Chip Crotts, director of jazz studies at Georgia Tech’s School of Music, remembers the first time he met Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller.
Crotts was teaching a course on jazz history in spring 2014, and Waller — who played at Georgia Tech — was one of his students. At the start of a semester, students usually come up and introduce themselves. Waller’s introduction was a turning point for both of them.
“He said, ‘I’m related to a jazz musician,’ ” Crotts recalled. “Of course, I thought at first, maybe he’s got like an uncle who plays blues in a blues band or something. He says, ‘Fats Waller was my great-grandfather.’ Of course my jaw dropped and I think he saw that and thought, ‘This guy must be a pretty big deal.’ ”
Said Waller: “The instructor was just looking amazed that I was in his class and just was like, ‘You need to learn this, learn about who your great-grandfather is.’ So I learned that and … I knew I was talented at it and I enjoyed it and I had a good ear for music, so that was what really inspired me.”
Music has always been a big part of Waller’s life, growing up with his father’s love for New York rap and his mother’s favorites such as Michael Jackson and soul. He was in the school band and played piano. And, of course, there’s the connection to Thomas “Fats” Waller, a charismatic pianist, prolific composer and the first Black man to write the score for a Broadway musical.
But in recent years, music has provided a positive and creative outlet for him.
After being suspended from the NFL for the 2017 season for violating its substance abuse policy, he had a wake-up call when he took opioids laced with fentanyl and blacked out. The experience led him to seek help and enter rehab.
At that time, Waller didn’t have football. But he did have music. Even when he might not have had the chance to step on the field again, he poured his heart and soul into writing and recording.
“It was definitely a part of my healing process. … There wasn’t too much good going on in my life,” Waller said. “It was just a lot of painful stuff, the painful beginnings to growth and transformation in my life, which weren’t very fun, but it was necessary phases.
“The music gave me something to look forward to and something to express myself and speak in a positive fashion. And that’s where I feel like I got confidence from. I was not a very confident person, but being able to go to the studio and just make a song and be like, ‘This is what I feel like making, it doesn’t matter what other people think,’ and walking through that fear is what really helped me with my confidence just in everyday life.”
That confidence was evident as Waller, wearing a Las Vegas Aces shirt and grinning widely, spoke from a hotel room in the city while preparing for an appearance at the NFL draft. He was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2020 and, despite missing several games due to injury in 2021, still managed to get 665 receiving yards, including two games with more than 100 yards.
Looking back on his journey, he reflected on how he used music to create the life that he has today.
“It’s funny, if you look back on some of the lyrics, I was saying, kind of speaking things into existence in a way,” he said, “where I was saying these things on the mic, but I didn’t necessarily believe them, or felt like that was something that a space that I could get to as a human being for myself, but it was a way for me to listen to those things.”
“The music gave me something to look forward to and something to express myself and speak in a positive fashion. … I was not a very confident person, but being able to go to the studio and just make a song and be like, ‘This is what I feel like making, it doesn’t matter what other people think,’ and walking through that fear is what really helped me with my confidence just in everyday life.”
— Darren Waller
On 2017’s “Made Of,” he rapped, “When it start looking like I can’t take anymore/Know I’m fit for survival/Just look at my cord/Still through it all puttin’ numbers on the board/But every bucket contested, the devil draped on me/It really ain’t about how much you make, homie/It’s about how much of your soul that you keep … I don’t care what lies in front of me/Ain’t a damn thing finna stand in a real n—a way/That tough time ain’t gonna last/It’s gonna come and go, but you know a real n—a stay.”
Waller said he’s never been very good at freestyling but found that writing out rhymes to process his thoughts helps him to keep going as an athlete and a man. He is more than just a rapper. He gave suggestions to his friends who were producers and eventually started making beats on his own. He even records himself now using Pro Tools in his home and hosted a concert in the past few years through his foundation.
For Waller, music isn’t just for fun or when he has time. It’s essential.
“I create the time because I feel like the music provides such a balance from the football,” he said. “[Football is] draining physically, mentally, emotionally. I need to find ways to fill my own cup to be able to continue to pour into that and to pour into the foundation work that I do, just all the things that it requires me to give, to give, to give. But it’s like I gotta focus on how I could fill myself back up. And that’s what music does.
“No matter how long or draining or whatever mood I’m in, I come home and make a beat or write something to a song and it can bring me out of whatever I’m feeling or help me dive deeper into positive emotions that I’m feeling. It’s something that I have to create time to do because if I don’t do it, I find myself getting a lot more irritable.”
Waller used to release music under the stage name D Wall. After his 2019 album, Wall Street, he felt a need to present himself more authentically, so he dropped the stage name. His art seeks to balance being relevant and real. He enjoys lyrical emcees such as J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar but actually doesn’t listen to much rap. He listens to classical music and dreams of collaborating with Coldplay or Leon Bridges.
“I like to collaborate with people that I can have a connection with and make a song in that moment, not just for, ‘I’m trying to get a hit,’ ” he said.
One of those people is Las Vegas artist Euroz, whom Waller enlisted for “Stay Close,” a track about seeking the attention of a lady off his latest album, for last year’s Delusions of Clarity. When Waller contacted him, Euroz was pleasantly surprised.
“I kind of didn’t really know what to expect,” Euroz said. “How can I say this, there’s a kind of negative connotation that comes with athletes who do music. You know, I wasn’t really expecting much. I was just kind of flattered more so. So when I heard the record, I was like, ‘Oh, this is actually a pocket I could fit in.’ So I was actually impressed with him choosing that record to have me on.”
Euroz sees potential in Waller much further than just another athlete-rapper.
“He has hit record potential,” Euroz said. “He really knows, he understands certain concepts of what’s easy on the ear, production. He gets it all. I’ve heard every type of style, but he makes it his own. It’s not like he’s all over the place. That’s what I was surprised about the most is, OK, he actually got his own style, his own voice, his own tone.
“So those are the things that stood out to me the most, especially with someone who, it’s not their first thing, you know, football is his thing. If you hear the music, you would expect it to be like, this is more than just a hobby.”
Waller listens to his own music, often starting his day with “All Things,” based on a Bible verse many athletes and sports fans are familiar with: Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
Waller refers to the verses that precede it, giving context that the verse is actually about having contentment in all circumstances, not just when things go your way. It’s a thoughtful, piano-laden track that asks God to “make me a channel of thy peace” with a melodic hook that declares, “Don’t care if you down bad or if you’ve been ballin’/Don’t care if you walk tall or if you’ve been crawlin’/I can do all things.”
“It helps me and if it helps other people, then that’s all that matters,” he said of the song.
For Waller, his music is very therapeutic and personal. But by pouring out his heart on wax, he’s carrying on a larger legacy through storytelling.
“I think he’s doing everything, a modern-day version of what Fats might have done a hundred years ago,” Crotts said, “to provide something to audiences, to connect with people, to share his story and [say,] ‘I can make it and you can make it.’ ”