It took six times as a finalist, but it was announced yesterday Charles Haley finally made the Hall of Fame. Took long enough. You’d think the most fearsome pass rusher of the late-80s/early-90s not named Reggie White would’ve been inducted by now, but at least he got in.
It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone reading to hear that I was a massive 49ers fan from 1984 (when I was finally old enough to discern what was going on) through those glory years. Picking out players like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark and Roger Craig as favorites would’ve been like low-hanging fruit, as some say. I always bristled at the team’s “finesse” label, which was bestowed upon them by jealous players, coaches and media types in the Midwest and on the East Coast. Even as a youngster I knew those defenses were ridiculously underrated, so I had a soft spot for just about everyone who starred on that side of the ball.
I was too young to realize what all the violence on our 27-inch tube television meant, and I loved every single vicious hit from Ronnie Lott and Jeff Fuller in the defensive backfield. I was a big fan of Keena Turner, the steady-Eddie player on those teams (since the franchise’s actual Eddie, Mr. Debartolo, wasn’t all that steady himself). The only jersey I owned for several years was Young — not Steve, but No. 97. But even though I learned later in life that pass rushing is more than just sacks, nothing got little-kid-me more excited than seeing a 49ers defender bring down an opposing quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. It started with Dwaine Board (I was too young to appreciate the Fred Dean days), but nothing compared to Haley.
Haley was a monster, and apparently those tendencies applied to his off-the-field hijinks as well. The 49ers dealt him to the Cowboys — at the end of 1992 training camp — after several clashes with management (and some lewd behavior in meeting rooms, from what we’ve learned from Jeff Pearlman). Haley certainly benefitted from playing in a time before social media, based on the stories we heard after the conclusion of his NFL career.
Trading Haley was unthinkably stupid, at least to me. Why hand the Cowboys the only thing they were missing? But the 49ers thought Haley’s personality was toxic to the point that it would sink Jimmy Johnson’s winning machine. Oh, how wrong they were. Dallas went on to win three of the next five Super Bowls.
Haley finished his career with 100.5 sacks, the last three coming with the 49ers in 1999. I don’t remember a lot about Haley’s second stint with the 49ers, probably because they finished 4-12. It’s much easier to recall the damage he inflicted in his first five years with the 49ers: 56.5 sacks and 12 forced fumbles, including a ridiculous 16-sack, First-Team All-Pro season in 1990.
Years later, my sister worked in Tracy at a car dealership owned by Lott and Turner. For my birthday, she gave me an autographed photo of Haley wearing all five of his Super Bowl rings. Apparently Haley came by the dealership relatively often, and Lott and Turner sometimes spoke about his mellowed personality (compared to his playing days), and how they needed to calm him down several times during his first run with the 49ers.
Haley was a hellacious threat on defense, and an example of what we should realistically expect from NFL stars. A lot of us expect choirboys who make everyone feel good with a warm smile and a kind word. In reality, the NFL also includes guys like Haley who play angry, make people feel uncomfortable, all while contributing to an awful lot of wins. The 49ers thought they’d be better without their ridiculously talented, mercurial defensive end, but that’s not how the NFL works. If a star player (or coach, for that matter) drives everyone crazy while staying out of legal trouble, teams simply have to figure out a way to manage that unpredictable personality. Stars are just too rare. That’s one of the hazards of making a living trying to win championships in that sport. The NFL isn’t nice. To get rid of that “finesse” label (which started to dissipate after the 49ers won their fourth Super Bowl), they needed guys like Haley.