How Raiders’ Darren Waller recent injuries impacted his battle for sobriety: ‘Still trying to shed my old thinking patterns’

Darren Waller didn’t miss a game during his first two seasons as a starter for the Raiders. That changed in 2021 when he missed five games with a knee injury, a back injury and a brief stint on the COVID list.

Losing time is not easy for any player in the NFL, but it was especially difficult for Waller. As the Raiders prepare for their Wild Card game against the Bengals, the 29-year-old tight end spoke about his battles with substance abuse and addiction that were put to the test while he was out of the lineup.

“Because of my addiction disease, that can make me think of all kinds of crazy things,” Waller said, according to ESPN’s Paul GutiĆ©rrez. “So, I have to make sure I talk about those things when I have all that downtime. I have my therapist. Continue with [A.A.] meetings stayed in the playbook. Working on music. Just staying solid, keeping my head out of that downtime and just things that I enjoy. And stay in the soccer game as long as I can. “

Waller has been open about his troubles in the past, which nearly derailed his NFL career. He failed multiple drug tests during his time with the Ravens and was suspended twice, missing four games in 2016 and serving a one-season suspension in 2017.

“I sabotaged all of that myself,” Waller said of the failed tests in a September 2020 interview with Steve Serby of the New York Post. “I willingly failed my tryouts to get out of the league because in my mind I’d rather be put out of my misery, so I literally orchestrated that to happen because that’s how much I wanted to walk away and just be myself.”

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However, Waller’s suspension in 2017 served as something of a wake-up call. He has been sober for over four years and has worked hard to stay sober. That includes the internal battles he fought during his recent out of action period.

“It’s difficult, honestly, because I’m a human being at the end of the day and I’m still trying to get rid of my old thought patterns,” Waller told ESPN. “So when I’m not outside [playing]I can think of these thoughts of, ‘The team is playing without me being there. I’m useless? These irrational thoughts.

“I had to be willing to stay in the practices that I have to bring me back from that place: ‘Woah, woah, woah, it’s not even that anymore.’ I’m not acting, per se, but I still have a role on this team. But sometimes my mind can tell me, ‘Oh man, you’re not really doing anything. You’re out’.

“So it’s just staying locked up. I have to do that because my mind can take me to those places. And I don’t want to be there anymore.”

Waller returned to the field for the Raiders in Week 18 and had two receptions for 22 yards. Now, he will have a chance to play the first playoff game of his career on Saturday when the Raiders travel to Cincinnati to face the Bengals.