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"I played in the National Football League for 12 years," Charles Haley says. "I’m the only man with five Super Bowl rings. I get a little lightheaded because I’m on top of that mountain by myself."
Haley is 6-foot-5. His playing weight was 250 pounds. But it was the defensive end’s speed, agility and violence that terrified quarterbacks of the '80s and '90s.
Watching Haley terrified me a little bit. He was always the most intimidating player on the field and he seemed to revel in it. He crushed quarterbacks and taunted opponents without mercy.
But growing up in Gladys, Virginia, he was anything but fearsome.
"As far as the sports and stuff, I was always the short, fat kid," Haley says. "And I was a clown. I never knew how to work hard."
Haley’s parents each worked two jobs to support their family of seven. At the urging of his mother, Haley began playing sports with his brothers. But the young Charles began to suspect that something wasn’t quite right.
"Life was totally hell. And I had no hopes, no dreams, no aspirations. I just got tired of life. It drained me, and I didn’t understand the things that were going in in my head at the time."
"I never felt part of anything. I never felt part of my family. I didn’t have friends," he says. "Me and my brothers fought all the time. They used to beat me up a lot. And, I’m 9 or 10, and we were playing basketball, and nobody would pick me to be on their team, and life was totally hell. And I had no hopes, no dreams, no aspirations. I just got tired of life. It drained me, and I didn’t understand the things that were going in in my head at the time. And I said, 'God, I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t take this no more. Please help me. Just give me something, anything, just give me something to be great at. Give me some reason to get up in the morning and push myself.' And, you know, he did."
Finding Relief In Football
Haley applied himself to football. And, in his early teens, he grew four or five inches.
"I took off in JV, ninth grade, I guess. I never came off the field," Haley says. "I played inside linebacker, tight end, I kicked off. I did it all. And it was the best time of my life. I became better than my brothers. I overcame a lot of things, going from a kid who didn’t want to live anymore to where that light was so bright that nobody could darken it no matter what."
But that light would only shine some of the time. Haley experienced extreme mood swings. He didn’t realize that he was suffering from a medical condition. And it only got worse. That sense of isolation he felt as a young kid followed him through high school. And he would have been even lonelier if he hadn’t been so good on the gridiron.
"I was expelled more than I was in school," Haley says. "They would expel me on Monday, bring me back on Friday to play in the game, and then I’ll finish up my expulsion the next week. It was crazy."
"People always put me down, but nobody was ever giving me solutions."
As a senior, Haley led his high school team to the district championship. He was the Defensive Player of the Year. But he was not highly recruited. So he accepted the only offer he got from a Division I school, nearby James Madison University. He excelled at JMU and was taken by San Francisco in the fourth round of the 1986 NFL Draft.
"It was disbelief," Haley says. "And then I went to California. Oh, my God. I got off the plane and I asked this white guy, I said, 'Where do I go for baggage claim?' He turned around and was speaking a different language. And then I asked this black guy. He turned and started speaking a different language. And I went back to the gate. And I sat there waiting on that plane to come, because I wanted to go back home. I was so afraid."
Haley stayed in San Francisco and soon began to establish himself as a dominant defensive lineman. But he often clashed with teammates and coaches, many of whom were afraid of him.
He got married after his rookie season. His wife, Karen, though not a doctor, tried to make sense of her husband’s extreme mood swings.
"She diagnosed me with being manic-depressant. I did not like that," Haley says. "I thought she just piled on on top of everybody else who said that I was Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, split personalities and everything else. People always put me down, but nobody was ever giving me solutions. And I figured she just joined the bandwagon."
Haley’s denial continued, even as more and more of his Niners teammates jumped on that bandwagon after they noticed his erratic behavior. And then, early in the 1991 season, the wheels came off after a loss to the Raiders. Haley entered the locker room as players and team doctors looked on.
"I had a meltdown, mental breakdown. I started really losing it," he says. "I just start acting crazy, and some guys came up, tried to control me, and I started trying to fight. And I put my hand through the glass window with that wire in it. And so it cut my arm and hand all up. So I’m laying there bleeding really bad, crying. And the doctors, they’re in the doorway looking at me. They were afraid to come over. They didn’t know what's gonna happen."
People tended to look the other way when Haley intimidated and fought teammates or even took a swing at his head coach. They made excuses for him, because that’s what sometimes happens when you have a guy on the roster who averages more than 13 sacks a season.
Haley was traded to Dallas in 1992. But the change of scenery didn’t help. And there was still no diagnosis. The explosive episodes which Haley now describes as “out of body experiences” got worse. By this time, Haley had a growing family.
"My kids took me out for Father’s Day, so we’re at a restaurant. And I never understood why they would take me anywhere, because they would talk to each other and not to me," he says. "So that day, they were playing around, they start talking about some of my dumb quirks. And I got mad, and I hit the table so hard that the people next to me got up and left. And then, my kids, the fear that was in their eyes, it was terrifying. I never wanted to see my kids like that again."
Rebuilding His Life
Haley retired from football in 1999. A couple years later, after decades of wondering what was going on in his head, he was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But prescription drugs didn’t help, and he began self-medicating with painkillers and alcohol. He and his wife divorced, and Haley lost touch with his four children.
"I felt like I was going into the depths of hell," he says. "I couldn’t see anything positive. All I could think about was ending this, ending this. I have no reason to live."
Haley was in and out of rehab for a decade and then, in 2012, he visited the La Paloma Treatment Center in Memphis, where he says everyone, including the director, understood bipolarity and alcoholism. He found a new course of treatment, including effective medication. He’s now able to control his anger. And, he says, he understands himself for the first time.
"I just talk to them about me. I say, 'If you see any similarities in what I used to do and what you’re doing now, you know you’ve got some issues.'"
"You know, I always tell people there are three sides to me," Haley says. "There’s Charlie who’s a crybaby, really sensitive. And then Charles; he’s stable. And then Chuck is an a--hole, and I think I stayed in that 'Chuck Zone' too long."
Once out of the “Chuck Zone,” Haley was able to rebuild his relationship with his children. He says he and his ex-wife are now good friends. He works with a charity that brings computers to low-income school kids. And he mentors football players.
Haley says that when he learns about a player with substance abuse or mental health issues, he gets on the phone or drives to their practices. He feels he’s helping — and learning as he goes.
"I was working with about five, six guys and I failed. Every one of them had a relapse and everything. But I’m having success now," he says. "I think what I did wrong at the beginning, I tried to tell these guys what to do. Now, I just talk to them about me. I say, 'If you see any similarities in what I used to do and what you’re doing now, you know you’ve got some issues.' And I tell guys, 'Don’t sit here and glorify the things I did. I want you to sit here and understand how many people I hurt through these actions.'"
"Which is better: helping NFL players with mental health issues or being successful at football?" I ask.
"Winning Super Bowls, the sacrifice, the hard work, the sweat, the blood, the tears, that went with that, I wouldn’t trade that for nothing," Haley says. "Because that gives me strength, every day, to get my butt up and walk in, hug a brother that’s in the NFL or in college or in high school and tell them, 'You know what? I love you. You do not have to go through this alone.'"
You can learn more about Charles Haley’s story in his new book, "Fear No Evil: Tackling Quarterbacks and Demons on My Way to the Hall of Fame."
The excerpt above from Charles Haley's "Fear No Evil" is printed with the permission of Triumph Books.
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