Before the NFL scouting combine this past February, most conversations about potential top picks in the April 26-27 draft included Darren McFadden, the dynamic running back from Arkansas.
Then he ran at Indianapolis.
Jaws dropped. Player personnel representatives gulped.
McFadden, who has been runner-up for the Heisman Trophy the past two seasons, ran a stunning 4.33 in the 40-yard dash.
Not sure what that means? Consider that former Olympic gold-medal sprinter Justin Gatlin, who two years ago tied the world record in the 100-meter dash, has failed to beat or even match McFadden's 40 time the past couple of seasons while auditioning for several NFL teams.
Talk about separating yourself from the pack.
"He absolutely helped himself," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said afterward. "He is what I thought he was. He has great burst and acceleration."
There are those who wonder whether McFadden could be the next Adrian Peterson. A little more than a year ago, the former Oklahoma running back fell to the Minnesota Vikings at No. 7 and then went on to become rookie of the year. He tumbled in part over concerns surrounding recovery from a broken collarbone.
"I believe [McFadden ran the 4.33] at 211 pounds. So you juxtapose that to a year ago," Mayock said. "Peterson was 217 [pounds], if I remember correctly, and he ran a 4.38 or a 4.40. … So that's pretty darn impressive."
Kevin Colbert, director of football operations for the Pittsburgh Steelers, likes what he sees in McFadden: "He's a great running back. He's big, he's fast and he's productive, [and] he's going to be a great back in the league."
But McFadden has been dogged by character questions that could result in a Peterson-like fall.
He's had a couple of run-ins with the police thanks to two separate incidents involving fights outside nightclubs.
He broke his big left toe in July 2006 when trying to kick someone he thought was involved with attempting to steal his brother's car outside a nightclub in Little Rock. A pin was inserted during surgery to repair the toe.
He insisted he had learned his lesson but got into another fight this past January outside a piano bar in Little Rock. He wasn't charged.
McFadden also had a paternity suit filed against him (initial tests indicated he's not the father, and results from a follow-up are pending) and has two other similar cases to resolve this summer when the babies are born.
He understands the scrutiny of his off-the-field problems.
"I know I put myself in a bad situation I shouldn't have been in," McFadden says. "And I take full responsibility for it."
Even so, St. Louis Rams vice president of player personnel Billy Devaney is a bit wary.
"There's just been some red flags, some obvious stuff," he says. "If you're thinking about taking a guy that high, absolutely you have to cover everything."
McFadden realizes there will be questions about his past.
"Yes, I understand completely," he says. "Because if they're going to invest their money in you [and] you've made those types of mistakes … they need to look at it."
But Leecie Henson, a former teacher of McFadden who still talks to him several times a week, says he shouldn't be slapped with a "character flaw" label.
"These things have cost him dearly, hurt his reputation. But I've talked to him about them, and he's truly regretful," he says. "I know that these whispers about his character are flat-out wrong."
McFadden has had to deal with adversity within his family, as well.
His mom, Mini Muhammad, waged a 10-year battle with an addiction to crack cocaine.
"She was always there for us," McFadden says, referring to his mom and his 11 brothers and sisters, the oldest of whom is 40 and the youngest of whom is 14. "Always there for me."
Except when she wasn't.
Except when the otherwise adoring mom would disappear into her bedroom to smoke crack.
"That's when he'd come to hang with me and his stepmom," says Graylon McFadden, Darren's dad, a carpenter who lives a few houses down from Muhammad in a tough working-class neighborhood in Little Rock. The two never married yet remain close, and they worked together to keep Darren away from Mini's situation. "He really stayed out of that atmosphere, didn't know about it, really, until she got help."
Had Muhammad not decided to change course six years ago, her path might not have included the chance to see her son get drafted next week.
She was arrested on an outstanding citation for speeding and says she refused to allow her family to post the $1,000 bail, spending eight days in jail to help get herself right emotionally and physically.
Until then, she had not been to any of McFadden's high school football games.
"But that's not because she didn't care about him or what he was doing," Henson says. "She always was devoted to him, but there were the other things going on."
Muhammad finally saw it for herself during McFadden's senior season.
"I went out there for a game the first time, and I just said to myself, 'Look what you've been missing,' " she says. "It was just such an overwhelming feeling. I saw my boy out there running and knocking people down and doing all kinds of things."
Muhammad understands being clean and sober for more than five years is just that and no more.
"She got well for herself but probably more so for her family," Henson says. "Darren loves his mom so much. That's a special bond to see. He wants to make her life better."
Big Man in Little Rock
McFadden didn't let his problems at home keep him from finding his way to Arkansas.
Once he got to college things began to happen. Not only was he in the mix for the Heisman two years running before deciding to leave school a year early for the draft, he won two consecutive Doak Walker awards, presented to the nation's best running back.
And he's the second Southeastern Conference running back, the first being 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker of Georgia, to rush for more than 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
He gained notice from coaches around the SEC.
Mississippi State's Sylvester Croom called him the best player in the country. Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer was looking for new schemes to use against him: "It takes more than the front four [to stop him]. … It'll take seven, maybe one or two more. Stacking nine would be ideal."
With the NFL draft looming, McFadden has heard all of the Peterson comparisons.
But Devaney discounts the supposed similarities.
"The comparison is last year Peterson was the best back and McFadden is the best back this year in most people's eyes. But that's where the comparison ends," Devaney says.
"They're two totally different styles. Peterson is vicious when he runs — [an] angry man when he runs. Not to say that McFadden's not tough — it's just a different style.
"He's kind of a glider, more athletic kind of guy who can hurt you in a number of ways running the ball [and] catching the ball. I think they're a different breed of cat."
McFadden bristles slightly when asked about the differences in styles and Peterson's toughness.
"Yes, he really runs the ball hard, but so do I," he says, and also points to his versatility.
In 38 games with the Razorbacks, McFadden rushed for 4,590 yards and 41 touchdowns on 785 attempts. He also caught 46 passes for 365 yards (7.9 average) and returned 38 kickoffs for 926 yards and a touchdown.
Also, in spot work at quarterback, he completed 14 of 22 passes for 205 yards and seven touchdowns.
And then there's the fact that McFadden shared the backfield with another player who might go in the first round: Felix Jones. McFadden rushed for 1,896 yards last season on 325 carries, but Jones was good for 1,199 yards on 133 attempts. There appears to be little doubt in McFadden's mind of who the best running back is.
"I feel like I am the best player in the draft," McFadden said at the combine. "I feel like I'm a very versatile player. I can go out there and line up at receiver, I can line up in the backfield and block, line up back there and run [and] throw a pass if you need me to."