D-Making of D-Mac

LITTLE ROCK -- A small, portable fan blows cold air through the cramped living room, providing a comfortable breeze as Mini Muhammad points to photographs of her 12 children.

"When I first had all those children -- those first six children -- we lived everywhere," Muhammad said, laughing.

The framed pictures line two adjacent walls. Together, they resemble a long timeline that spans Muhammad's seven sons and five daughters, as well as a decade-long drug addiction that came to an end five years ago.

One son, in particular, looks familiar.

He is Muhammad's 10th child, the one whose big ears can be seen in a class picture from elementary school. But gradually he gets older in the progression of photographs and his face looks more defined in the family portraits that hang on the walls.

His body also changes, from that of a wiry kid to the chiseled physique seen on nearly a dozen magazine covers this summer and in an autographed action shot hanging above one of his mother's living room sofas.

"Darren was the largest of the 12," Muhammad, 56, said. "He weighed 9 pounds, 3 ounces."

Muhammad is referring to her second-to-last son, Darren McFadden, better known as Arkansas' first Heisman Trophy finalist and perhaps the most popular player in college football at the moment.

To his family, though, he's not D-Mac. He's "D" or D-Dog, the boy who'll do anything for a laugh, including wearing a dress to school.

"It's almost like a dream come true, to know that all these people are all over my little brother, the same little bad, little big-eared little boy back in the day that was just sometimes unbearable," said Medina Johns, 32, one of McFadden's four older sisters.

The running back's playful personality and immense loyalty to his family was shaped in Muhammad's small house on Schiller Street in the state's capital. It's in an underprivileged neighborhood near several liquor stores and the Arkansas State Fairgrounds.

McFadden, who turns 20 on Aug. 27, went trick-or-treating on the same streets he fought on. He pulled pranks on the brothers and sisters forced to look after him. And he was kept in the dark for much of his childhood about what his mother actually did when she went into her back bedroom.

"I think that is a huge part of why he is so tied to Little Rock; he feels like he needs to take care of his mom," said Leecie Henson, 45, one of McFadden's former high school teachers. She has grown so close to the running back over the years that she's referred to as his "white mom."

Family Secret

On the surface, McFadden had a typical childhood. He climbed trees, tore up a neighbor's grass playing football and went hunting with his father, Graylon McFadden, in Scott.

"When he shot his first 'coon (at 7 or 8 years old), he cried like a baby," said Graylon, 54, a carpenter who lives only seven blocks away from Muhammad on Schiller Street.

Muhammad married her first husband at 16 after she got pregnant with her first child, Patrick, 39. She had met McFadden's father in high school, but they didn't start dating until years later.

They had four children together, but never married. Darren was their second child. (Graylon McFadden wanted his sons to take his last name.)

"(Darren) was no worse than the other kids, but he was a little wilder because he was always wanting to go hunting," Muhammad said.
With nine older siblings, McFadden always had someone around the house to play with. Kids were constantly coming in and out of Muhammad's home, so many that she kept extra Popsicles in the freezer.

Family members said McFadden wasn't a troublemaker, aside from getting into the occasional fight. But the neighborhood he grew up in offered plenty of temptation.

One of McFadden's brothers got involved with a gang, and he had friends who were killed. But McFadden never got caught up in the gang violence that hung over Little Rock in the 1990s.

"He was always surrounded by that," said Henson, who first met McFadden when she was a teacher and he was an angry seventh-grader at Pulaski Oak Grove. She now teaches English at Springdale High.

"We watched that documentary about Little Rock gangs that was done several years ago (Gang War: Bangin' In Little Rock). I watched it with Darren actually. He was saying, 'Look, there's my dad's yard. Look, I know (that kid), he died. Oh yeah, he got shot.'"

McFadden's siblings made sure that he stayed away from the negative elements the neighborhood had to offer, but they weren't as successful with their mother.

Muhammad said she started smoking crack in 1991, around the time that Darryl -- her 11th child -- was born. She drank alcohol and smoked marijuana, too, always going into her bedroom to take a hit.

"I didn't hang in the streets or walk on corners or anything like that. I had my room," Muhammad said. "I'd just go to the back in my room somewhere, and (my children) knew not to bother me."

Muhammad, who has been clean since 2002-03, talks openly about her "drug addict days." She said she's noticed a magnificent change in her life since then, and she wears three big rings on each hand to represent the "blessings" from her children.

According to those close to McFadden, he was unaware of his mother's crack addiction until his junior year of high school in 2003. By then, he had developed into a star football player and people wondered why his mother wasn't at his games.

"I don't think he actually knew about it," his father said. "He used to be with me 80, 90 percent of the time."

Muhammad's children can be separated into two groups -- the older ones and the younger ones. The older ones looked out for the younger ones when they were growing up. McFadden is part of the younger group.

Johns, McFadden's sister, said her brother didn't know about the drug addiction that consumed his mother and forced her to beg her children for money. The older kids usually caved in and gave her money, though they knew what it was going for.

Johns helped fill the role of mother, making sure her younger brothers and sisters got their cereal in the morning and their clothes ironed.

"It was tough for everybody, me especially, because a lot of the times, I was the bigger of the children that was at the house," said Johns, who works as a stylist at beauty salon not far from Muhammad's house.

"I had to kind of do what I had to do to make sure my little brothers and little sisters were straight."

The older siblings bought clothes and Christmas presents for the younger ones. The family also looked forward to the first of every month because that's when the welfare check came in.

According to Muhammad, the turning point for her came around 2002 when she went to jail for eight days for what she said was for an outstanding speeding ticket. Initially, her children were going to pay the $1,000 to bail her out, but she told them not to bother.

She wanted to stay in jail and kick drugs for good.

"I think that was just a blessing from God for me to go to jail like I did and get myself clean. And I read the Bible," Muhammad said. "Man, it was a truly wonderful experience for me. I enjoyed jail; there is no sense in me lying."

Her life changed from that point. Though she didn't know anything about football, she attended McFadden's games during his senior season.

The two still have an extremely close relationship. McFadden calls his mother several times a day just to say hi. When he asks how she's doing, her response is usually, "I'm chillin'."

In December, Muhammad and Johns accompanied McFadden to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation. (He finished second to former Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith.)

It was McFadden's first trip to the Big Apple, and for Muhammad, the experience seemed like a blessing she couldn't have imagined only a few years ago during those hours spent in her bedroom.

"That's the wonderful part about it," Muhammad said, "because I said, 'Look at me. Who would have ever thought that me -- the lady that smoked crack (and) got drunk -- would be here?'"

The Prankster

Unlike his mother, McFadden doesn't feel comfortable talking about himself.

He has gotten better at opening up to the media, but he still doesn't welcome the national attention he's received following back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons at Arkansas.

But friends and family members close to McFadden know a much different side of him than the one who has jumped on the back of a moving golf cart to avoid talking with reporters.

They know D-Dog, a wild and relentless prankster who's willing to do anything for a laugh. Even if that includes cross-dressing.

"His goal is to make himself laugh, but if other people join in and laugh, it's a bonus," Henson said. "It's like gravy."

Practical jokes are part of McFadden's act.

He was nearly suspended once from Pulaski Oak Grove High for changing a sign in the school cafeteria to read that an item that cost $2.50 was actually 25 cents.

McFadden tormented a female classmate who sat in front of him in a high school English class by putting a sign on her back everyday with messages that read, "Kick me" or "I farted."

And his sister has learned to be on the lookout when she enters her mother's house if McFadden is home. Why? He likes to scare her by jumping in front of her as soon as she steps through the front door.

"I could have something in my hand (and) drop it. And he would laugh, even though I may hit him or be like, 'Man, don't do that!'" Johns said. "He would do it anyway, (in) about another week or two later.

"He was always trying to pull a prank or a joke on somebody."

McFadden's favorite trick to pull seems to be going to school dressed in full costume. Sometimes, he's a clown, but usually he's an ugly-looking woman in one of his mother's large dresses.

"Man, Darren would go in that closet right there. There are a lot of old clothes in there," Muhammad said, pointing to a closet in her living room. "Man, he'd go in there and find blazers, skirts, some of my dresses. ... That boy would leave here, he'd sometimes have one of my wigs on."

It was all for fun. He'd go to class in a dress, knowing that he'd later change into his football attire. He was Oak Grove's star running back, prom king and class clown all at the same time.

"He would wear a dress all the time to school," Henson said.

In fact, McFadden wore so many dresses to school during his senior year that Henson threatened to call Arkansas coach Houston Nutt and tell him that his prized recruit liked wearing women's clothing. That got him to stop.

Johns, meanwhile, recalled the day when she stopped by her mother's house, only to find McFadden waiting for her. He had his socks pulled up to his knees, his mother's glasses on his face and her house coat tied around him.

"I said, 'Man, you need to quit,'" Johns said. "He's always been a kidder. He's always wanted to just make folks laugh."
Being Saved

McFadden's family members, however, said they've seen a significant change in his personality over the past year. He's calmer. He's more spiritual. And he doesn't like to go out as often.

The change in the running back's demeanor can be traced back to a Little Rock parking lot in the early morning of July 29, 2006. That was the day McFadden nearly lost his football career, and more importantly, his life.

McFadden got into a fight outside The Palace nightclub after someone apparently tried stealing his brother's car. During the altercation, McFadden severely dislocated the big toe on his left foot when he kicked a man after losing a shoe.

McFadden was taken to a local hospital, and he had toe surgery a few hours later. At the time, he feared his football career might be over with.

"When I went to the hospital to see him, I had to reassure him," Muhammad said. "He said, 'I'm sorry.' He was crying. He said, 'I'm sorry, mama, I have let ya'll down.'"

McFadden called Henson from the hospital at 5 a.m. She said it was like that phone call that a parent never wants to get from a child. McFadden kept crying and telling her how he'd disappointed those he loves.

"It took forever to make him stop saying, 'I'm sorry,'" Henson said.

The first week after the incident was the worst. McFadden moped around his mother's house and slept in his youngest sister's bedroom with his foot propped up. Get-well balloons filled the room.

But his toe healed.

McFadden seems to be a quick healer like his father, who briefly played football at University of Arkansas-Monticello. McFadden also got "saved."

The family had pastors call McFadden to offer support. And he became more spiritual after the incident, which easily could have turned out much worse.

"Darren told me, 'You know, I probably should be dead.' And I told him, 'Every person there (at the fight) had a gun, you know every person did,'" Henson said. "And he agrees. He said, 'I know that they did.'"

McFadden believes someone was looking out for him that morning. He also feels he's been given a second chance to take advantage of a gift he's been given: the ability to play football.

"I don't know if he's very (religious), but what I can say is that it's a total difference that I see in him," Johns said. "Since the toe injury, he's kind of just been more of a positive type person."

As a kid, McFadden was prone to getting into fights at school. It happened a few times a year. One time, several coaches were needed to break up a fight between McFadden and another football player.

But that's not him anymore, according to those that know McFadden. He's more mature. He makes smarter decisions. And he realizes he can't jeopardize his certain NFL future by getting into a fight.

Recently, several of Muhammad's 27 grandchildren were at her home one day when they got into an argument with some neighborhood kids. McFadden was back in Little Rock at the time.

Things quickly escalated, and soon several large, older men at the other end of the street started challenging McFadden.

Rather than getting into a fight, as he might have done as a kid, McFadden served as the peacemaker. He calmed the older men down and broke up the incident before it got any worse.

The old McFadden, the one before the toe injury, wouldn't have done that.

"Back then, (Darren) would have been a fighter. (Darren) would have been ready to go on and fight, because there was no lie about it, we fought," his sister said. "We went through some battles coming up as kids with different neighbors and stuff."

But like McFadden on a football field, life has seemed to stop and change directions for those who grew up in that small house on Schiller Street.

"Even though what all we've come through and where we are now, it's like, 'Dang, I made it and I'm so grateful,'" Muhammad said. "I'm so thankful for that."

Mini Muhammad's Children
Name Age Where are they?
Patrick Johns 39 Lives in Texarkana, Texas.
Asonya Walker 37 Accountant executive for Pepsi in Collierville, Tenn.
Timothy Johns 35 Works in production at a Forrest City plant.
Medina Johns 32 Hair stylist in Little Rock.
Sultan Muhammad 31 Working on a Master's degree at UALR.
Bilal Muhammad 29 Owns a record store in Little Rock.
Wallace Muhammad 26 Lives and works in Little Rock.
Mecca Muhammad 24 Lab technician at VA hospital in Little Rock.
Gaylon Muhammad 21 Runs track at University of Memphis; graduates in May.
Darren McFadden 19 Junior at University of Arkansas; star tailback.
Darryl McFadden 17 Senior football player at Oak Grove High School.
Aminah Muhammad 14 Student in Little Rock. McFadden: A Jack of All Trades
Career Statistics at Arkansas
Year Att. Yds TD Avg./Carry Avg./Game
2005 176 1,113 11 6.3 101.2
2006 284 1,647 14 5.8 117.6
Total 460 2,760 25 6.0 110.4
Year Rec. Yds TD
2005 14 52 0
2006 11 149 1
Total 25 201 1
Year Att-Cmp-Int. Yds TD Pct.
2005 2-1-0 13 0 50.0
2006 9-7-1 69 3 77.8
Total 11-8-1 82 3 72.7

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