In a new book, the Hall of Famer explains his lifelong battle with bipolar disorder and his desire to spread awareness
Charles Haley never was fond of the media, especially when stories about his infamously volatile temper dominated the news during his playing days in San Francisco and Dallas. But his views have changed. The retired linebacker/defensive end is on a media tour promoting his new book, Fear No Evil: Tackling Quarterbacks and Demons On My Way to The Hall of Fame, and he has a lot of truths to share. Back in 2002, three years removed from his last season, Haley was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After years of being in denial about his illness, he’s now working as an advocate for mental health. The MMQB spoke to him about his experiences and how he thinks the NFL can help players who might be suffering just like he was.
KAHLER: Looking back, how do you think your playing career would have been different if you had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder earlier?
HALEY: It probably would have helped me with my teammates. As a player, it didn’t hurt me any because I learned to adapt my behavior to be able to focus and be able to help inspire my teammates to strive to something greater than the individual.
KAHLER: But one of the reasons you were traded to Dallas from San Francisco after the 1991 season was because of some arguments and fights you had with head coach George Siefert. If you had known you had bipolar disorder then, do you think your career might have played out differently?
HALEY: Yes, I do believe that. If I had truly listened to those that know better, some of the psychiatrists, even George Siefert, I think that I would [have stayed] there. He wanted me to be a leader and I didn’t want that role. I liked the role of an antagonist, just prodding people to excellence. I hate weak men and I always try to stick my foot in their butt and twist. There is only one goal in life and that is to win.
KAHLER: Do you wish you had been diagnosed earlier in life?
HALEY: You have to understand this, and this is what I try to let others know: I didn’t want people to know that I had a mental illness because of the stigma that goes with it. Every time a gunman shoots somebody, he has a mental illness; he’s dealing with depression. But there are a lot of us who don’t do that. Every time they do that, there are thousands of men [dealing with mental illness] that go back into the dark. As men, we don’t want to tackle anything like that. We’d rather run out of gas than ask for help.
KAHLER: You write in your book that you think the 49ers had actually diagnosed you with bipolar disorder as early as your rookie season without telling you. The team gave you pills and claimed they were for inflammation or for headaches but when you asked around, no other players were taking the pills. Your theory is that those pills regulated your mood swings. Have you ever thought of asking anyone who was with the team at that time if your theory is true?
HALEY: I don’t care. I just knew that, it’s me, I should have taken responsibility for my actions. Ever since I was a kid, I was going through this stuff. In college it got worse, and in the NFL it got even worse. I never asked for help and it’s my fault because I sit around and read the Bible from cover to cover three times a year and I understand that word faith. Faith is action and I didn’t take any action to help myself or my teammates or the public to understand what I went through. I just knew that every time I turned around, somebody was calling me Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because everyone thought I had all these different personalities. I took that personally.
KAHLER: You write that you wanted to kill yourself many times during your NFL career and after you retired. How many times did you feel that way?
HALEY: I’m going to tell you this, if I didn’t believe in Jesus Christ and that if I committed suicide I would not be able have a relationship with him, I would not be here today. I didn’t know how to be a friend—all I did was lock myself up in my house and hide from the world. When you live your life out of your head, then everything you think about starts to become a reality. If I didn’t talk to people and let people know what was going on, I would say to myself, I’m tired of this, I’m tired of this, and the next thing you know, I’m tired of this and I’m going to do something. I would think about driving off a bridge, I would think about trying to do an accidental death that wasn’t a suicide. But then I realized that God knows my heart and knows what I am thinking and for him that was something that I could not do. I never thought about my family and what that would cost them. I remember things like I would drive down McArthur [Boulevard] and cross the freeway and next thing I know I am driving my motorcycle down the embankment and I crossed all the way over Interstate 635 and got to the other side and somehow, I am still here. There were so many things that I did, but God had other plans for me and I think that I am fulfilling his wishes now by going out and talking to players, talking to college kids about mental illness and talking to parents. One of the biggest problems we have is the parents know what is going on with their son or daughter. They know, but they won’t take any action. I am trying to put the pressure on the parents to step up and get involved with their kids and not try drive their kids to be a Hall of Famer or an NFL player, just help them to think through some of the problems they have.
KAHLER: In 2011 and 2012, you were treated at a dual diagnosis center for alcoholism and bipolar disorder. While there, you wrote letters to people in your past who you treated poorly. Is there anyone in your NFL past that you haven’t apologized to that you want to?
HALEY: I don’t apologize, I regret my action. We say sorry, and it’s just like saying I love you, and it has no meaning. I let my teammates know that I regret my actions. One of the great things that show how much my teammates love me is something Emmitt Smith said to me. Our daughters played soccer together back then. I was always in attack mode and I was attacking him and he said, “Charles, you won’t allow anybody to be your friend.” And I was like, wow. Then it hit me about the things I was doing. And then I changed and every time I see a teammate, they know now that I regret my actions. I don’t make excuses because I know right from wrong, so I don’t make excuses for it.
KAHLER: Are there any teammates that you are a better friends with now than you were during your career because you had your wall up then?
HALEY: Steve Young is one of them. Me and Steve, we joked and played together. He understands what I’m going through and I get the chance now to hug his neck and tell him, You know what, I love you. The reason why I held things against him was that he was trying to take Joe’s job and I loved Joe [Montana] so much that I took it out on Steve. I just wanted both of them to understand that I regret my actions and that they are true teammates of mine and I love them.
KAHLER: If you were commissioner of the NFL, how would you change the way mental illness is treated? You mention in the book that you don’t agree with the current practice of suspending players who are abusing drugs, because you believe it could be a sign of a mental illness. How should those players be treated? What is a better solution?
HALEY: The commissioner should be about healing instead of punishing. But you know what, I love the commissioner. The problem is the players’ union. They don’t have an agreement to make guys go to dual diagnosis centers, where they can get diagnosed for mental illness or drug abuse. They should not ever send them to one place just for drug addiction. They need to send them to a dual diagnosis center and allow people to treat them. I have players that I have sent and then they come back to me and say, My doctor wants me to take medicine, what do you think? It’s crazy, dumb things like that that drive me absolutely nuts. I took you there to get help and then you are going to ask me if you should take the medicine? That’s where we’re at. I think the commissioner has done some good things, but a lot of things are just fluff. They have an 800-number for you to call if you are thinking about suicide. Oh yeah, let’s call an 800-number and get a recording and they say hold on, and you say, Yeah, I have a gun to my head, but I’m going to hold on. No, no, that’s not helpful to players, and it’s a sad thing because I talked to the commissioner and he said that he can’t make players do that [go to the dual diagnosis centers]. It is totally a shame.
KAHLER: What specifically can teams do to help players more?
HALEY: Teams need to take some pages out of the 49ers’ book. They take questionnaires and they ask guys what type of psychologist or counselor works best for you. For me, I have to have a woman and she has to have a Christian background, because she is my mama. That’s the way my mama raised me, so I listen more to that kind of counselor. You can’t have old white men or old black men trying to teach these young kids something because they don’t identify with them. The 49ers have people walking through the locker room to get these guys to open up and talk. That’s what we have to do in the NFL and that’s what we have to do in our society. It’s not one size fits all.
KAHLER: You live in the Dallas area and spend some time with the Cowboys, so what do you think about Dak Prescott trying to replace Tony Romo?
HALEY: Dak is the face of the Dallas Cowboys. He has shown that under pressure playing against the best teams, not only can he play a high level, but he can win. Tony has a plate in his shoulder and cracked vertebrae, so he needs time to heal instead of trying to run back and take back the job that he no longer has. All he is doing by coming back is putting a lot of pressure on Dak, because then Dak will be thinking, If I throw an interception, they will put me out of the game. So he stops thinking about being successful on the field and starts thinking about mistakes and getting pulled out. It’s a hard decision, I love Romo and I love Dak. That’s over my pay grade. Jerry, Stephen and Jason have to make that decision.
KAHLER: Do you think anyone will join you in the exclusive Five Super Bowl Rings Club? Will Tom Brady get there?
HALEY: If anybody is going to do it, it is going to be him. I wish him the best … I am tired of being alone up on top up here.
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