OXNARD (AP) — Charles Haley walks the sidelines at training camp a little more slowly these days, his gruff exterior softened by a smile as he jokingly chides reporters and team personnel with the Dallas Cowboys.
It wasn’t an act 25 years ago, when San Francisco was trying to appease one of the NFL’s best pass rushers before giving up and trading him to a top NFC rival in the middle of what became a Hall of Fame career.
“When I went into the NFL, I was a 22-year-old athlete that had an 11-year-old kid inside of me crying for help. But I refused to ask for it,” said Haley, the only player with five Super Bowl rings as he heads into his induction Saturday in Canton, Ohio.
“I think the people that reached out to me were the people that saw me hurting and knew that I needed help and knew I was too dumb or too weak to ask for it. I realize at this stage of my life that it’s better to mend fences than to burn them down.”
Most of those fences were on the West Coast, where Haley reportedly once urinated on the car of Tim Harris after Harris was acquired in a move seen as a challenge to Haley. There was also talk of fights with teammates and lewd behavior in the locker room, both in San Francisco and Dallas.
Years later, after Haley retired, the former defensive end was diagnosed as bipolar.
“Be honest with yourself, you had to know something was wrong with him, right?” former teammate Nate Newton said. “He just wasn’t a normal guy. But when that came out, I’m glad he faced it and overcame it and he knows what he has to do to maintain that.”
Newton was close to Haley then and is now. Newton, who spent almost two years in prison on marijuana trafficking convictions after his career ended, said the locker room in Dallas was simply a better fit for Haley.
“Everybody was unique,” Newton said. “Michael Irvin was unique in his own way. Kevin Gogan was unique. Mark Tuinei was unique. ... We respected each other. We all had our limits. We knew how far to push each other.”
A playoff loss to Detroit ended the 1991 season, and coach Jimmy Johnson vowed in front of his team that he would improve the pass rush. Sure enough, the 49ers made Haley available, and Johnson had some Cowboys call their counterparts with the 49ers. He had assistant coaches check with San Francisco’s staff.
“To a man, and of course everybody knew he was an outstanding player, but everybody said he had a passion for the game,” Johnson said. “He was smart. And he was an extremely hard worker. Regardless of his problems, I knew that if he was smart and would work hard and he had a passion for the game, that I could deal with him.”
Johnson had a few run-ins with Haley, who eventually asked his coach to stop chastising him in front of other players. Haley said he understood it needed to happen, but asked if it could be in private.
“And I said, ‘Charles, I can’t guarantee you that that’s going to happen. But I’ll take that into consideration,’” Johnson said. “From that time forward, we had a great relationship. Charles is one of my favorite players. He was fun to coach. He made it interesting.”
A 1986 fourth-round pick out of James Madison, Haley won Super Bowls with the 1988 and ‘89 championships with San Francisco. There were back-to-back titles with the Cowboys (1992-93) before the final one in 1995.
Haley finished with 100 1/2 sacks, half of all-time leader Bruce Smith’s total in 19 seasons. He’s not even in the top 10 on the Dallas with 34 in five seasons. Haley’s back problems limited him late in a 12-season career that actually ended with one more year in San Francisco in 1999 after two years out of the game.
But the Cowboys never measured his worth in sacks.
“Super Bowl. Super Bowl,” Newton said about how much difference Haley made for the Cowboys. “He was the reason we won the first Super Bowl. We needed a pass rush. We had good corners that turned into great corners because Charles Haley was at that right defensive end.”
Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. doesn’t measure Haley’s career in sacks or Super Bowls.
“I think his great legacy, besides being a Hall of Fame and great, great football player, is what he’s going to do with the rest of his life in helping kids,” said DeBartolo, who will introduce Haley in the hall ceremony. “That legacy probably is more important than the legacy that he aspired to in football.”
Haley volunteers with an organization of pro athletes who try to help disadvantaged kids. And he has his own niche in wanting to help young people with mental illness.
“It’s sobering when you get to see other people like you, but yet you see their struggles because they refuse to get a handle on top of it,” Haley said. “There’s no excuses. My parents taught me right from wrong. The mental illness part is just, I was always in a reactionary mode.”
Now that he’s not, he figures there’s only so much he can do to repair relationships.”I just let people watch the way I am now and try to be a friend,” Haley said. “How many times can you tell somebody you’re sorry? The thing that people want to know is that you have changed. And that’s what’s important more to me is that I have changed.”