by Pat Forde
Shortly after she delivered the 10th of her 12 children, Mini Muhammad noticed something strange about the boy.
“His toes are on top of each other,” she remarked.
Nineteen years later, Darren McFadden’s tootsies never have straightened out. They remain curled and bunched to the point that Arkansas football trainer Dean Weber says it appears McFadden has only four on each foot. Razorbacks teammate Robert Johnson says, “His toes look like they’re throwing gang signs.”
“I don’t have pretty feet,” McFadden admits with a sheepish smile.
Yet the ugly feet can perform such beautiful feats on a football field. Gussy them up in a pair of cleats and they can cut, shift and accelerate like few feet on Earth — and like none other in college football today.
The Hog’s homely hooves carried McFadden all the way to New York City last December as the Heisman Trophy runner-up, and they could take him back again this year. He might be America’s best Saturday biped.
Turning the unsightly into something uplifting has become a family trait. Darren McFadden did it with his feet. His mother did it with her life.
Mini Muhammad doesn’t know much about football. Never has, probably never will.
But she doesn’t have to be an expert to be enraptured by the sight of her gangsta-toed son gliding across a field of green grass.
“I just like to see him run,” Muhammad says. “It just does something to me. It brings joy to my face.”
Joy flows easily from Muhammad these days. A drug problem that haunted her for a dozen years is now long gone, she says, after sweating and crying herself through withdrawal symptoms in a Little Rock jail cell in 2002. A woman who once squandered her government checks on narcotics is now buoyed by the unconditional love of her kids, the energy from 27 grandchildren who traipse through her home, and the bursting pride that comes from watching Darren run.
“Everything is so plentiful for me in my life,” Muhammad says. “Talking about it just brings chills to my arms — and I’ve got something to talk about, I’m not ashamed of it. I am so thankful, because of where I’ve been.
“It makes me so proud to say, ‘That’s my boy.’ But I’m proud of all my kids. They’ve stuck with me. When I was high, I’d just leave them to watch TV and go back to my room to be on my own. I’m thankful they didn’t desert me, and they love me. They bonded together and took care of each other.
“Me and my kids been to hell and back. We’re just now beginning to enjoy life.”
Some of Mini Muhammad’s 12 children have gone on to earn master’s degrees and hold profitable jobs. Some have struggled. Mini said her oldest son was, in her words, “my main supplier” when she was using.
There is something more than a little heartbreaking about a mother getting drugs from her son — but addiction and heartbreak are usually a package deal. Addiction took Mini down a dark road, yet she says she was lucky in many ways compared to others she knew on the Little Rock streets.
“I didn’t get beat up, and I never had to stand on a corner selling my body,” she says. “I see people on the street now I used to get high with and all I have is pity for them. They don’t have the things I have to stop for. I have my family.”
But even if Mini wanted to stop taking drugs, it didn’t initially happen voluntarily. It started with a routine traffic stop. Mini says she was speeding home from the grocery when she was pulled over, and the officer discovered there was a warrant out for her arrest for a suspended license and failure to appear in court for a previous speeding ticket.
She was taken into custody. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her.
“When that police car stopped me, I was like, ‘Thank you, Lord, I don’t want no more,'” Muhammad says. “It saved me. I was tired of living that way.”
When some of her children came to get her out of jail, Mini told them she wasn’t ready to go. She stayed incarcerated for eight days, white-knuckled through the physical withdrawal and then finally called her family to say, “Come get me.”
“I have not looked back,” she says. “I wonder why I did not stop a long time ago. I spent thousands of dollars on drugs — just think what I could have used that money for, when we didn’t have much.
“I’m glad I can talk about it. I drink me a beer now and then, but that’s it. I’m resolved to staying at home and cooking and cleaning and taking care of these damn grandchildren. It stays packed here, mister.”
She chuckles as she says that, aware of the audible uproar behind her. She’s just come home from the grocery again — much different than that fateful trip five years ago — to tend her flock of grandkids. Mini has two family packs of ground beef, six cans of sloppy joe mix, several packages of buns and two-liter bottles of soda for whoever is hungry.
“I hope they get full,” she says, laughing. “And I hope they go home.”
Some don’t. She says one teenaged grandson has stayed with her the past two months — and she doesn’t really mind. She knows from experience that life isn’t always easy at that age for boys.
Leecie Henson taught Darren McFadden’s seventh grade study skills class at Oak Grove Middle School in North Little Rock. It was hate at first sight.
“It was horrible,” Henson says. “We couldn’t stand each other. It was my job to nag him until he got his studies done, and he didn’t appreciate it.”
Darren wasn’t much interested in school. But by the end of that year, a thaw commenced in the teacher-pupil cold war. Students were assigned to craft a thank-you note to their favorite teacher, and he (grudgingly) wrote his to Henson.
“It said, ‘We had to write a letter to our favorite teacher and I guess it would be you,'” Henson recalled.
Hardly overwhelming affection, but at least there was progress.
By ninth grade, Henson’s husband was coaching Darren in football and informed her that his football ability was something special. She informed her husband — and Darren, his father, Graylon McFadden, and his stepmom, Ella “Cookie” McFadden — that his grades were not.
“I told them he didn’t have the grades to play college football,” Henson says. “From that time he really started focusing on his grades. He kind of went from him working against me to working with me.”
This was more a gradual process than a eureka-like transformation. He still had his moments — like when the hypercompetitive McFadden was tossed out of Spanish class during an espa�ol version of “Family Feud,” when he was convinced the other team was cheating and would not let it drop.
But McFadden never stopped working with Henson, and their relationship has strengthened over the years. The former enemies are now close enough that McFadden refers to her as his “white mama.” Henson now teaches at nearby Springdale High School, and she still helps Darren stay on top of his studies in the University of Arkansas’ College of Education and Health Professions.
Henson was just one of the people who have stepped in to guide Darren. When Mini Muhammad was struggling with her addiction, Graylon and Cookie McFadden were there. Muhammad sings Cookie’s praises for embracing her son as one of her own while she was incapable of providing full maternal guidance and support.
“His mom didn’t attend any of his football games,” Henson says. “His dad and stepmom were there for all of them. It was kind of the pink elephant in the living room. It was never, ‘Darren, where’s your mom?’ It was just kind of understood.”
Mini Muhammad was missing out on quite a show. With his academics improving, McFadden just had to make an impression on the only school he wanted to play for, the home-state Hogs. He did that at coach Houston Nutt’s camp early in his high school career, blowing away the fastest players at the camp from Texas and Louisiana at sprints. By the summer before his senior season he was named the MVP of Nutt’s camp, and on Senior Night at Oak Grove High, Mini was there to see her son for the first time.
“You could tell there was a lot of pride in that,” Henson says. “It meant a lot to Darren. He is very protective of his mom. He has a huge sense of family — and a huge family.”
Staying close to that family for college was a priority. That’s why McFadden signed with Arkansas without visiting another school.
The Razorbacks were thrilled to get the state’s only Parade All-American of 2004, but still didn’t know how special he was until he suited up. In 2005, he busted a 37-yard run against Missouri State in his first game as a true freshman, then seriously served notice in the fourth game of the year, at Alabama. McFadden busted a 70-yarder in that game, toying with stud Crimson Tide safety Roman Harper along the way.
“When he went 70 yards against Alabama and stiff-armed an All-American on national TV, I said, ‘This guy is something,'” Nutt says.
Four weeks later McFadden took one 70 yards against Georgia, streaking past another All-American safety, Greg Blue.
“Blue had the angle on him, and he just ran away from him,” Nutt says. “Everyone’s got angles. Then they don’t have angles.”
When McFadden’s season was done, it was the most brilliant work by a freshman back in Arkansas history. He ran for 1,113 yards while starting just eight games — and he did it on only 176 carries, averaging a fat 6.3 yards per rush while sharing time with hotshot classmate Felix Jones.
Greatness was a step away. But he stepped into a bad place first.
Around 10 one night in late July 2006, while visiting Little Rock, Nutt sent his star player a text message. It read: “Get ready, football’s around the corner.”
McFadden’s response: “I’m in the house.”
He didn’t stay there. The next text Nutt got from McFadden was at 4:30 a.m., saying he was on his way to the hospital. All hell broke loose in Razorback Nation shortly thereafter.
In a moment of Lohanesque bad judgment, Darren’s sophomore publicity began with reports of a 4 a.m. brawl outside a Little Rock nightclub that resulted in his left big toe nearly being torn off his foot. The dislocation broke the skin — among the lessons learned: Don’t fight in flip-flops — and sent him to a nearby hospital feeling worse emotionally than physically.
“I felt like a let a lot of people down,” Darren says.
There were mildly mitigating circumstances: McFadden was busy beating the pulp out of someone who was trying to steal his brother’s car, which was left running outside the club. But that hardly exonerated him.
The initial prognosis was that McFadden had no chance of being ready for the season opener against powerhouse USC. That only intensified the reaction around Arkansas.
“It was the worst thing that could happen and the best thing that could happen,” Henson says. “It taught him that even though it’s very hard to answer to the whole state, he has to do that. The Razorbacks are our state team, and to the people, he’s our hero.
“At the time he kind of resented the scrutiny. But now he understands that it’s not a judgment as much as people looking up to him. It was a humbling thing, and a lot of growth came from it.
“People can forgive you when you’re 20. When you’re doing stupid stuff at 30, they’re not as forgiving.”
A pin was surgically inserted in the toe, and rehab began. After the pin was removed, the toe really became painful. Swelling and stiffness were everyday issues.
Still, McFadden pushed himself toward playing against USC. He was a game-time decision and managed to gain 42 yards on nine carries — but backup Jones had two key fumbles that helped the Trojans to a 50-14 rout.
“It might not have been a good thing to play, but I told myself I was going to play,” McFadden says. “I don’t think that toe got right until the fourth or fifth game of the season. I had to ice it after every practice.”
He ran fine long before he felt fine. Darren went on to run for 1,647 yards and 14 touchdowns, was over 2,000 yards in all-purpose running and became a dangerous part-time quarterback. Out of the “Wildcat” formation — since renamed the “Wildhog” for obvious reasons — McFadden completed 7 of 9 passes for 69 yards and three touchdowns.
It was that added versatility, plus his explosiveness against high-level competition, that catapulted McFadden forward in national recognition. He broke six runs of 40 yards or more — including a 63-yarder against Auburn and a sensational 80-yard TD burst against LSU — and led his team to 10 wins to round out his curriculum vitae. That’s why he became the first sophomore to win the Doak Walker Award and only the seventh sophomore to finish second in the Heisman voting.
“We expected him to be a big-time player, but you don’t think he’s going to get on a plane and go to New York [as a Heisman finalist],” Nutt says. “To go as far as he went as a sophomore in this league is exceptional.”
All that brilliance only prompts the next logical question: How far can he go as a junior?
The first week of August camp is open to the public, and the public is happy to show up at the artificial turf practice field in the shadow of Donald W. Reynolds Stadium. There are about 250 fans sitting on a grass berm, and even more outside peering through the wrought iron gates.
On the first play of 11-on-11 team drills last Wednesday, McFadden takes a handoff and explodes through a hole, accelerating away from every defender and into the clear.
“That’s a bad motherf—– right there!” bellows one of the fans behind the fence, a white guy with tattoos covering both forearms.
Watching Darren run doesn’t just bring joy to his mother’s face. It brings joy to an entire state, which can use it after a viciously divisive offseason rocked the program to its core. McFadden is the one thing Hog fans can agree on, having embraced the in-state star as one of their all-time favorite Hogs.
He’s hailed by fellow students on campus when zipping around on his motor scooter. Even more people know his other mode of transport, a tricked-out, Razorback red Crown Victoria with 26-inch rims — pictures of that ride are all over the Internet. And everyone wants to know whether he can be the first Arkansas player ever to win the Heisman.
“The only thing I’ve said to him about that is, ‘Let’s don’t put a bunch of pressure on ourselves,'” Nutt says. “Line up seven [yards] deep and try to get four yards. Then let four turn into 14, and 14 turn into 80.”
That’s a simple and prudent approach, but not necessarily realistic. It’s human nature to project — not just to the Heisman ceremony in December, but beyond that. To January, and an expected early entry into the NFL draft. (Muhammad told ESPN.com last week that her son has expressed to her that this will be his last year at Arkansas.)
And given where Mini Muhammad and her family have been, it’s hard not to think of what new, foreign and fantastic lifestyle lies ahead.
“I’d like a bigger house right here, in the neighborhood,” Muhammad says. “I’ve got my eye on a house in the neighborhood, with plenty of room for the kids to run and hide and have a swimming pool.
“I don’t want to move out to the suburbs. I want to be able to sit on the porch and say, ‘Hey, y’all!” I don’t want to have to get in the car and drive back to the ‘hood to see people. I’m gonna say, ‘Look at me, the welfare queen!'”
Mini Muhammad laughs at the thought.
“That tickles me so, I’m sorry,” she says. “I used to call myself that. Now I can pay somebody back — donate something to somebody.”
Donating her drug-free self to Darren McFadden and his 11 siblings is a good start.
Pat Forde is a national columnist at Yahoo! Sports.