Jason Masters

“I just took off.” Darren McFadden was 6 years old when he first realized he was in his element. We didn’t have any plays, just sweep left, sweep right. They’d toss me the ball, I’d circle by and just run by all the kids,” he says. “I knew then I might be pretty fast.”

As of May 25, it’s been 3,431 days since Darren McFadden played his last game as number 5 for the Arkansas Razorbacks, but The Natural State still can’t get enough of their hometown hero. And the feeling is mutual.

McFadden, now a Dallas Cowboys running back who turns 30 in August, smiles when he talks about Little Rock. His native stomping grounds are still filled with family and familiar faces, and a crowd of nieces and nephews.

From the moment he took the field as a true freshman at the University of Arkansas in 2005, people paid attention. Viewers across the country tuned in to see what the Razorbacks would do next, and to watch McFadden cut through defenders like a hot knife.

He finished his junior season — his last at U of A before drafting out first round, fourth overall to the Oakland Raiders — as the university’s most decorated player. The “pretty fast” running back racked up a career total of 4,590 rushing yards, placing him comfortably at the top of most of the program’s rushing records and often landing him multiple spots in each ranking.

Nine years and 17 injuries later, McFadden is set to return for a third season with the Cowboys after a broken elbow cost him 13 games in 2016. His go-to remedy is the same thing that made him a veteran running back: a drive to keep moving.

“I’ve done just about every treatment there is. My motto’s always been that if it’s not hurting, it’s helping,” he says. “But the thing that works for me is that once your injuries heal up, you’ve got to get back to doing what you were doing. You can’t let it stiffen up. If you don’t work, you get a lot of scar tissue. I always want to get back into my regular routine just to keep it working, keep it moving.”

During the off-season, that means training four or five days a week with a couple hours of stretching, footwork and a strenuous workout, followed with conditioning three or four days a week.

McFadden’s routine during the season consists of running practice every day, two or three lifts a week and a whole lot of team practice. The key to keeping things interesting in the gym, he insists, is turning workouts into contests — not a difficult task for a room full of professional athletes.

“You get a bunch of competitors around each other, they always want to compete,” McFadden says. “It can be something simple like who can get the most reps on the bench, but if you can get the competitive juices flowing in your workout, it really helps out.”

Jason Masters

And as for McFadden’s favorite competitions, it’s no surprise where he excels.

“I’m a runner,” he laughs. “It’s funny because a lot of young guys come in and are like, ‘You’re old, you can’t move like you used to.’ I just say, ‘Whatever you wanna do, we can get it.’ It’s always fun to get out there and show them I can move, man. Don’t get it twisted.”

While there’s no doubt McFadden can move, nearly a decade in the NFL has taught him how to better read his body and its requirements. That includes a strict diet filled with chicken, fish, vegetables, carbohydrates and “anything I can put in my body that I feel is going to help,” along with limited amounts of red meat, despite it being one of his favorite dishes.

“Over the years I’ve just learned my body more and more,” he says, admitting an old fault of neglecting water intake. “Early on I didn’t really look at my hydration like I do now. I just thought my muscles were tight, but in reality I think it had to do with hydration. Now I make sure my body is hydrated so I can avoid those issues when I can.”

It’s about choices, McFadden says. But it’s also about balance. Sometimes it looks like joining forces with recovery drink HTWO Hydrogen Water or choosing to keep unhealthy snacks out of the house (though Little Debbie is another guilty pleasure). And sometimes it looks like the occasional helping of fried catfish, a sloppy hamburger or a spaghetti feast back at his mom’s house in Little Rock.

Now that he’s only roughly five hours away in Dallas, McFadden is able to visit his hometown more often, a chance to “get away from everything and be with family.” Looking back on the years he spent there, he notices a common thread between his high school and college years under the stadium lights.

“I feel like it was just going so fast. It was flying by me,” McFadden says. “I didn’t always put a lot of thought into all my accomplishments, just kept pushing to the next thing. Now that I sit and look back, those were some pretty big accomplishments. But once that time goes by, you just have a memory of it. You can’t get the same feeling as being in it again.”

The concept is one that’s nearly impossible for any young adult to grasp, but this, too, is something he finds coming easier with age.

“I’ve learned how to be more patient, how to try and actually take those things in. I think that’s one of the things as I get older is that I really start to cherish those moments.”

But make no mistake. McFadden doesn’t spend his days misty-eyed and chasing the Ghost of Seasons Past — he’s chasing a Super Bowl title.

“I started young and developed a love for the game that carried over into high school, and my career just kept going,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of things in sports, gotten a lot of accomplishments, but I definitely want a Super Bowl ring.”

A passion born and cultivated on Little Rock soil are what keep him running, that and maybe a little extra pride coming from The Natural State.

McFadden grins as he talks about Little Rock again.

“Man, it’s just good to run into people here. The fans and the state of Arkansas are still behind me and the things that I’m doing.”

He shakes his head as the smile spreads.

“It’s home.”

Jason Masters

Photography by Jason Masters     |     Clothing: Old Heights Corner Store