It is like being labeled the world's most scrupulous
personal-injury lawyer: The very title seems to be at odds with
itself. Yet Darryl Haley, the world's largest triathlete, is
proud of his distinction.
Why would a man who had spent almost eight years in the NFL, a
man whose athletic credentials and toughness are beyond
question, subject himself to these three-pronged ordeals--and to
being whipped by the whippet-sized athletes who dominate the
sport of triathlon? First of all, the 6'5", 300-pound former
offensive tackle isn't competing against anyone else. "My race
is inside myself," says Haley. Second, there is a part of Haley
that is sustained, he says, by every so often "looking into that
dark place you don't want to look into."
At 9:45 a.m., on Aug. 18, that dark place was the frigid waters
of San Francisco Bay. Squeezed into an impossibly large wet
suit, Haley had just begun the first leg of the 24 Hour Fitness
Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon: a choppy, chilly 1.5-mile swim
from "the Rock" to San Francisco's Aquatic Park. This bracing
dip would be followed by a one-mile transition run (to help
competitors warm up), then an 18-mile bike leg through the
Presidio and an eight-mile coastal run that would take
triathletes through the nude section of Baker Beach.
("Definitely a highlight," Haley would say of a lovely natural
brunette sunbathing at the five-mile mark.)
The start of a triathlon swim leg is typically as tidy and
organized as a salmon run: People swim over one another, goggles
are kicked off, buckets of water are swallowed. The world's
largest triathlete, however, tends to be spared these
indignities. As he began stroking toward Aquatic Park, his
fellow triathletes gave him a wide berth. They had their
reasons. "If you kick me," says Haley, "I might feel it, I might
not. If I kick you, your race is over."
His race was over a cool 2 1/2 hours after Mike Pigg's. To win
his fourth Escape From Alcatraz, Pigg finished in 2:10:21. Sue
Latshaw, who coped with the sand on Baker Beach by imagining she
was running in snowshoes (she hails from Boulder, Colo.), was
the first woman across the line, in 2:23:03. Haley--smiling,
high-fiving spectators and grooving to the beat of I'm a Big
Dog, played in his honor by a local band called the Beer
Dawgs--plodded home in 4:42:45.
Fast? No. Remarkable? Yes. A useful comparison: Greg Welch and
Mark Allen, who won the 1994 and '95 Ironman triathlons,
respectively, weigh a combined 289 pounds--11 pounds shy of the
world's largest triathlete. "This guy is defying physics just to
get around the course," says pro triathlete Eric Harr, who tips
the scales at 170 pounds.
While Haley's times are pedestrian, the argument can be made
that he is a better triathlete than Allen would be an offensive
tackle. Whereas Haley finished last October's Ironman in
Hawaii--a 2.4-mile ocean swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride
capped by a marathon--it is extremely unlikely that the 6-foot,
157-pound Allen could finish a kick-out block on, say, Bruce
Of course, by the end of Haley's career--he played four seasons
with the New England Patriots, one with the Cleveland Browns and
one with the Green Bay Packers--he was having trouble with that
kick-out block. In 1989 he retired from football and founded
Club 100, a fitness company based in Mitchellville, Md., that
implements wellness programs for individuals and corporations
around the country. But the sports Haley took up in retirement,
racquetball and golf, left him with an adrenaline deficit.
Friends talked him into trying a duathalon: a 15-mile bike ride
bookended by 1.5-mile runs. "A half mile into the first run, I
was ready to pass out," Haley says. "I finished, but I was
hurting real bad. I didn't like that and I thought, I've found
out what's going to fill my void."
He quickly became bored with duathalons. After catching the 1993
Ironman on TV, he decided triathlons were more his cup of tea.
But could he swim? "If you had a pool party," he says, "I could
make it from one end to the other. But that was about it."
So he worked on his swimming. Last October he finished the
Ironman in 16:44:15--barely 15 minutes before the official
17-hour cutoff time.
Haley has never been one to impose limits on himself, or to
allow others to. Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles,
he graduated from high school at 16, having played just a single
year of football. Among the many schools that recruited him was
Utah. "Everybody said, 'Don't go there,'" he recalls. "One guy
told me that as a young black man, I would never succeed at
Utah." The contrarian in Haley was aroused. "My view has always
been, Your race or creed does not determine your destiny," he
says. "That's determined by the person within and by how hard
you're willing to work." He went to Utah.
He had a blast. In addition to playing football, he skied,
hiked, rode horseback and got his degree in human kinetics. To
his vast surprise, he was selected by the Patriots in the 1982
draft, despite having started only one season for the Utes.
Haley had a solid NFL career. In 1984 he was a member of one of
the most formidable offensive lines in the NFL, starting
alongside Pro Bowl linemen John Hannah and Brian Holloway.
During the season Haley made a pest of himself, asking Hannah
and Holloway, "How did you get to be so good?" But as hard as he
worked, as assiduously as he gleaned tips, Haley never became an
elite player. Bill Muir, who was his offensive line coach (and
is now an assistant with the New York Jets), says Haley was
always hampered by his limited playing experience in high school
and college. "He never really was an instinctive player," says
Muir, "and that prevented him from maximizing his talent."
The two have stayed in touch. After completing his first
triathlon, in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, in 1995, Haley
phoned his old coach. "I can't tell you how excited he was,"
says Muir, who understands why Haley has embraced triathlons. "I
think he got out of football before he wanted to, and he's still
looking for physical challenges, still trying to fulfill a
self-image of athletic success."
As an amateur triathlete Haley has succeeded in touching more
lives than he did as a pro football player. "People have seen me
and said, 'If this dude is twice my size and he's doing it, then
I'm doing it too,'" says Haley. "That's happened a lot. It's
In a riveting display of determination 14 years ago, Julie Moss
crawled over the Ironman finish line. "For years," says Ironman
spokesman Rob Perry, "Julie was the triathlete people credited
with getting them interested in the sport. Now the same thing is
happening with Darryl."
Before a triathlon in Columbia, Md., earlier this year, a man
introduced himself to Haley, then told his story: A year before,
his daughter had died of cancer. He was floundering, drinking a
lot of beer, getting fat. Then he saw Haley in the telecast of
the Ironman. "I was inspired," he told Haley. "I'm training
hard, I've lost 40 pounds, this is my first race, and I'm
dedicating it to my daughter."
The world's largest triathlete attracts media attention wherever
he races, and the top pros are cool with that. Says Sian Welch,
who won the Escape From Alcatraz two years ago, "Any exposure
the sport gets helps all of us. Darryl's brought people to
triathlon who otherwise wouldn't be a part of it. It's great
having him around."
As long as he keeps his distance during the swim.