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The Best Back In The Land

Aug. 20, 2007
Aug. 20, 2007

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Aug. 20, 2007

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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

Apparently thereare still some residents of Arkansas who don't immediately recognize DarrenMcFadden, the Razorbacks' multitalented tailback, when he's not wearing hisred-and-white number 5 jersey. But even those uninformed few tend to stare atMcFadden with a puzzled don't-I-know-you-from-somewhere? expression as they tryto figure out if they went to grade school with him or if he's a cashier fromthe local Wal-Mart. McFadden finds this amusing--actually, he finds almosteverything amusing--and he likes to string folks along while they try to placehim. "I'm not going to help them," McFadden says. "If they ask, Ijust tell them I'm a student. If they want to know my name, I'll just saypeople 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. "Thesedays," he says, "people pretty much tend to know who I am."

This is an article from the Aug. 20, 2007 issue

No wonder. It'shard for McFadden to keep a low profile after his dizzying ascent last yearfrom a freak preseason injury to a second-place finish in the Heisman Trophyvoting (behind Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith), the highest ever for aRazorback. Only a sophomore, he flashed into the national spotlight by leadingArkansas to the SEC West championship with 1,647 rushing yards and 14touchdowns, including a collection of breakaway runs so breathtaking thatasking his coaches and teammates to pick their favorite often sends them into alengthy internal debate. Was it the 80-yard touchdown run against LSU? Or the63-yard dash against Auburn? Or maybe it was the 70-yard scoring run as afreshman against Georgia, on which he accelerated so quickly the Bulldogscouldn't lay a finger on him? "You can take your pick," says Arkansascoach Houston Nutt. "He had so many runs where he hit the hole and he wasgone, like everybody else was playing in mud."

The only groupmore familiar with the 6' 2", 215-pound McFadden than Razorbacks fans maybe Heisman voters, who surely have him on their short list of leadingcandidates for this season's award. As the highest returning vote-getter, hehas to be considered the favorite, although quarterback John David Booty oftop-ranked USC is also getting early buzz. But even if he had not won the DoakWalker Award as the nation's best running back last year, even if he didn'tbreak off highlight-reel runs and show off his quarterback-caliber arm--he tookdirect snaps out of the shotgun in Arkansas's Wildcat package and completedseven of nine passes for 69 yards and three TDs--McFadden would likely still bethe center of attention around the Fayetteville campus and in his hometown ofLittle Rock. Fun-loving, prank-pulling, cross-dressing tailbacks tend to getnoticed.

McFadden isalways in search of a smile, no matter how small. He's the guy who taps you onyour left shoulder and then disappears, chuckling, behind your right. When hereturned from the Heisman ceremony in New York City last December, he calledhis friend Razorbacks trainer Dean Weber and tried to persuade him to drive tothe airport to pick him up because he had been left behind by the Arkansasstaffer who was supposed to give him a ride. Weber knew McFadden's sense ofhumor 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 thebest running back tandem in the country (chart, page 74). "Ask anybody whoknows him, they'll tell you he's a clown."

On at least oneoccasion, that was literally true. Last Halloween, McFadden attended classeslooking like a refugee from Ringling Bros., with a multicolored wig, oversizedglasses, a floppy green bow tie, suspenders and yellow pants wide enough tohold his offensive linemen. "I wanted to come up with something moreoriginal," says McFadden, "but it was the only thing they had bigenough to fit me."

McFadden hasalways had a weakness for costumes. He once saw a 1970s-era Razorbacks helmeton a shelf in Weber's office and immediately decided to wear it to practice. Inhis most memorable episode, as a high school senior, he pulled a dress out ofhis grandmother's closet and wore it to school. "It was the ugliest dressyou've ever seen," he says. "It had these fluffy, frilly things on thebottom and shoulder pads. It was just something crazy to do, and sometimes Ican 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-foodparking lot last October were led by McFadden.

But McFaddenknows when to stop going for the laugh in order to go for the throat. He has afierce competitive streak, which Nutt discovered during Arkansas's summerfootball camp for high schoolers when McFadden was in ninth grade. After allthe players were timed in the 40-yard dash, McFadden suggested that the camperswith the best times race each other head-to-head. "So we lined themup," Nutt says. "Darren won by a wide margin, to put itmildly."

Would-be tacklershave just as much trouble keeping up. McFadden has been timed at 4.33 in the40, which is see-you-later acceleration even in a Southeastern Conferenceteeming with speedsters. As a freshman against Alabama, he outsprinted severalCrimson Tide defensive backs to the end zone, quickly convincing everyone inattendance, including himself, that he had the stuff to excel in the SEC. (Notthat there was ever much doubt. McFadden was heavily recruited, but he neverseriously considered playing for anyone other than his home-state Razorbacks.)Opponents who do get close enough to attempt a tackle are often surprised by aMcFadden stiff arm that stands them up like a boxer's jab. "If you thinkthe guy is just fast, you're wrong," says former LSU All-America safetyLaRon Landry, a first-round selection of the Washington Redskins in the NFLdraft last April. "He can deliver a blow like a linebacker."

McFadden wasn'talways so powerful. As the 10th of Mini Muhammad's 12 children, he wassurrounded by older siblings, some of whom helped make sure he didn't fall preyto the gang and drug temptations in their neighborhood. Money was tight, aswere the accommodations in their four-bedroom home, but one thing young Darrennever 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--tomake sure he stayed out of trouble.

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

It was after 4a.m. on July 29 when Nutt received a text message from McFadden saying that hewas in trouble and that he was sorry. "At first I thought it was anotherone of his jokes," Nutt says. "Then when he told me what happened, Iwished that it was another one of his jokes." McFadden had tried to stopsomeone who was attempting to steal his brother's car outside a Little Rocknightclub. In the altercation that ensued, his sandal came off and heaccidentally slammed his left foot into the curb, mangling the big toe so badlythat a bone came through the skin. The original prognosis was that thedislocation would keep him from being ready to start the season, and it waspossible he would have to sit out the entire year.

"It wasdevastating for him, but I think that more than anything, he wasembarrassed," Nutt says. "This is a kid who had done everything rightin terms of going to class and projecting the right image off the field, and hehated that he had put himself in that position." That embarrassment mayhave motivated McFadden in his rehab, because he returned to the field forpart-time duty in the Razorbacks' opener against USC. By the second game, hewas the old D-Mac, carrying 20 times for 184 yards and a pair of touchdownsagainst Utah State.

This seasonbegins with a completely different set of expectations. Arkansas fans batteredby a turbulent off-season that included the transfer of prized quarterbackMitch Mustain, the departure of innovative offensive coordinator Gus Malzahnafter only one year and a bizarre episode in which a disgruntled fan obtainedand disseminated Nutt's phone records, have their hearts set on seeing theschool's first Heisman winner. McFadden realizes that added pressure awaits."The first time I have a bad game or make a mistake, it's going to beheadlines," he says. "I'm not going to say that won't bother me, but Itry not to listen too much to what people are saying about me, whether it'sgood or bad." Right now, it's all good, as McFadden adjusts to life as acelebrity, which means avoiding the malls on the weekends unless he wants tospend hours signing autographs. "On everything," he says. "I'vesigned hands, foreheads, everything."

Though he handlesthe hoopla with his typical good humor, there are times when he seekssanctuary, plopping himself down on the couch in Weber's office. "Sometimeshe just needs to get away from it all," Weber says. Then McFadden will makea wisecrack about Weber's bald dome, and Weber will respond by making fun ofMcFadden's feet--"Have you seen his toes?" Weber says. "They'rehideous"--and McFadden is reenergized.

The loss of threeoffensive linemen suggests that the holes may not be as big or as plentiful asthey were last year, at least not right away. Opposing defenses will also betargeting him more than ever before. "I expect to hear some stuff on thefield, like, 'You're not winning a Heisman today, baby,' " he says. ButMcFadden seems undaunted. "If teams come after me, they come after me,"he says. "That just makes it more challenging."

The one thingthat seems certain is that it will be a fun run for the Heisman inFayetteville. Voters who snub McFadden do so at their own risk. One day whenthey least expect it water balloons may fly their way, accompanied by the humof a motor scooter and the sound of distant laughter.


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DYNAMIC DUOS

As sophomores,Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones joined some elite company, combiningfor the second-highest rushing total in Division I history among running backtandems (each of whom rushed for at least 1,000 yards).

TeamTotal YardsPlayerYardsPlayerYards
2005 USC3,042Reggie Bush1,740LenDale White1,302
2006 Arkansas2,815Darren McFadden1,647Felix Jones1,168
2004 Minnesota2,617Laurence Maroney1,348Marion Barber III1,269
2005 Minnesota2,594Laurence Maroney1,464Gary Russell1,130
1981 SMU2,575Eric Dickerson1,428Craig James1,147


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WITHOUT EVEN TRYING, the comical McFadden does aspot-on impersonation of Dickerson. At 6' 2" and 215 pounds McFadden coversground with the same long-striding upright gallop that carried Dickerson (6'3", 215) to All-America recognition and a third-place finish in the 1982Heisman voting. "I can see what people are talking about when they comparehim to me," Dickerson says. "He's not a little guy trying to hidebehind linemen." To make the likeness complete, all McFadden needs areDickerson's trademark horse-collar neck brace and goggles.

"I like his total package--size and speed. Peoplesay guys who run upright are easier to hit, but you have to catch us first. Andif you do, we've got enough size to give out some punishment." --DICKERSONON MCFADDEN

"You can take your pick," coach Houston Nuttsays of McFadden's highlight-reel dashes. "He had so many runs where he hitthe hole and he was gone, like everybody else was playing in mud."
PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLERPHOTOCLAY CARSON/WIREIMAGE.COMPHOTORICK MCFARLAND/ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE/AP JOYRIDE
McFadden spun for fun at Disney World during bowl week, but this fall he'llface pressure from Hogs fans to win the Heisman.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONNELSON CHENAULT-US PRESSWIRE (MCFADDEN); RONALD C. MODRA (DICKERSON)THE MODERN VERSION OF ERIC DICKERSON • SMU, 1979-82PHOTOWESLEY HITTJONES AND McFADDEN