblings. Again, the central theme of his childhood was the ever-present gang threat. Two of his brothers were shot, two more were sent to federal prison.
The violence was so brutal that HBO filmed one of its most acclaimed documentaries there, Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock, in 1994. McFadden shocked his middle school teacher by naming the majority of the central figures shown in the movie while his class was watching it. For Darren, these were the people he saw every day.
"Yeah, it was a big gang thing," McFadden said. "I had older brothers that were gang members, so it was just one of those deals where what they did in the streets, it also trickled down into the home life. We've had our houses shot up at times. That's something that you don't want to have any kid go through, but to me, it was just like that's what it was. It was normal.
"I can't say I was afraid because to me, I grew up. I guess we would have said you had to be hard and you had to be fearless, so to me that was just part of the normal life. Just gangs and dealing with drugs and drug addicts."
Among the addicts was his mother, who would often disappear into her bedroom for periods of time. She was a crack addict and an alcoholic. Her main drug dealer was her oldest son. When she was arrested for some outstanding traffic violations, she told her kids to leave her in jail so she could clean up, meaning more or less rehab herself. She stayed in jail for eight days and has been clean ever since, nearly 12 years later. In 2008, Muhammad told the San Francisco Chronicle, "For the stuff I put my children through, stealing their money, selling their shoes, VCRs, stuff like that, we made it out of that."
For McFadden, he always adored his mother, and even with the addiction, he felt she was always there for him. Looking back, though, while she and his older siblings thought they shielded Darren from those issues, he knew. More times than not, children know a whole lot more than adults realize.
"When I was a kid, I didn't really understand, outside of OK, they'll go in a room and close the door and everybody's in there and you don't really know what's going on. But then as you get older, you start to realize," McFadden said. "I would say when I was probably around 10, 11 years old, I really started to realize, yeah, something is not right. Having older brothers and sisters, and they pretty much know, they'll let you know what's going on because as a family we didn't hide things from each other. Everybody knew what was going on."
Football became a part of McFadden's life early on, around the same time he first heard gunfire really, as his father played cornerback at Arkansas-Monticello. Darren was in full pads, oversized helmet and all, at 6 years old, playing with kids two grades ahead of him. Still, he was one of the best out there, juking and dodging defenders with ease. That, along with the influence of his family and, yes, common sense, kept Darren away from the gangs.
"Just growing up and seeing the things that my older brothers had been through and family members and cousins, it kind of pushed me away from that lifestyle," McFadden said. "I always tell people I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up, but I knew what I didn't want to do, and that was fall into the same trap that I've seen happen to people around me."
When it came time for high school, Darren couldn't have been more excited to attend Little Rock Central. That was the plan growing up, he and his buddies leading to glory the school he could literally see from his father's front porch. The football program was among the state's best, too.
And there was absolutely no way his family was allowing him to go there.
"All my friends were going, so I definitely wanted to go there. I even went for a couple of summer practices, but my parents felt like the best thing for me would be going outside the city, to Oak Grove," McFadden said. "I obviously wasn't happy, but now that I look back on it, I'm glad that they did make that decision because if I would have stayed there and went to school, you are hanging out with the kids in the neighborhood all day. That's when you usually find trouble."
Each morning, McFadden woke up a little after 5 a.m. and headed for the bus stop. Some six stops and an hour later, he was at Oak Grove High School. There, he was a two-time All-State selection and in 2004, an All-American, rushing for nearly 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns.
"For what went into getting to school, I was going to attend classes and give my best. There was no skipping classes or anything. I feel like that was one of the best things my parents ever did for me," McFadden said. "Honestly, I actually liked school. I don't want to say it was fun, but it was fun compared to what I had to deal with at home. Being able to get away and just be a kid, have fun. The older I got, I'd rather go to school than be at home."
When it came time for college, there was little debate. McFadden was headed to Arkansas. He spent three years there, won two Doak Walker Awards as the nation's top running back, and ran for the second-most yards (4,590), behind just Herschel Walker, in Southeastern Conference history.
Off the field, though, there were a few incidents, one of which received national attention in July 2006. McFadden nearly lost his left big toe, it was torn down to the bone, during a parking lot brawl outside of a Little Rock nightclub. The story has been retold many times, usually with several mistruths, according to McFadden.[embeddedad0]
"It was a family thing, but at the same time, I feel like I was in the wrong because I was going into my sophomore year of college, and I shouldn't have been out drinking that late anyway," he said. "Someone was trying to steal my brother's car. I'm not going to just stand by and let it happen, so I'm having a scuffle and my foot got messed up and my toe basically came off.
"There are all kinds of stories from that night, like I had sandals on or I thumped somebody and kicked the curb, but none of that happened. I was wearing regular tennis shoes. I still don't know to this day how it happened, actually, as far as the toe being ripped off the way it was. I mean, the toe was literally just dangling off. You could see the bone sticking out."
Lying in the ambulance at 4:30 in the morning, McFadden, tears running down his face, called the school trainer and his head coach, Houston Nutt.
"I screwed up, and I knew I did. It was the worst feeling of my life. I felt like the whole world had come down on me," McFadden said. "I learned a lot from that. I feel like the way I grew up, and some of the incidents in college, fighting and stuff, it helped me mature a lot faster. I saw all the negative things that came at me, and that wasn't something that I wanted. I didn't want to be looked at in a negative light, so I just did my best to walk a straight path going forward."
When McFadden was drafted in 2008, he walked across the stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and told commissioner Roger Goodell while shaking hands, "You don't have to worry about the old me."
In recalling the story, McFadden smiled and said, "I'm definitely holding true to it so far, and I definitely plan on holding true to it until I'm finished playing."
Like most in Arkansas, McFadden grew up a Cowboys fan and was thrilled to join the team this past offseason as a free agent. He also knew owner and fellow Razorback alum Jerry Jones from his college days.
McFadden is 28 years old now, which for a running back in the NFL isn't exactly young. But in this 2015 season, he has taken over as the Cowboys' lead running back, totaling 20 carries in three straight games for the first time in his career, and posting two 100-yard efforts, including 152 against the Giants in Week 8. The talent is most certainly still there.
"I don't want to say I'm reviving or resurrecting my career. I just want to go out there and play ball," he said. "Hopefully as the season goes on more and more, I'm going to get more reps and they keep feeding me the ball. Whenever my number is called, I'm going to go in there and make sure I take care of my job and do what I'm supposed to do."