An N.F.L. Star Finds Confidence in Making Music
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — About 30 minutes into Darren Waller’s recording session, a music producer asked him to make a small tweak.
Waller, the Pro Bowl tight end for whom the Giants traded in March, was stationed inside Interscope Records’s sprawling headquarters trying to finalize two songs he’d created. He had just two hours to do so before his flight to Las Vegas, where his new wife, Kelsey Plum, waited.
With Waller’s song “Step” blaring, he leaned into the mic and let out a “skrrt” — an elongated ad-lib that a local talent manager asked him to shorten and sharpen. Within two minutes, Waller had nailed the fix, and the four music professionals in the room smiled and nodded to the rhythm of the beat that Waller had produced.
The Pro Bowler is a great-grandson of Thomas Waller, the swing pianist and composer known as Fats, and his own music — mostly hip-hop, with a mixture of songs that he raps, produces and writes — has lately become more than just an escape from the football field.
He had released four albums, recording at home with just a computer, microphone and speakers before sending tracks off to an engineer in Georgia. But in March, just one week after the Raiders traded him, Waller and 21 other N.F.L. players attended a league-sponsored program to learn about the music business through a visit to Interscope, the record label that launched the careers of Tupac and Dr. Dre.
There, the players met label executives, learned about revenue and marketing, and toured the studios. David Nieman, the senior vice president of sports and gaming at Interscope, listened to “Step” for the first time that day and was impressed by Waller’s delivery and acumen.
“You could tell he understood and he was serious about music,” Neiman said in an interview. “You could tell he wasn’t just talking about it.”
Nieman invited Waller back to fine tune “Step” and another song, “Sweep,” at the label, which two years ago oversaw an 11-song soundtrack created exclusively for the popular Madden NFL video game. For Madden 24, which will be released in August, Nieman hoped to create a similar shorter album — known as an “extended play” — that as many as six songs would be created by active N.F.L. players; the game typically has used songs only from traditional recording artists.
“It’s cool to give players some representation,” Waller said. “We take this stuff seriously and we can make good music, so I love the fact that I get to be one of the first people that gets a crack at that.”
Waller, 30, a seven-year N.F.L. veteran whose 6-foot-6 frame and athleticism make him a versatile receiving threat, has always used music as a pastime. He played the piano and was a member of his middle school band growing up in Georgia. But Waller’s passion for music became a necessary outlet when his life entered a crossroads. After the Baltimore Ravens selected Waller in the sixth-round of the 2015 N.F.L. Draft, he repeatedly failed league-mandated drug tests.
He said he started abusing painkillers in high school, and the addiction evolved to include alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. After his second violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy, the N.F.L. suspended Waller for the entire 2017 season. In August 2017, he said, he nearly died after overdosing on fentanyl.
Waller entered a 30-day rehabilitation program in Camden, Maine, and music became a central part of his recovery process. While there, as he juggled counseling meetings, he wrote lyrics in his free time.
“That was probably the best tool of expression I had,” Waller said. “Music was a way for me to almost speak things into existence before they even happened and to build confidence.”
After rehab, Waller briefly lived with his parents, Charlena and Dorian Waller, and worked at a grocery store. His father would hear him making beats and swell with pride. “I was over the moon about that because that’s part of my family’s heritage, and to see that in my son was really great,” Dorian Waller said.
Later in 2017, Darren Waller released his debut album, “Better Call Wall,” 12 songs he rapped with lyrics about his life. In one of his songs, “Made Of,” he rapped: “I had to let go of my pride, reach down to see what I was afraid of, because if I never went to war with myself then I never would have seen what I was made of.”
After the N.F.L. reinstated Waller, he signed with the Raiders in November 2018 and was named to the Pro Bowl in the 2020 season after posting 1,196 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. He also broke the Raiders’ franchise record for receptions (107).
In one of the first big signings under General Manager Dave Ziegler and Coach Josh McDaniels, the Raiders in September 2022 signed Waller to a three-year contract extension with $22 million in guaranteed money, making him one of the league’s highest-paid tight ends.
But Waller missed eight games last season because of a hamstring injury. In his downtime, he began dating Plum, a star player for the W.N.B.A’s Las Vegas Aces, shortly after meeting her last April while recording a podcast. He proposed to her in October during a bye week for the Raiders, with Waller later telling McDaniels and Ziegler that the couple was keeping their upcoming marriage confidential.
Before Waller and Plum could reveal their March wedding on Instagram, Ziegler and McDaniels told reporters of the upcoming nuptials during an off-the-record session at the N.F.L. scouting combine. Waller said that a public relations official for his foundation informed him that a Las Vegas Review Journal reporter asked about the couple’s plans a few days before the wedding and their first public announcement.
“It was frustrating because you share information with people and you hope they keep it private, but I don’t think there was any malice behind it by any means,” Waller said.
Less than two weeks later — one day after the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon — Ziegler called to tell Waller that he had been traded to the Giants in exchange for a third-round draft pick. The move surprised Waller, he said, as he had been preparing for the team’s off-season training. But with the Giants, he instantly becomes a top target for quarterback Daniel Jones, whom the team signed to a contract extension in March.
In April, Waller spent two days at a rented home near Scottsdale, Ariz., with Giants’ offensive players, a trip Jones organized and that allowed Waller to train and eat dinners with his new teammates.
“I just met these dudes, but it already seems like we have great chemistry going on, and things like that are important,” Waller said.
Organized team activities and minicamp in New Jersey keep Waller from Plum, who still lives in Las Vegas. For now, Waller said he plans to be with Plum every other weekend, and that she’ll join him in New Jersey when her season ends.
Though the W.N.B.A. regular season runs from May through September, and the N.F.L. season opens on Sept. 7, their cross-country flights could continue through late October if the Aces contend for a second straight championship.
As Waller’s day at the studio ended, he then left in a car bound for Los Angeles International Airport for the short flight to Las Vegas, where he and Plum planned to attend a boxing match the next day.
“I heard a friend say once that ‘blessings can stack so high they start to look like problems,’” Waller said. “All the things in my life right now are blessings, but there are times where it’s tough because there’s always something to do and little rest, but it’s important to keep the right perspective.”