(This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click **here*.)*
They always talk about Sundays. How their Sundays change after retirement. How they miss that rush of adrenalin, that sense of invincibility that comes with taking the field and winning a football game in front of tens of thousands of admiring fans.
What they rarely talk about are the lonely nights, when they are left to their thoughts, the realization that the highest of highs will never be reached, even pursued, again. They are still celebrities of a sort, but it's a picture here, an autograph there. Whereas before, little boys, businessmen and old women alike would form a line through the parking lot of a restaurant to just shake their hand. Especially when they were winning Super Bowls.
And no one has ever won more Super Bowls than Charles Haley, the lone player in NFL history with five. He accomplished this 20 years ago, and no player has matched him since.
Haley misses the Sundays, he does. However, his issue is those nights, especially those when the fears and emptiness visit and it takes every ounce of courage within him to live another day, another hour. There have been many times when Charles has been ready to leave this world, both before and since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2003.
"I've been in those real, real dark places where I thought about killing myself a lot," Haley said. "I had something I could be really good at, then when that's gone, it's hard to find yourself. So I went in those places. What kept me from killing myself is that I realized that I couldn't have a relationship with Jesus Christ if I committed suicide.
"So that always brought my head up. I go to a psychiatrist and a counselor now. I sit down and I'm open and honest. Holding it in, that's what I did my whole life. I internalized everything somebody said, everything somebody did, and then guess what? I couldn't let it go.
"The worst part is I've scared my family, my ex-wife, my four kids, because of the hopelessness that I felt, the worthlessness. Even though I've done so many great things, I couldn't see it, and that's when I knew that I had something wrong."
There are a lot of stories about Haley, and while some are exaggerated, others sprinkled with just a speck of truth, the majority more or less took place just how they are remembered. Haley was, well is, different. Always has been really, long before anyone thought he was good enough to play high school football, never mind become the premier pass rusher for the two dominant NFL teams of his playing career.
And from those early days growing up in a part of Virginia and a way of life unfathomable to most, to his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Haley has lived his life under the rules and conditions of Charles – never Charlie, never Chuck, just Charles. There were mentors, Ronnie Lott, Bill Walsh and Jerry Jones chief among them, to whom he listened and allowed himself to mature, as both a man and a football player. There is also his beloved mother, Virginia, who by all accounts is tougher and feistier than her son. When recently asked if she were still alive, Charles started laughing and said, "She's too mean to die."
After six seasons, 63.5 sacks, three Pro Bowl nods and two Super Bowls, Haley was traded from San Francisco to the Cowboys on the cusp of the 1992 regular season. This wasn't the typical NFL trade, more on that later. Haley would play just six years with Dallas, 63 games, but by all accounts, he was the final piece of the Super Bowl puzzle, helping America's Team win three Lombardi Trophies in four years. To many, this is the greatest collection of talent ever assembled on a pro football team.
Haley, while not universally loved by his teammates and coaches, pushed every member of the organization with his methods, his mind games, his oftentimes-infuriating behavior. Looking back, usually his actions were due to the bipolar disorder. In other instances, it was just Charles being Charles.
He always liked to clown around and poke the bear, dating back to his childhood. Haley was also famous for his dislike and ardent distrust of the media, which he treated like filth. Those days have changed, too. Haley now enjoys the back-and-forth and is quite pleasant to talk with.
More than anything, Haley's legacy with the Cowboys is about sacrifice. His body was already abandoning him when he arrived, his back would require multiple fusion surgeries and another to remove a ruptured disk. His legs, his knees especially, took such abuse that he walks to this day with a limp and has handicapped license plates. He took the field those last few seasons in Dallas on a combination of Novocain, Vicodin and courage. And, he doesn't regret any of the sacrifice.
"We won, we won Super Bowls, we made the fans happy," Haley said. "I mean, when it comes to playing in the NFL, that's the mountaintop. That's why we all play, so I'm OK with how it all turned out. That's the price, and I'm paying it."
Growing up in Gladys, Va., a small town of fewer than 4,000 people located in the central part of the state, not far from Lynchburg, Haley was the second youngest of five brothers. The Haley boys were their own wrecking crew, basketball team, football team, whatever the day brought. Their father, George, had good size at 6 feet 2 inches and 250 pounds, but he was quiet, unassuming and hardworking, often holding down two jobs at once. Their mother was 5 foot 10 inches and definitely, without question, the disciplinarian. She also worked on an assembly line at a furniture manufacturer. Both are still alive, although George has lost both of his legs to diabetes.
"My dad was like a picture on the wall," Haley said. "He'll walk in a room and he'll stand right by the wall, and after about two or three minutes you won't even know he's there. He's an introvert. He's shy. He led by example. We would go to work with him, and he would work.
"He worked at a fiberglass factory and cut pulpwood on the side. We used to lift pulpwood, and that's when you cut down pine trees. It's kind of like logging. We used to go out there with our dad, and we would see him pick up these big trunk trees and put it on his shoulder and walk it, throw it on a truck. He was the no-nonsense guy.
"My father didn't want to spank us. Our mom did because the one time he did, he cried. He cried as he did it, and I'm going like, 'Wow, I love this.' By the time he got to me, the fourth kid, I received just one, and he was done. But, my mom is no joke. She never gives empty promises. Even today, she's 70-something years old, and she isn't putting up with anything."
Looking back, the Haleys were poor, not having a television until Charles was a teenager, which was also around the same time they were able to afford indoor plumbing. However, they were like the majority of families in the area, so it didn't define them. The brothers worked as well, Charles often waking up at 4:30 a.m. to pick tobacco in middle school and high school.
Charles wasn't the best kid on the ball field growing up. In fact, he says all four of his brothers were better athletes, although others disagree with that statement. Charles was overweight as a child despite near constant exercise, usually with his brothers. The five of them were inseparable.
"I wasn't good at anything, and my brothers were good at everything, so I pretty much became the class clown," Haley said. "I always called myself Charlie Brown. You know, when he goes to kick the ball and Lucy picks it up. I never got picked to play in games. I had big feet and was awkward. I remember all that stuff. That never leaves you."
They would play sandlot football games wherever they could find competition or boys willing to play with them. They played tackle on dirt fields, parking lots, wherever they found some space, rocks and broken glass often among the obstacles.
"We would try to pick up some of the rocks, but we didn't do a very good job of it," Haley said. "It was a great time. We would let them score at first by diving at their feet and letting them jump over us, but that was just so we could clothesline them later on when they when to jump. We would send them to the hospital. There was a lot of blood."
As he grew, Charles became more and more athletic, long arms, long legs, agile, natural strength from cutting down trees. As a sophomore at William Campbell High School, Haley made the varsity football and basketball teams. He was a linebacker and tight end, and while he would eventually become an all-state selection, like his older brother Lawrence, there was no interest at the collegiate level.
Part of the problem was playing at a small school. Also, Haley was skinny, about 175 pounds during his senior campaign. Colleges, even 33 years ago, weren't scouring the country for 6-foot 4-inch, 175-pound linebackers.
It only takes one, though. One coach hears about a kid from another coach he knows well, and then there's some film and then we're talking about his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.
No, that's usually not how the story goes.
"Without Danny Wilmer, we're not having this conversation," Haley said. "There was no one interested in me. Coach Wilmer saw something in me way before anyone else cared."
In terms of recruiting high school talent in the state of Virginia, there's Wilmer, and then there's everyone else. Now 68 and retired, the man once given a tryout by the Dallas Cowboys after a standout career at East Carolina is responsible for signing the likes of multiple NFL Pro Bowl selections, including Gary Clark, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Heath Miller and Haley.
While he spent the bulk of his career at Virginia as a position's coach and recruiting coordinator, Wilmer was at James Madison from 1980-83. His second season there, on a recruiting trip to Brookville High School in Lynchburg, its head coach told him to check out some film on Haley. Wilmer said he had never heard of him, but wanted to watch the tape.
"There's this wide receiver who won the state title that spring in the 100 meters and they threw this quick pass to him at the line of scrimmage, and here comes this linebacker to tackle him from behind," Wilmer said. "That doesn't happen. I went to see one of his games and the opposing team runs the option. Charles reads the play, takes out the dive back, then angles the quarterback, forcing him to pitch out. And then he tackles that guy behind the line of scrimmage. I start yelling, 'Where is everyone? This guy is going to play in the NFL someday.' I kept attending his games and no one else ever showed up. I still don't understand it."
At the end of his senior year of high school, Haley was invited to play in the state's East-West Game. At that point, his only scholarship offers were from James Madison and Liberty University. The coaches put him at tight end because of an abundance of linebackers, and Haley caught every ball thrown at him. At the end of the game, Virginia Tech and other Division I programs asked him about playing the position in college.
"I told them I didn't like getting hit, that stuff hurts, and I was a linebacker," Haley said. "Anyway, I'm staying home and playing at James Madison. I liked that it was nearby (in Harrisonburg). I had never been farther than 30 miles from my house at this point. I remember my first practice there, they mentioned me playing tight end, and I said, 'No problem, coach, I'm going home.' That was the end of playing tight end."
The head coach at James Madison was Challace McMillin, a kind, smaller man who quickly realized what the program had discovered – a gem, a player worthy of starting from his first day on campus. There were issues here and there, but for the most part, Charles behaved.
The cardinal, unbreakable, non-negotiable rule, though, was this: Players went to class, players would pass their classes and players would graduate. They weren't bending any rules for athletes, no matter how great they performed.
At first, this wasn't easy for Haley, who wasn't a strong student in high school. Part of the problem was a learning deficiency, especially with spelling out words. One of the reasons he never liked signing autographs was because he didn't want to spell the words wrong.
There was another issue: Charles simply didn't care for school, wasn't his thing. He had also never lifted weights, just wasn't his thing. However, surrounded by men he respected, and understanding the opportunity of being the first in his family to attend college, Haley dedicated himself. He took extra reading and writing labs, even though he didn't receive college credit for them, and worked with tutors on a daily basis. And he improved as a student in each of his four years there, graduating on time.
"We never had a problem with Charles at James Madison," Wilmer said. "He never missed a class, worked with multiple tutors, worked maybe harder in the classroom to graduate than at football, and he was the model football player. His teammates loved him."
At this moment, Wilmer pauses, and catches himself. There's silence, a few tears, and then a quick clear of the throat, "I love him. I can read. I've read the stories about some of the stuff he did, but man, I never saw that. I understand Charles because we're the same person in so many ways. We have that little chip on our shoulder. We can sense when we're not liked, and when others are afraid of us, and maybe some of that came out."
By his senior year, Haley became the first Division I-AA All-America selection in the program's history. He finished with 506 tackles, and never missed a game. As a freshman, he helped JMU defeat Virginia in a stunning upset. However, his most memorable outing came against Georgia Southern in 1985, the team that won the national title that season. Haley finished with 12 tackles, deflected three passes, forced a fumble, registered a sack and blocked a punt.
"Charles was an outstanding football player," McMillin said earlier this year. "After his first practice at JMU, it was very obvious that Charles would be starting as a freshman. As time went on, it also became obvious that Charles was not only an outstanding talent, but that he had a tremendous work ethic. He was one of the most competitive athletes I ever coached, and he had a tremendous attitude."
At the conclusion of his standout collegiate career, one which would land him in the school's Hall of Fame, Haley was thinking about the future. Like a job. Here's what he was absolutely sure of: He wasn't returning to Gladys, well, outside of visiting family and friends.
As for the NFL, the mere subject gives Haley a huge chuckle when reflecting back. "I never thought it. I honestly, 100 percent never thought it. I never even dreamed about going to the NFL. I was hoping to teach, use my sociology degree somehow. Maybe coach. At that point, it was much more important to me to graduate than what was happening after that. And I knew I wasn't going back to Gladys. I couldn't do it."
Haley is quite proud of his five Super Bowl rings. He's quite proud at being a member of the Ring of Honor. He's ridiculously, over-the-moon-and-then-some proud of his four children and, of course, he's now a proud member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After his kids, though, the proudest achievement of Haley's life might just be graduating from James Madison. And he credits his coaches, mostly McMillin, who was actually let go after his sophomore season, and Wilmer for putting him on that path.
"The blessing I received was just having Challace McMillin as my head coach because he emphasized education," Haley said. "I showed up there struggling to read and write and left with a degree. That's the American dream right there.
"His thing was there is no free lunch, and he made us go to class. He got us tutors. He even got me, after the first season, he started having me go see a counselor and talk to him, so I had a chance to try to get some of that anger and rage out."
The 1986 NFL Draft took place on April 29-30. The draft wasn't that big of a deal back then, although ESPN covered it, and in fact, that was Mel Kiper's third year on the broadcast. Haley was about 200 pounds at the time, still skinny considering he was 6 feet 5 inches. The only reason anyone in the NFL knew Haley's name was because James Madison played UVA each season, and just as he would at the next level, Charles played his best in the biggest games, against the best competition.
San Francisco came to campus and watched him bench 225 pounds twice. Former Cowboys kicker Dan Buehler lifted the same weight 25 times at his Pro Day in 2009. After watching him run a 4.49-second time in the 40-yard dash, the 49ers assistant coach handed him $50, told him to take his girl out to eat and that was the end of the workout.
There was one other team that showed interest. The New York Giants actually flew Haley to their headquarters, which marked his first time on a plane. They picked him up at the airport, and after the briefest of workouts, he was headed home. That was the pre-draft experience for Charles.
"I really didn't talk to anyone, I didn't have an agent, so why would I dream about the NFL?" he said. "Nobody said a word to me about it being a possibility."
The 49ers stunned one and all by selecting Haley in the fourth round, the 96th overall pick. There were 333 players taken over 12 rounds in 1986, and exactly one of them resides in Canton.
Of course, the first NFL game Haley played in, on Sept. 7 at Tampa Bay, was the first pro contest he ever attended.
"I'd never been over 30 miles from my home," Haley said. "Why are you talking about whether or not I ever went to an NFL game? My parents, they worked hard. They worked hard just to maintain where they were. My road trips growing up were to borrow water from a neighbor for the outhouse, not to NFL stadiums."
When he received the phone call that he was now a member of one of the league's most successful franchises, led by genius head coach Bill Walsh and All-Pro quarterback Joe Montana, Haley wasn't overly impressed. That was mostly because he had never heard of Walsh or Montana, or Jerry Rice, Roger Craig or Ronnie Lott.
Seriously, he literally had no idea who these people were.
At minicamp, he immediately thought the world of Walsh, and the two began the strongest of lifelong bonds. Lott, too, took a liking to the kid. That summer, Haley worked with defensive line coach Tommy Hart every day for an hour, and studied film and the playbook every night.
His only real distraction was buying shoes; Charles had a thing for shoes. He didn't buy a car, didn't waste any of the money from the contract he negotiated himself, but the shoes were too much to pass up. And he missed his mother like crazy, called her constantly. But once the season rolled around, Haley played like a Pro Bowl selection with a team-leading and franchise rookie-record 12 sacks, along with four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception.
"I'm a really, really, really fast learner, and I watched film of great players in order to pick up a little bit of something from them," Haley said. "I knew I could stay there after the first minicamp because I was so fast that none of the tackles could block me. That boosted my confidence because iron sharpened the iron. These guys had been starting for years, and they say they're good technicians, but when you whoop them, it does help you. My motto was 'by any means necessary' because I didn't want to go back home."
Haley was not going back to Virginia, at least until season's end as the pride and joy of his hometown and James Madison. The local kid made good on the grandest of stages. However, the bipolar disorder, while 17 years from being diagnosed, was becoming more and more difficult to control.
The stories, the wild, disturbing and certainly not fit to print, were becoming commonplace in those first few seasons. The 49ers won two Super Bowls, and Haley was named a Pro Bowl selection in three of his final four seasons there, but after Walsh left in 1988, the day-to-day was becoming more unpredictable and entirely uncontrollable. His new head coach, George Seifert, dealt with more than the majority would have before finally deciding enough was enough. It was time for Charles to go.
"I was dejected. I screwed up because I told George Seifert that I was not going to go to Japan or wherever they went, and he said that was the last straw," Haley said. "He was not going to have a player dictating, and I really didn't care because I blamed him for cutting Ronny, Joe, all the guys that I loved. Then he wanted to thrust me into a leadership role when that's not who I am."
When the Cowboys dealt second- and third-round picks for Haley in late-August 1992, former Raiders owner Al Davis left his good friend Jerry Jones a voice mail, saying, "Congratulations, you just won the Super Bowl."
Thing is, Jones thought so, too, and picked Haley up at the airport. On the ride back , Jones told him, "We will be Super Bowl champions. Not down the road. We start today. You are the final piece."
Then-head coach Jimmy Johnson and Jones had heard all the stories, the 49ers couldn't have been more up front about why they were trying to deal their best pass rusher. But, the Cowboys decided the risk was worth the potential reward. The team was lacking just one piece, and that was a top-tier pass rusher.
"When I came to Dallas, I came to Dallas humble because I didn't know what to expect," Haley said. "And then Jerry picked me up from the airport. Oh, my God. I'm thinking I must have hit the lottery. The owner of the Dallas Cowboys picked me up at the airport. That was one of the best days of my life.
"The situation couldn't have been better. Jimmy allowed me to be me, and I love him. And Jerry was my grandfather. He took care of me like a grandson. You should have heard him on that ride, telling me about how screwed up the team finances were when he bought the team, and the Herschel Walker trade. He didn't stop talking.
"I think Jerry wanted to just look me in the eyes and see what he'd just done. And like I tell people, what makes Jerry special is he takes chances. I'm happy and forever honored that he took a chance on me."
Almost instantly, Haley noticed a significant change in the fan bases, and how seriously football was taken in Texas. While this certainly wasn't a knock on the fans in San Francisco, Haley couldn't go anywhere without being recognized and asked for a photo or an autograph.
Depending on his mood, he could be accommodating, or not so much. Then again, when talking to teammates, coaches, scouts, employees, fans, heck, the mascot, they all seem to have good Charles stories from his time in Dallas and then the not-so-good Charles stories. His first day at Valley Ranch he dropped an array of threats splashed with certain adjectives on the media, and that relationship never improved.
"The print media, they can write whatever they want," Haley said. "I gave a story to a guy at the 49ers, and when I read it the next day, he made me look like an idiot. At that point in my life, I would just say yes, no, everything was simple, so how could he write a story from that? He got it from other people, talking about how I'm Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde. So I said, 'You know what? You're going to write what you want, so why I do I need to talk?'
"I've spoken to the media more in the last three months than I did my whole career. I think at this point in my life I try to be an example for players and for young men because my faults are my strengths now. In order to understand a man, you have to understand what he's been through, and then what he's willing to do to make it."
Success came quickly for the Cowboys after Haley's arrival, and while he didn't have his greatest season statistically in 1992, opposing offenses were double-teaming him on almost every passing down, which allowed his teammates to rack up 38 sacks. Haley added six of his own and three forced fumbles, and sure enough, the prediction of Davis proved accurate, the Cowboys went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl. They would, of course, win three championships in Haley's first four years with the club, with Charles having at least a sack in each of the three Super Bowl wins.
When Haley arrived on the scene, Leon Lett was a shy second-year defensive tackle. Immensely well-liked by his teammates, Lett was one of those guys hanging around the group, laughing, but seldom saying much, which was the polar opposite of Haley, who has the ability to outtalk just about anyone. And if he's in the mood, he could care less if someone else is talking or trying to make a point. Charles will just keep on going, insulting anyone within sight, telling raunchy, politically incorrect jokes.
That first day Haley was at Valley Ranch, after his ride from the airport with Jones, he was told to catch a ride to his hotel with Lett. The two become close friends, with Haley recently saying Lett was the Cowboys teammate with whom he felt the closest.
"That was excellent for me, and we had a chance to just talk ball," Lett said. "He seemed like a great guy right then, and he kind of took me under his wing. Sometimes it was tough love, but the experience and to hear him say I was one of his best friends means a lot to me. It really does.
"I think his form of leadership at certain times was to challenge, to challenge the guys in the room. Even though he was kind of a loose cannon, he was tough. He may have showed up just in time on game day, but no one gave you more once the game started.
"He wasn't a super-strong guy in the weight room, but physically on the football field he was so strong and powerful. And I think what is lost is he was a very intelligent football player, and he had the instincts and the feel. There would be times when he would just call out, 'Leon, it's coming, it's going that way, it's going away from us.' He could read his offensive linemen pretty good. Sometimes you think, because Charles would talk a lot, that he didn't pay attention, but he always knew what was happening on the field."
While Haley spent a ton of time in the film room, often taking notes, he more or less was on his own schedule. This wasn't because he was lazy, not in the least. It was just his own way of playing mind games with assistant coaches, with authority. Johnson dealt with it for the most part, although the two had a few altercations. One of the reasons Johnson was so successful with difficult personalities is that he admittedly had different rules for different players. Michael Irvin and Haley weren't held to the same standards as, say, the second-string running back.[embeddedad0]
In his mind, especially after a season of settling in and winning his third Super Bowl ring, Haley was going to take on more of a leadership role. This was multi-tiered, as he worked with younger players, pushed them and shared secrets on technique, but Charles also liked to keep everyone on their toes. He enjoyed making those around him uncomfortable. There was no greater pleasure than sneaking up on a teammate and inflicting some physical harm. That was just who Haley was at this point in his life.
And, he's still disappointed that so many stories about him in the locker room eventually came out. To him, that was sacred ground, a shared community of his teammates and coaches.
"Sometimes as a player, you have to hit someone in the mouth," Haley said. "Then guess what? When I open my mouth, they look at me. Yeah, some people might say that's crazy, whatever, but you know what? You've got to do what you've got to do. It's about winning the war, not that one battle, but winning that war.
"The only way you can win Super Bowls is you've got to have guys that are willing to stick their nose into the fire. And the only way you can do that is through knowledge. I'm not going to say I was loved. I might not have even be liked, but it's about winning.
"I have to tell you this, I had fun, and the rules of engagement were what happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room. You have cowards that they wait until they leave and then they want to say what they want to say. My thing was that I pushed, I challenged guys, and some of the stories are just crazy, make believe. But, I did a lot of stuff, too.
"I'm no angel, but at least I have the guts to look somebody in the eye if I'm going to say something. That's the only thing I don't like about it. You get unnamed sources or you get Tom, Dick and Harry, and people don't even realize the background that, you know what, maybe Charles was a jerk to them and this is the way to get back because you put it in a book, it's there forever. I don't care. At the end of the day, I don't care because the people that know me, they know my character."
The key for Haley's teammates was always knowing where he was, especially in team meetings. Then-defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, who once described Haley as a "seek-and-destroy guy," made a rule that the lights could never be turned off in any room in which Charles was present, even if they were watching film. The practice field was the same way, with rookies in particular. Haley enjoyed going after first-year players, hoping to make them tougher in the process, weed out the weak.
"There was a level of heightened awareness when Charles was around," Lett said. "You never knew what was going to happen. I think you had to have your hands ready and your eyes wide open. I can remember telling a friend of mine a couple of years ago, I said, 'You're going to meet Charles, and if he hugs you or picks you up, that means he likes you. If he punches you, that means he likes you. If he slaps you across the head, that means he loves you.'
"There are not too many things that I would hear that somebody said that Charles did that I would be surprised about. And I love him so much I want to be careful. Maybe there are some exaggerations, but he's got some great ones. Yeah, some great stories."
There are two such stories which Lett shares that really show two different sides of Haley's personality. The first, a reoccurring one, was that Lett would often pull up to his house during his playing days in Dallas and see Haley's truck parked in front. He'd walk into the backyard and there was Charles with his four kids in Lett's pool, sometimes the grill would even be going.
"Charles and the kids were having a great time, and I loved it," Lett said. "I think he has a huge heart. If he cares about you and cares for you, he'll give up his shirt for you. And he called me on several occasions to do different things with him, and that was hugely beneficial for me. He did it with a lot of the other defensive linemen that we played with. If you need him to come to do an appearance or something, you know 100 percent he's showing up. You can always count on him. He's done it for a lot of guys.
"All the crazy stuff, once you move past that, I think he's a heck of a guy. And like I said, a family man who adores his children."
In 1995, when Lett was suspended for four games for failing a drug test in the midst of the season, he was at an all-time low. He was depressed, and was also struggling with substance abuse. The news came down early one morning and within a few hours, there was a knock at Lett's door. It was Haley, who would spend the day with his friend, even calling Johnson, who was no longer the team's head coach, and having him talk with Lett.
"You don't forget who showed up at moments like that," said Lett, who is now the Cowboys' defensive tackles coach. "Charles was there for me."
Haley's last NFL season came with the 49ers in 1999. His final numbers included 100.5 sacks and 26 forced fumbles. He added another 11 postseason sacks and still holds the career mark for sacks in the Super Bowl. His teams, including the playoffs, went a ridiculous 137-42-1, a winning percentage of 76.5. The only player in NFL history with a higher percentage is Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Also, over the first 10 seasons of his career, from 1986-95, only one player registered more tackles, sacks and forced fumbles than Haley, that being defensive end Chris Doleman, who was enshrined in Canton in 2012.
Haley's call finally came during this year's Super Bowl weekend festivities, the call which had eluded him for 10 years. The call saying he was taking his rightful place as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As his good friend Ronnie Lott has often said, there isn't a Pro Football Hall of Fame without Charles Haley. There just isn't.
As for what took so long, it's anyone's guess. Maybe the reputation, maybe his relationship with the media, there will never be a definitive answer.
"I don't know what that standard is," Haley said. "If it's about winning, then I should have been in there. If it's about sacrifice, I tore my knees up, I played with my back messed up. I did all of those things because I love the game.
"The frustrating part is sitting in that hotel room (at the Super Bowl) for three hours. You're sitting in there with your friends, your nervous, don't know what's going on. Then you hear a cheer, you hear somebody screaming in the next room, and then you hear a knock on your door, and you didn't make it.
"But I don't care how long it took, I'm in there now, and that's the bottom line."
Once the announcement came, the first question was who would present Haley, and whether he'd unofficially go in as a 49er or a Cowboy. Walsh passed away of leukemia in 2007. If he were alive, the decision would have been an easy one, Haley said, so the options were former San Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. or Jones. Before making a decision, Haley called the Hall of Fame and asked if both men could present him. He was told no, which upset him. The old Charles likely would've created an uncomfortable situation. Instead, he took the news in stride and chose DeBartolo, mainly as a tribute to Walsh. It's also worth noting that Haley played 106 games with the 49ers and just 63 with Dallas.
"Coach Walsh followed me my whole career, and when I was done, he would call and say, 'What do you want? What do you want to do?' And whatever I said, he would make a phone call," Haley said. "All I had to do was show up, and I didn't even have to talk about money. All you had to do was show up and be done. That's how he impacted my life. He was so smart. I loved him so much. I still love him. The love doesn't end because someone leaves us.
"Eddie DeBartolo was great to me from the beginning as a rookie. He took me to Pebble Beach, he took me to Hawaii, took me to Las Vegas. I had never been anywhere. He took care of my family. This is also for Bill Walsh's legacy. I love him, and I'm going to honor him.
"People want to build walls and wedges between me and Jerry. I told Jerry that people can put up anything they want. They can put a wall up, they can dig a moat, they can put in sharks. Hey, I'll swim with the sharks to get over there, or I'll get a sledgehammer and break that wall down because you know what? Hey, we are friends for life. I have so much love and respect for him. What he did for my family, my little girl when she had leukemia, I will never forget that."
These days, Haley, now 51, spends his time watching a lot of football, working with various groups of defensive linemen, sometimes with the Cowboys, doing charity work, and more or less just being Charles. He seems happy, and while there's an everyday battle with the bipolar disorder, Haley seems to embrace the challenge.
Sure, he has regrets, a whole bunch of regrets if we're being honest, but that's life. He's willing to apologize for some of his behavior. At the same time, though, he'd rather just have another chance to allow one and all to see the real Charles Haley.
"Oh, God, my life is beautiful," Haley said. "I do a lot of charity work, mostly with Tackle Tomorrow. For me, it's very rewarding to go back because I give those kids the truth. Now, whether they want it, whether they do anything, it's on them.
"Football players, I give them the truth about my mistakes. I go in and mentor a guy. They may think I'm a jerk because I'm not their momma or daddy. I'm not their priest, I'm not their girlfriend or boyfriend. I'm here as an aide, just like putting glasses on. I'm here to aid, and sometimes I rub guys wrong. But it is not because I don't love them. It's because I do love them, and I want them to go a certain direction because I don't want guys to have to make the same mistakes I did, fight the battles that I did. Eighty percent of the battles I fought didn't need to be fought.
"I always felt different, and now I realize I'm bipolar, and that I do not have a chance in life unless I take my medicine. All that does is it allows me three or four minutes to think about what I'm going do instead of just react. I was always in a reactionary mode. Now I'm able to think a little bit more clearly. So from that standpoint, I have freedom."
For whatever reason, and who knows the psychology behind it, Haley was never going to wait for anyone to say something to him first. Maybe it was being overweight as a child, or the learning disabilities. Maybe Charles took so much grief growing up that he just decided one day to reverse the roles. That, too, has slowly evolved, especially after a conversation with a former teammate in 2011.
"I always sensed that somebody was going to attack me, so I attacked first," Haley said. "One of the best moments of my life, four years ago, I was talking to Emmitt [Smith], and he said something, and so I just started to attack him, and he says, 'Charles, you won't let anybody be your friend.'
"I walked away and I thought about that, and I was like, 'You know what? He's right.' I would do it when I get around guys. I might say one, two things and then boom, pit bull. I appreciated Emmitt helping me understand what I was doing."
The key person in Haley's life since they met at James Madison is his ex-wife, Karen. She was the one who originally diagnosed the bipolar disorder and convinced Charles to visit a doctor. And while they eventually divorced, they remain close, even taking family vacations together with the kids.
"We're still very cordial, very nice to each other. I screwed that marriage up, and I still love her," Haley said. "I think she cares deeply for me. My thing is that it's a healing process because I kept doing stupid stuff after I got divorced, and she gave me over and over and over again chances to mend the fence. I've got nothing bad to say about her. I just love her and my kids. They all have done great things."
There are still tough nights for Haley, where he thinks about suicide, and the ruin, destruction he has left behind. Those nights are fewer and fewer, though. For the most part, maybe for the first time in his life, Charles Haley is feeling pretty good about being Charles Haley.
As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places."
As he finally enters the hallowed halls that deservingly awaited him a decade ago, Haley, his body, his mind, his emotions, his will to live another day, they have all been broken time and again. But on each occasion, Haley has resisted and risen, perhaps still broken, yet defiantly stronger.