CANTON, Ohio — If professional conduct was a requirement for Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, then who knows where Charles Haley would be this weekend? Certainly, he would not be here in Canton, where the former 49ers sackmaster was enshrined Saturday.
Haley was a monster on the field, where he ravaged quarterbacks for 100.5 sacks in 13 seasons. But he wreaked so much havoc off it, the player with the most Super Bowl rings (5) in NFL history was a Hall of Fame finalist five times before he was afforded the ultimate honor this year.
The old Haley may have been bitter for the slight, but he wants us to believe that he’s more humble one now. He has no intention to wave his rings in the faces of the selection committee. All these years later, the man can finally admit that he’s lucky to be where he is today.
“I realize that, at this stage of my life, it’s better to mend bridges than to burn them down,” Haley said. “All those people who have helped me in my career — which is a lot — the guys are telling me thanks and I love you, and I’m trying to do right by them.”
They were guys such as Bill Walsh, the ultimate player’s coach, and Eddie DeBartolo, the ultimate player’s owner. They were the authority figures in the 49ers organization who stood by Haley when it would have been easier to say to hell with him.
“He was a shoulder that I cried on a lot,” Haley said of Walsh, his first NFL coach. “He would call me when I was playing and when I was done and ask me, ‘What do you need?’ [and] how he could help me.”
In fact, Haley said he received a call from Walsh only days before his death eight years ago.
“I ask myself a lot, ‘God why do you bless me like you do when I’ve done so many dumb things? Bill, why would you care about me like this?’” Haley said. “I was with him only three years, then I was gone. I don’t understand a lot of things. You know, God works in mysterious ways.”
Haley had a distant relationship with DeBartolo in his eight seasons with the team. That began to change in later years, when the two connected at charity functions. The former owner was his presenter this weekend.
“I realized why I loved the guy, you know?” Haley said. “He’s a very passionate guy. The only thing he knows how to do is treat all of us like family. He treated the best of us to the the worst of us just like his kid. He gave us the best of everything.
Haley played with a me-versus-the-world complex, which he developed as an unheralded recruit at James Madison, not exactly a football factory. He was a lean, tall kid, but the 49ers were intrigued by his physical length, uncommon athleticism and competitive edge. They selected him in the fourth round of the 1986 draft.
Haley couldn’t have come to a better place. Not only was Walsh’s team a contender, but a linebacker who could rush the passer was one of its few needs. As a rookie, he routinely beat defenders with remarkable burst speed and relentless pursuit off the edge. He recorded 12 sacks, the first of six consecutive seasons as the team leader in the category.
Yet as the 49ers would soon discover, there was a dark side to Haley, one that he wouldn’t acknowledge for until after his retirement, when he was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. “As I tell kids, I was a 22-year-old athlete that had an 11-year-old inside of me crying for help, but I refused to ask for it,” he said.
As dominant as Haley could be on the field, he often received more attention for what took place off it. In 1991, he choked Walsh’s successor George Seifert in a film session. That same year, he urinated on the office floor of Carmen Policy, the team president. He became known for his tirades after losses, when he ripped into teammates in the locker room.
Finally, after Haley was involved in a physical altercation with star quarterback Steve Young, the front office had enough. The veteran was traded to the rival Dallas Cowboys, and he vowed never to look back.
“There was a ton of bad blood from my standpoint,” Haley conceded. “When I left California, I left California. You know, I didn’t talk to anyone there or whatever. I was just mad at the world. I never looked at my side of the fence or my side of the road. I just pointed the finger at everybody who I felt betrayed me.”
In Dallas, not much changed for Haley except his position. As a defensive end, he continued to produce at a high level — the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in his five seasons — and his behavior was as lewd and disruptive as ever.
While Haley won’t apology for his many misdeeds, he likes to believe that he’s a better man because of them. “A new beginning,” as he calls it. He remains active on the field, where he advises and instructs young players with his former teams. He also is involved in charity endeavors.
“I have a platform to stand on some issues that I care about and help raise money for kids and for mental illness,” Haley said. “I have so many things I want to do, and I think being a part of Hall of Fame, being able to team up with some of the guys there along with the Hall of Fame and to try to tackle some of these issues … I’m just excited.