Last night (10/10/19), around 250 showed up for an event featuring Oakland Raider tight end Darren Waller. A North Cobb High School alum, Waller spoke to the crowd frankly and openly about his own struggles with drug addiction and how it has affected his life. A number of North Cobb football players were in attendance, as well as students from other nearby schools.
Dressed in Raider colors, Waller wore a black hooded pullover and gray athletic pants. He was refreshingly free of NFL bling and arrogance; and his demeanor was as unpretentious as his outfit. Waller wasn’t trying to impress with his speaking abilities, he was trying to speak humble truth and personal experience about a very gritty subject—drug and alcohol dependence.
The evening began with a short video called “Out of Reach” about teen addiction. Hostess Kimberly Hutcheson welcomed everyone and a string of speakers came forward to let the audience know about several areas where drug addiction, and the opiod crisis, are being battled locally. Beverly Wright discussed how her company ATLytiCS is using data to fight the problem. Ryan Stringfield spoke about the ways Pathways2Life is working through education, intervention, and support to connect with students who suffer with addiction. Mike Linch, senior pastor at Northstar Church, spoke about his personal knowledge and experience of Darren Waller, as did North Cobb head coach Shane Queen, who also had the task of introducing and welcoming Darren to the stage.
Darren spoke for 35 minutes about his personal history, both on and off the field, and how drugs and alcohol were a means of escape starting as early as his sophomore year at North Cobb. Darren said he always felt like an outsider, and football was a way to make him feel accepted. Drugs were a way, he said, to dull the feeling that he couldn’t live up to other people’s expectations. “Getting high was the only escape, because change was too hard,” he confessed.
On the day he should have felt the most gratitude and confirmation of his abilities, Darren felt numb when he was picked by the Baltimore Ravens in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL draft. “I was living a life that everyone appreciated, except me,” Waller said, shaking his head. Drugs continued to be a part of his life, even in the NFL. After getting a bad batch of drugs, where he said he should have died, Darren began to see his life as being at rock-bottom. After serving a full-year suspension in 2017 for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy, Darren was waived by the Ravens and was signed by the Raiders in November of 2018. He said he was officially clean of drugs and alcohol 26 months ago, on August 12, 2017.
Darren said he now realizes that none of us can do it alone. This is why the event was called Team Up Against Drugs, he said. “It wasn’t until I began to see myself in this light, as needing other people and being a servant to and for others, that my actual recovery began.” He realized that others were always looking out for him, even though he didn’t know it, and now he seeks to do that for others around him. “You can’t do it alone,” he repeated. Asked to name two things he learned during the whole process, he said without hesitation, “Analyze your crowd (meaning your social group), and be careful what you consume (meaning TV shows, internet sites, music, etc.).”
Three other speakers took the stage after Darren. First up was Missy Owen, co-founder and CEO of Davis Direction Foundation. Missy lost her son Davis in 2014 to a heroin overdose. He was valedictorian of Kennesaw Mountain HS, a leader in multiple honorary clubs, had a supportive family, and everything that “should” have guaranteed success. Missy shared that she wished she would have been educated on what to watch for and know about drugs and addiction. Her foundation seeks to educate and take away the stereotypes of abuse. She also shared about how to dispose of pain medications safely and how Narcan can be given to reverse an overdose victim. She carries Narcan everywhere and recently used it to help an overdose victim on her flight return from DC, where she is working to improve awareness.
Tim Houston came up next. Tim is an Acworth alderman and gave out his phone number to the entire audience to display his commitment of service to our community.
Finally, Jonna Metzger took the stage. Jonna is a former Atlanta Falcons cheerleader , ATL WOW woman, and now a teacher at Baker Elementary. She brought her enthusiasm and love for kids to support this event by giving out participation prizes and signed pictures so no one walked away empty-handed.
The evening closed with photos and Chick-Fil-A meals in the lobby. Darren and the other speakers were all readily available to talk and pose for photos with anyone who asked. Darren is a living example of a radically changed life, and anyone in attendance last evening will not soon forget it.