Oakland Raiders rookie Darren McFadden had a simple goal: to be the fastest and strongest running back in the NFL. So he put on 15 pounds of muscle in 6 weeks.
Men’s Health Magazine – September 2008
On the coach’s signal, the blitz comes. Darren McFadden, 21, lunges toward the defender but then loses contact with him, which means the imaginary quarterback is either running for his life or buried in the Napa Valley turf.
Tom Rathman, the all-sweating, all-screaming running backs coach for the Oakland Raiders, strides purposefully toward McFadden and gets in his face. “You had the angle, but you have to keep your hands on him,” he screams. “I’m gonna have a violent collision! That’s gotta be your attitude! I’m gonna smack his ass!”
McFadden takes his helmet off and listens intently, his eyes fixed on Rathman. He seems genuinely…interested. Like he’s just another no-name rookie trying to make a football team.
McFadden, of course, is the furthest thing from a no-name rookie. The two-time Heisman trophy runner-up, who declared for the NFL after his junior year at Arkansas, was the fourth pick overall in last April’s draft. He signed a 6-year, $60 million contract with the Raiders, almost half of which is guaranteed. This means McFadden doesn’t really have to listen to Rathman. He could pound his coach into the ground right there in front of his teammates and still walk off the field a millionaire 26 times over.
McFadden’s intensity seems to soothe Rathman. “Make sure you’re not back on your heels next time,” the coach continues, softer now, demonstrating the proper blocking position. “Take one more step in and make contact here” — Rathman pats his pecs. With that, McFadden nods, puts on his helmet, and moves back in line. When it’s his turn again, he cracks his man square in the chest and rides him 6 yards up the field, out of enemy territory.
It’s late July, day 2 of the Oakland Raiders’ 2008 training camp, and it’s already clear to those assembled why the silver and black made McFadden the team’s 2008 first-round draft pick. It wasn’t quite as clear last spring, on draft day. For one thing, the Raiders have a solid starter in Justin Fargas and a capable backup in Michael Bush. And for all of McFadden’s personal success at Arkansas — he averaged 5.8 yards per carry during his college career — he wasn’t able to lead the team to a bowl game victory. Finally, a couple of bar fights raised questions about his character.
Still, McFadden’s rare combination of size, speed, and power was too much to resist. And today at least, as Al Davis looks on, any doubts seem long forgotten. McFadden, it’s clear, is special — potentially the team’s most dangerous offensive weapon since Marcus Allen.
And McFadden has Michael Johnson — yes, that Michael Johnson — to thank.
I don’t think Darren thinks he’s great yet, and he’s not. He’s good. He wants to be great.”
That’s what former sprinter — and five-time Olympic gold medalist — Michael Johnson told me earlier this year when I met him at his new 24,000-square-foot training facility in McKinney, Texas. At the time, we were watching McFadden warm up with what are known as A-marches. He’d lift a knee high, hold it for a few seconds, step forward, and bring his other knee up. It was early February; McFadden had been training here for a month already.
Johnson’s goal was to transform Darren McFadden into a top-five draft pick — in 6 weeks. That meant making sure D-Mac turned heads at the NFL Combine, where rookies compete in seven drills, including the 40-yard dash, bench press, broad jump, vertical leap, and several exercises that test lateral mobility. The 2008 Combine, in Indianapolis, was in 3 weeks.
Luckily, Johnson had plenty of raw materials to work with: “As good as Darren is,” said Lance Walker, the center’s 38-year-old director of performance, “he still has so much upside.”
No other major sports league rewards blue-chip rookies like the NFL does. Players drafted early are set for life. This year’s first overall pick, Jake Long, already earns more than any offensive lineman in football. Heck, he earns more than Tom Brady made last year. If he excelled at the NFL Combine, McFadden would be paid like a superstar, before he took a single handoff. That’s a lot of pressure on a 21-year-old.
“Superior athletic ability is not enough anymore,” Johnson said as he showed me around. “You can have talent and a great work ethic, but if you’re not working smart, you’re not getting better. We show our athletes how to work smart.”
As he said this, McFadden slid onto a bench, prepping his grip on the 225-pound bar. At the Combine, athletes are judged not on how much weight they lift, but on how many reps they can complete. McFadden took three deep breaths and began.
“Come on! Explode!” Walker encouraged. McFadden picked up speed and hammered out 16 reps–a below-average total for a running back.
Walker turned to me. “He’s still recovering.” Indeed, McFadden was battered and bruised from his junior year at Arkansas, when he averaged almost 40 touches a game and ran for more than 1,800 yards.
If you’re looking for a one-game microcosm of his season, go back to Baton Rouge on November 23, 2007. LSU was the number-one team in the nation and hoping to stay on track for a BCS title shot. The game was in Tiger Stadium, a.k.a. Death Valley, where LSU had won 19 straight. When McFadden took the field, he faced the best team in the country, fueled by 90,000 delirious fans.
Then, over 4 grueling hours, he silenced them with 206 yards and three touchdowns rushing, including a 73-yard run in the third quarter. He also threw a critical TD in the fourth quarter. After the triple-overtime thriller, defeated LSU coach Les Miles admitted he had assigned two of his best defenders to shadow McFadden for the entire game. “He didn’t go down,” Miles said.
Indeed, McFadden plays every game, every play, at full speed. And it takes a toll. When he arrived at Johnson’s facility, he hadn’t done a single squat since a knee injury and surgery in high school (and still never missed a game). His college coaches wouldn’t let him. “When you have a star like Darren, you don’t want to mess him up,” said Walker. “But it’s our job to find holes in his potential, so he can optimize his performance. And the squat trains the knees, hips, and ankles in a way that’s functional for football. It can make you faster and it allows you to feel more stable on cuts and breaks.”
Almost on cue, McFadden moved to the squat rack and did a light set at 135 pounds. He was improving, but he had a ways to go. (The average NFL player can squat 500 pounds.) “We’re starting slow,” Walker told me. “But soon, we’ll have his core and joint stability back to where it should be, and we’ll add some load to him.”
Two weeks later, McFadden squatted 405 pounds five times.
For running backs at the Combine, the 40-yard dash is the dealbreaker. Finish in less than 4.5 seconds, and you’re on every team’s short list. Finish above 4.5 and, well, a question mark shows up next to your name.
“The 40 isn’t only about speed,” Johnson said when I met up with him the next morning. “It’s about quickness, strength, and technique. Darren is very quick, and he’s incredibly strong. So if we can perfect his technique, he’ll really shine.”
At that moment, McFadden was high-stepping across the synthetic turf with a bungee around his waist and ankles. He was working on the “drive phase” of the 40, Johnson explained–the 30 feet between the 10- and 20-yard marks, when you reach maximum velocity. “Just about everything we do is muscle memory,” Johnson said. “Darren’s muscles are learning to execute this movement as efficiently as possible. During a sprint you have to be able to snap that leg up and down into the track. Hip mobility is crucial.”
Johnson demonstrated, moving in slow motion, lifting his knees high and driving them into the turf. His arms were at stiff right angles, and he swung them forward and back high and far. Think of your natural running motion times 10. Every muscle and ligament in your hips and shoulders stretches to the limit. “The motion is straight and vertical,” Johnson said. “The slightest waver will slow you down.”
Later that day, McFadden stepped up to the start line on one of the running tracks. He’d run the 40 for Johnson before, but didn’t know any of his times. “If you’re focused on time, you’re not focused on correct technique,” said Johnson. “You run a 4.3 by doing the things you need to do to run a 4.3.”
McFadden set and took off. After 30 yards, he slowed–they were working on only the first 20 yards. He wasn’t pleased.
“That start felt slow,” he said.
“Yeah, your hips were too high,” said Johnson. “Bring them down and you can explode out of it. Really drive those arms. And you’re still jerking your head up. Don’t rush. That creates tension that slows you down.”
As McFadden prepared to run again, he paced and hopped near the start line with his eyes closed. Johnson noticed his focus and smiled. “He’s one of the most coachable athletes I’ve ever seen. He can take information, process it, and duplicate it with ease,” said Johnson. “He’s not just relying on his athleticism. You can see his desire to get it right.”
Later that afternoon, McFadden hit the outdoor field, where he caught passes wearing digital sunglasses that are riddled with blind spots. The goal: to teach him to use his peripheral vision.
“We’ve improved his hand-eye reaction speed by 85 percent so far,” said Walker. “That means he sees the field better, and he’s faster to the ball.”
McFadden had an alternate theory. “I got hands, baby!” he shouted, smiling, as he jogged back to the line.
In preparation for the Combine, Walker also leads athletes through the 5-10-5 shuttle, which predicts quickness and the ability to elude tacklers horizontally. And he preps them for the broad and vertical jumps, which, like the bench press, measure explosive power. “By deconstructing the Combine into components,” said Walker, “we’re making the biggest job interview of an athlete’s life more manageable.”
Over the 6 weeks, the training intensifies, which means recovery is key. After each morning session, McFadden spent 15 minutes in hydrotherapy, alternating between 2 minutes in a cold tub (54°F) and 1 minute in a hot tub (104°F). “The hot water increases bloodflow to the muscles, and the cold squeezes that blood back out,” explained Walker. The muscles are being flushed and squeezed like a sponge, which helps keep them fresh and spurs regeneration.
In the days before the Combine, there was no lifting or full-speed work, giving McFadden, who gained almost 15 pounds of muscle during his 6 weeks with Johnson, a 72-hour window to perform at his absolute best.
“I’d been visualizing the moment,” McFadden told me after the Combine. “At the starting line I just took a couple of deep breaths. I had a thousand thoughts running through my head. But when I heard that gun, I just shot out.”
He was smooth and electric. When he flew past the finish line, there was an instant buzz in the building. “They don’t tell you the time,” he said. “I asked my sister to text it to me.” When he got to his phone, her message was waiting: 4.27 seconds (later adjusted to 4.33). It was the second fastest time of the entire Combine.
McFadden had stolen the show. Men his size (6’2″, 210 pounds) aren’t supposed to be able to run that fast. Watch the video on YouTube sometime. D-Mac silences the NFL Network’s crew.
“4.33. Man, it was a big relief. There’d been so much pressure.”
The pressure on Darren McFadden is just beginning. Prognosticators are saying that the Raiders could be a real force this season. Fans are thinking playoffs, trying to forget the team’s 26 losses over the past two seasons.
And adversity seems to shadow him. Leading up to the draft, rumors filtered out about two infant children from different women. So did news about a pair of nightclub fights. In the first, McFadden was fighting off a thug trying to steal his older brother’s car. Then, last January, his younger brother was attacked at a nightclub. By the time McFadden came to his defense, the bouncers were in control. “I saw my brother with blood all over his shirt, and the police couldn’t calm me down, so they put me in handcuffs,” he says. He was not arrested, and he never has been.
Back at training camp, McFadden’s thirst for knowledge isn’t lost on Lane Kiffin, the Raiders’ 33-year-old head coach. “He was in a special teams meeting the other day and he wasn’t required to be there. He just loves being around the game.”
Normally, that kind of dedication might make veterans uncomfortable. But so far, at least, McFadden is adjusting well to the NFL. “[Fellow running backs] Justin [Fargas] and Michael [Bush] have been helping me out and just showing me a lot of love,” McFadden says. “I appreciate that very much.”
The Raiders’ defense, of course, hasn’t seen McFadden’s softer side. On the third day of training camp, D-Mac takes the ball from quarterback JaMarcus Russell and shoots through the line. Linebacker Jon Alston rushes to close the hole, and the two collide at full speed. Alston staggers backward. McFadden just keeps on going.