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April 5, 2007
Little Rock to Big Time: Darren McFadden
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Mini Muhammad never noticed anything unusual about the 10th of her 12 children.
As she recalls, her son – Darren McFadden – was just a typical little boy.
"As far as little boys go, there was nothing special," she said. "He was always into stuff. He was always climbing trees and getting on top of the house. One time he fell out of a tree and broke his elbow."
That typical little boy grew into an atypical young man.
Oh, McFadden still is getting into stuff. But now it's defensive secondaries and end zones.
He's still climbing, although now he's climbing the University of Arkansas career rushing chart.
And he's still breaking things … school records, long touchdown runs, defenses' spirits and even into the Heisman Trophy voting.
Once just like a million other kids who grew up in inner-city Little Rock, Darren McFadden has emerged as a one-in-a-million football talent. He has scored 25 touchdowns and rushed for 2,760 yards in two seasons as the Arkansas Razorbacks tailback. Last season he set a school record with 1,647 yards, and needs just 811 this year to break Ben Cowins' career rushing record.
But McFadden has bigger goals within reach. He finished second in last year's Heisman Trophy voting despite suffering a career-threatening injury just a month before the first game. McFadden will enter the 2007 season as the leading candidate to win college football's most prestigious award.
"I always believed two or three of my children would attain greatness," Muhammad said. "I just didn't know which one it would be."
Even greater, McFadden has accomplished so much despite coming from an underprivileged background in an at-risk environment. On top of that, he has maintained an uncommonly modest persona.
"He is really very special because of his personality, work ethic, attitude and unselfishness," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "That recipe makes him special. A lot of guys that get that much attention might go in a different direction, but he has stayed very humble.
"He doesn't miss class. He goes to school. He does it right. He's always been that way. We asked him not to change and he sure hasn't."
The old neighborhood
"In the early '90s there was a lot of gang violence," he said. "When I was little and growing up I thought it was the cool thing to do. I used to think that until I was about to start the fifth grade. Then people I knew got killed.
"By the time I started blossoming in football in high school that (gang) stuff had settled down. It wasn't as bad as in the earlier years. A lot of people had gone to jail."
Even when gangs and violence weren't as great a threat, growing up was still difficult.
Twice divorced, Muhammad was in and out of work and needed welfare and government housing to keep her family together. Sometimes, her children went to bed in their four bedroom home wishing they had more to eat.
"I got by mostly by food stamps and the Housing Authority," she said. "I have two ex-husbands, so I got child support. We made it like that. I was in and out of school and I'd work on jobs until I'd come up pregnant. But people in Little Rock that know me will say, 'Mini always kept her children clean and her house clean.' "
But clean clothes aren't necessarily fashionable. McFadden remembers the disappointment of going to school and realizing for the first time that he didn't have things some other children did.
"Most of the kids I grew up with were the same way," McFadden said. "But when you go to school you see some kids have nice stuff that you don't have on. It feels kind of awkward to you. You thought about it, but you didn't let it show."
He does show off a series of tattoos that is an autobiography of sorts. A tattoo on a sinewy arm honors K.J., a friend who died in a car crash. Another remembers Willie Williams, a high school friend who was shot to death. There is an image of praying hands and a cross.
And on his muscular biceps there are tattoos that read: '501 boy' in reference to the Little Rock area code.
"I'm proud of where I came from," he said.
That season he had a 70-yard touchdown dash against an Alabama defense which ranked second in the nation. He had another 70-yard scoring run against a Georgia defense which ranked 18th..
He vaulted to celebrity status in Arkansas, a state that adores its football team and players as much or more than any in the country. Soon he was recognized every where he went. Fans wanted autographs. They wanted photos. They just wanted to know him.
He noticed the kids, the co-eds and even the senior citizens noticing him. They ogle, they whisper, the laugh among themselves and sometimes they point.
"Sometimes people are working up the nerve to say something," McFadden said. "They're looking, pointing and whispering. I guess that's the way it is. I wouldn't have a problem if they talked to me. I wouldn't be rude. I'd sign something for them."
But some people might want more than an autograph or a photo, and for a while that had Nutt concerned.
"I worried about him sometimes early on – I don't anymore – about falling into (the wrong) crowd because everybody was pulling at him," Nutt said. "Sometimes in the neighborhood he lives in things take place that you don't want him there. But he's always been a good decision maker, except one time."
That time was last July when McFadden caught a thief trying to steal his brother's car outside the Palace, a nightclub in his Little Rock neighborhood. In the scuffle that ensued, McFadden – who was wearing flip-flops - dislocated his left big toe so horribly that the bone was showing.
One bad move put his football career and financial future in serious jeopardy.
"Some people were saying I may have to sit out the season," McFadden said. "Some said I might be through, period. It was real scary. I heard different things about my football career and not being able to play."
He healed quickly. A little more than a month after a pin was surgically placed into the toe, he rushed for 184 yards in the second game of the season. He went on to rush for 1,647 and 14 touchdowns en route to leading the Razorbacks to a 10-4 record and the SEC West Division championship.
Weary Razorbacks fans will be glad to hear that, because this offseason has been tainted by one controversy after another. Highly recruited quarterback Mitch Mustain asked for and was granted a release from his scholarship – meaning he is free to transfer to another program. Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn left for Tulsa. A booster and family friend of Nutt's had football game passes revoked for sending critical e-mails to Mustain. Defensive end Antwain Robinson was arrested for shoplifting.
But none of that will matter in five months when the Razorbacks open the season against Troy and McFadden begins his Heisman Trophy campaign in earnest.
"I want to take another step and try to do better than last year," McFadden said. "It will be hard to duplicate a season like we had in the SEC, but I feel like we'll be able to do that."
Bettering last year's results would mean Arkansas' first SEC championship and first Heisman Trophy recipient.
Those results are definitely not typical.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.