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Darren Waller explains in a song why he decided to retire from the NFL

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How do you walk away from more than $30 million? I have no idea, but my next guest just did. Darren Waller was supposed to be the starting tight end for the New York Giants this season. But earlier this month, he announced his retirement at the age of 31, leaving potentially $30 million-plus on the table.

DARREN WALLER: I've realized - kind of like that Jim Carrey quote - like, I wish everybody could get everything they ever wanted to realize it's never going to be enough 'cause I've realized that firsthand.

MARTIN: Shortly after Waller retired, he tried to explain himself to his fans with a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOOSE WISELY (FAREWELL)")

D WALLER: (Rapping) I'm starting to question life - feel like my life might never go. So you can take this money back and this life I never chose.

MARTIN: The song is called "Choose Wisely," subtitled "Farewell." Darren Waller says he had come to understand that football fed into his compulsion towards codependency.

D WALLER: It became such, like, a people-pleasing tool and just a place of acceptance and security because I knew I was good at it. But it didn't allow me the space to really express myself - all the different versions of myself. I'm still figuring out who those versions of myself are. I have the version of me that's very emotional, very tender, very vulnerable. But then I also have that competitive side of me that kind of got developed through sports that's like, I want to go at people's necks. And that's what music has done for me.

MARTIN: Darren Waller is now following his famous great-grandfather into the music world. More on than that in a few minutes. But first, let's talk a little more about what he's leaving behind. His NFL career was basically split into two parts, the first during a period of alcohol and drug abuse. Waller was drafted in 2015 by the Baltimore Ravens.

D WALLER: I was in full-blown addiction at the time. I felt, like, this pit of fear in me when I got drafted. Like, the pressure's only getting higher. I'm going to a place where I don't know anybody. So I'm going to be back even more isolated. So it is not a good recipe for somebody like me in the position that I was in.

So my first year, I ended up failing a whole bunch of drug tests and got suspended four games going into my second year. And I had, like, a tear on my shoulder. And then from there, you know, they kind of give you some pills. But I was already, you know, getting my pills from the streets. And so I was failing even more drug tests. And then I got banned for a year from the league. Suspension was when I ended up overdosing on pills. That was August 11, 2017. My sobriety date is August 12.

MARTIN: Darren Waller almost lost his career and his life. They had barely just started. But once he got sober, the NFL gave him another chance, specifically with the Oakland Raiders. He became one of the best tight ends in the league.

D WALLER: So it was a very quick turnaround from being an extremely dark period in my life to being super successful. And I think even that, in its own right, was a little bit traumatic.

MARTIN: Traumatic - interesting. Say more.

D WALLER: I feel like I was addicted to validation from people long before I was ever addicted to, like, drugs and alcohol. And the success came super quick. So I was able to, you know, numb myself out, distract myself from the roots of my insecurity.

MARTIN: Waller's breakout seasons led to a massive new contract. He was traded to the New York Giants in March of last year. Then midway through last season, Waller almost lost his life again. But it caused him to question everything.

D WALLER: Beginning of November - it was a Monday - and I felt, like, a fever coming on. And I had had COVID a couple times. So I was like, oh, here we go again. I'm just going to have to sweat the bed out and thug it out through the night. But then I started, like, losing my breath and ended up having to call 911. And they couldn't really make out my words. But eventually, I gave them my address and just kind of was just fighting for my life till the paramedics got there because I had, like, a viral infection of my lungs.

MARTIN: Yeah. That's crazy. I was going to say.

D WALLER: Yeah. It's wild.

MARTIN: Glad you're here (laughter).

D WALLER: Thank you.

MARTIN: That's terrifying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOOSE WISELY (FAREWELL)")

D WALLER: (Rapping) It's like, what if you had one year to live? What would you do? Would you be content? Or is there something you've got to prove? Would you push yourself harder than ever, set better goals? Or would you die full of regrets, with a life you never chose? - a life you never chose.

MARTIN: Do you think music is your path from now on?

D WALLER: I believe it's a path that I definitely want to explore. My great-grandfather was a legendary jazz musician. And...

MARTIN: Let me just - let me point out - your great-grandfather, one of the most important jazz pianists ever, Fats Waller.

(SOUNDBITE OF FATS WALLER SONG, "AIN'T MISBEHAVIN")

MARTIN: So what was your relationship to his work growing up? Was it a part of your life growing up? Did you know who he was?

D WALLER: Not really. I remember seeing pictures around the house, and I'd hear my parents talk about it some. But it wasn't until, like, college football, like, the announcers are in the game - are, like, bringing up stories. And they're like, yeah, this is the great-grandson of Fats Waller. I had a jazz history class my senior year of college. And the professor, like, ran up to me at the beginning of the class and was like, you need to pay attention. This is extremely important. This is your family legacy. And I was like, oh, my gosh.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

D WALLER: And so from there, I've been kind of, like, more enamored by it and, like - 'cause when I was a kid, I liked hip-hop music. I liked a little bit of, like, alternative rock. But then, like, the jazz stuff, like, I couldn't really get with it as a kid.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

D WALLER: You know, I was just like, I'm trying to turn up. Like, I'm not really into this. But now as I go forward in time, like, I see his individuality and how much of a pioneer he was and how different he was and the risks he was willing to take. And I'm like, oh, that's inspiring now.

MARTIN: In what way does his work inspire your - is it more the idea of innovating, creating?

D WALLER: I think it's definitely the innovation but also just, like, the energy that you bring. Like, I've seen, like, clips of him performing and just how animated he is, just how alive he is and how he can bring a room to its feet and have people dancing and feeling good and feeling alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "´TAIN'T WHAT YOU DO")

FATS WALLER: (Singing) Oh, it ain't what you do. It's the place that you do it. It ain't what you do. It's the time that you do it. It ain't what you do. It's the way that you do it. That's what gets results.

D WALLER: There's just something about that energy and that passion that's like, man, I haven't really felt that. But I feel like in a way I'm being led. I mean, piano is something I'm growing in relation with myself - taking piano lessons, just practicing that alongside, just trying to grow vocally and with the ideas and different ways that I approach creating songs. It's a lot of things that I'm taking from him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOOSE WISELY (FAREWELL)")

D WALLER: (Rapping) Always wanted to be recognized till the thing that I've been wishing for is now what I despise. Can I be honest? My life is still catching me by surprise. I ain't used to living good but plotting my own demise. I'm listening.

MARTIN: That is Darren Waller, former NFL tight end. His new song is called "Choose Wisely (Farewell)." Darren Waller, thank you so much for talking with us.

D WALLER: Oh, thank you for having me. This was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOOSE WISELY (FAREWELL)")

D WALLER: (Rapping) Yeah, until it's over. Depression over my shoulder... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.