For several years, Tom Brady has been lauded as the greatest winner in NFL history.
There is little to debate about the accolades.
In ten Super Bowl appearances, Brady has won seven.
Even more remarkable, he has won the biggest game in the NFL with two different teams.
However, the player with the second most championship rings has also played (and won) with two different teams.
Charles Haley was a linebacker and defensive end for San Francisco and Dallas in the 1980s and 90s.
Haley’s relentless pursuit of quarterbacks and all things menace would lead to five Super Bowl victories.
His motor was both a god-send and a pain for the franchises he played for.
Haley’s humble origins were not enough to keep him from becoming one of the best athletes in NFL history.
This is the story of Charles Haley.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) October 2, 2015
Early Life in Virginia
Charles Lewis Haley was born on January 6, 1964 in Gladys, Virginia.
It didn’t take Haley long to grow into the force that would eventually plague NFL skill players.
At William Campbell High School in Naruna, Virginia, Haley was a three-year starter at linebacker and tight end.
When he was a senior, Haley garnered defensive player of the year honors, All-Region III and All-Group AA nods.
That year, the Generals won the Seminole District championship.
Haley’s athletic skills were on display on the hardwood as well.
As a basketball player for Campbell High, Haley was an All-District selection.
Despite the good press related to his play, Haley had trouble getting interest from major colleges.
Eventually, he settled on nearby James Madison University, which was the only large school to offer him a scholarship.
Terror at JMU
It wouldn’t take long for the big schools to see that they had made a mistake passing on Haley.
In two of his first three games during his freshman year in 1982, Haley was named Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Rookie of the Week.
Remarkably, in the third week of the season, the Dukes upset the University of Virginia 21-17 in Charlottesville.
It was 38 years ago that James Madison football validated itself with a win at Virginia.
Revisiting that day in Charlottesville when Charles Haley, Gary Clark and the Dukes upended the Cavaliers. "The longer the game went, the tighter Virginia got" – https://t.co/WHLJW5WVto pic.twitter.com/iJC3eIpuCH
— Greg Madia (@Madia_DNRSports) September 18, 2020
JMU rode that tidal wave of success to an 8-3 record.
Haley finished the year second on the team in tackles with 85.
The coaching staff moved Haley from outside to inside linebacker before the 1983 season.
JMU regressed to 3-8 for the year, but Haley amassed a whopping 143 tackles.
In 1984, he tacked on an additional 147 tackles as the Dukes went 6-5.
Haley’s senior year in 1985 was a breakthrough.
The breakthrough was not so much Haley’s ability, but the rest of the country seeing just how talented he was.
"Someone has to help you light that fire to help you determine who you’re going to be in life."
For Charles Haley, the James Madison alum and five-time Super Bowl champ, it was former Dukes coach Challace McMillin and former 49ers coach Bill Walsh – https://t.co/jrnfALPrnT pic.twitter.com/MUKeJwrusX
— Greg Madia (@Madia_DNRSports) September 2, 2021
After being switched back to outside linebacker by the new Dukes coaching staff, Haley had a banner year.
In the midst of a 5-6 season, the Dukes and Haley upset Georgia Southern, the eventual I-AA national champion 21-6.
During the game, Haley blocked a punt to set up a touchdown, caused a fumble, had a quarterback sack and deflected three passes.
When the season concluded, Haley was awarded with an All-American recognition and a nod as Virginia Defensive Player of the Year by the Roanoke Times & World-News.
In pre-draft workouts, Haley was timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.8 seconds.
For NFL personnel, that time was a little slow, even for a linebacker.
The San Francisco 49ers brought Haley in for a private workout and he was timed again.
This time, Haley ran a 4.5, much better for a prospective pro linebacker.
There was also a feeling that Haley feasted on a lower level of competition at JMU, which led to his inflated stats.
However, the 49ers were not a team to shy away from small school projects.
After all, this was the organization that drafted a receiver from Mississippi Valley State by the name of Jerry Rice the previous year.
With the 96th overall pick in the fourth round of the 1986 NFL Draft, San Francisco selected Haley.
PURPLE & GOLD MEMORY LANE presented by @SentaraRMH
Charles Haley, JMU's first I-AA first-team All-American, is the first Duke ever selected in the NFL Draft, going in the 4th round to San Francisco, beginning his journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. pic.twitter.com/6MvsBq4FQM
— Curt Dudley (@CurtDudley) April 29, 2020
Just as he proved himself in college, Haley burst out of the gate as a pro.
As an outside linebacker, he only started one game in 1986, but he accumulated 59 total tackles, 12 sacks (which was second in the NFL), one interception, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Haley was then named to the All-Rookie team by the United Press International and by Pro Football Weekly.
The following year, Haley started two games and had 25 total tackles, 6.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
Haley and San Francisco Win Back-to-Back Super Bowls
During Haley’s first two seasons in San Francisco, the 49ers lost in the Divisional round of the playoffs.
In 1987, the team had posted a 13-2 (strike-shortened) record yet were upset by Minnesota in the postseason.
1988 was an up-and-down year for the franchise, but the team still managed a 10-6 record.
In the Divisional round, the 49ers took a measure of revenge against the Vikings with a 34-9 thumping.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 9, 2015
In the NFC Championship game, San Fran cruised to an easy 28-3 victory over Chicago.
Up next was a trip to the Super Bowl.
A hard fought game ended with the franchise’s third championship after defeating Cincinnati 20-16.
Haley had done his part that year.
Starting in 14 games, he brought down opposing quarterbacks 11.5 times, had 69 total tackles, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
After the season, he was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
The following season, Haley had his third year of double digit sacks with 10.5.
He also posted 57 total tackles, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a fumble returned for a touchdown.
Haley would not be voted to the Pro Bowl, but that wouldn’t matter.
In 1989, the Niners won 14 games and beat the Vikings and Rams in the first two rounds of the playoffs by a combined score of 71-16.
In Super Bowl XXIV, they dispatched the Broncos and John Elway 55-10.
The Niners Miss a Three-Peat
The 1990 season could have seen the same result as in ‘89.
San Francisco won 14 games again and beat Washington 28-10 in the Divisional round.
Then, the New York Giants came to town for the NFC title game.
The contest would become an instant classic.
— 49ers Los Angeles (@49ersLosAngeles) January 6, 2016
Both teams could only muster six points by halftime.
By the end of the third quarter, the Niners were up by four points.
In the final quarter, Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall knocked San Fran quarterback Joe Montana out of the game.
A short while later, running back Roger Craig fumbled the ball and the Giants recovered.
New York drove down the field and scored the winning points in a 15-13 upset.
During the year, Haley had arguably his best year as a pro.
He racked up 16 sacks, 58 total tackles, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Haley was voted to his second Pro Bowl, received a First-team All-Pro nod and was voted the UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year and was a consensus All-Pro.
Haley’s Behavior Leads to a Trade
As Haley became a force on the field, he also became a force in the locker room.
Depending on who was asked, that was either a good or bad thing.
Haley enjoyed talking trash to opponents during games to get under their skin.
The problem was, he also liked to bust the chops of his teammates.
Some of his teammates, such as Montana, tuned out Haley as he tried to bait them with sass and nonsense.
However, by 1991, Haley’s antics were starting to wear thin.
The one veteran that could calm him down, Ronnie Lott, was let go and signed by the Raiders.
Without his compadre, Haley became a handful.
He compiled seven sacks, 53 total tackles, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 1991 and even made the Pro Bowl.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) January 10, 2015
The Niners though, and coach George Seifert, had had enough of Haley.
Siefert and Haley butted heads frequently and the linebacker’s outbursts had worn out their welcome.
Once San Francisco was eliminated from playoff contention with a 10-6 record, the Niners traded Haley to Dallas for two future draft picks.
Years later, former Niners teammate Dexter Carter explained that Haley’s clashes with Seifert weren’t the primary reason why he was traded.
“Charles Haley didn’t care who you were,” Carter said in 2017. “He didn’t care if you were a rookie. He didn’t care if you were Joe Montana. He would get it to you verbally. If he wasn’t picking on you, you were happy he didn’t, and you would think it was funny. I saw him get on Joe Montana. Joe was very good at ignoring him, though.
“But there was one guy that nobody messed with. Charles didn’t even mess with him. And when he messed with him, two weeks later, he was gone. And when I say ‘gone,’ he was given away to Dallas. Our best defensive player and he was given away to Dallas, who at the end of the day, helped take three rings off of my fingers. I could have had three more Super Bowl rings.”
Carter would explain that the 49er Haley messed with that got him expelled from the team was none other than Jerry Rice.
“…the day that he went at Jerry Rice, and Jerry went back at him, what transpired in that locker room that morning, led to two weeks later, the 49ers literally giving Charles away to their toughest competitor.”
Welcome to Dallas
Carter was correct in his assessment of the trade.
Compared to what the Niners received in return, Dallas made out like a bandit.
— Ken Crippen (@KenCrippen) January 6, 2019
In 1992, Haley was a new member of a loaded team.
The Cowboys were indeed San Francisco’s toughest competitor and the two teams would frequently engage in slugfests.
However, if the ‘Boys were to compete for a championship, they had to fix their leaky defense.
Haley would do just that.
“I think everybody understands the last couple of years we have been looking for a pass rusher,” Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson said. “We felt we had improved our defense significantly over the last couple of years, and I think this undoubtedly will make it even better. He will have an immediate impact on our pass rush.”
The ‘92 Cowboys rolled over their opponents and posted a 13-3 record.
Haley was moved to defensive end and collected six sacks, 39 total tackles and two forced fumbles.
In addition, he led the team in quarterback pressures with 42.
Haley received the UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year Award after the season.
Dallas’ defense thrived with Haley, improving from 17th in the NFL in 1991 to first in the league in total defense in ‘92.
In the postseason, the Cowboys took down Philadelphia and Haley’s former team, the Niners, by a combined 64-30.
Super Bowl XXVII was another blowout with Dallas hammering Buffalo 52-17.
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) July 16, 2018
Two More Championships
After the 1992 season, Haley could have left Dallas as a free agent.
However, a conversation with Johnson after the team’s championship led to Haley re-signing with the team.
“After the Super Bowl,” Haley said, “we had a little celebration and coach Johnson came up to me and we had a talk that night. He said, ‘Charles, I want you back.’ He traded for me and he believed in me. I made a commitment to myself that if the Cowboys were even close to what I wanted, I would come back since I owe the man that kind of respect. He gave me a chance to come here, unconditionally, and play on a very young football team.”
When he first arrived in Dallas, Johnson and the Cowboys saw some of the shenanigans Haley pulled while with the Niners.
“I was getting taped and I’m on the table and he wants to get taped, being the old vet,” former Dallas safety Darren Woodson remembered. “We had some words and almost had a scuffle, and everybody broke it up. The next day he walks up to me, he says, ‘I love your attitude. You got a little feistiness about you.’ And that was it.”
“When Charles first walked in and we were getting ready for practice, he ran down a scouting report from Troy [Aikman] on down to the sock man,” former Cowboys guard Nate Newton said. “He could tell everybody a little bit about their game and let you know right away that it was, ‘As crazy as I am, don’t take me for a mental midget as far as being a football player.’
“He knew football and he knew he had a look. He had a scouting report on just about anybody on offense that you can name. That was Charles. He was smart. Sometimes, he played crazy, but he was smarter than you think.”
However, Haley appeared to change after a few months with the team.
“I think there was a transition time,” Johnson said then. “There was a time when Charles had to feel things out with myself and the players. But once we got through the transitional time, he has been as fine a leader as we have had on our football team.”
Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones felt confident that Haley would work out fine for the team.
“I had him stick a helmet up about a foot and a half from me in a sheetrock wall in the middle of the locker room,” Jones said. “I had to basically look deep right then and know that if I walked over and grabbed him around the waist and said, ‘Let’s all calm down here,’ that he was going to calm down. And I knew he would because I had some good experiences with him.”
The 1993 Cowboys picked up where they left off in ‘92.
A 12-4 record led to wins over the Packers and Niners in the playoffs.
In Super Bowl XXVIII, Dallas once again crushed the Bills 30-13.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) September 23, 2014
Haley picked up four sacks and 41 total tackles for the year.
The following season would see him grab a First-team All-Pro nod and another Pro Bowl on the strength of 12.5 sacks, 51 total tackles, a pick and three forced fumbles.
In 1994, the Cowboys were cruising again until they faced San Francisco in the NFC title game.
The Niners had loaded up with various spare parts in the offseason to finally beat their rival.
The result was a 38-28 victory by San Fran, ending Dallas’ quest for a three-peat.
Not to be deterred, the ‘Boys returned to the postseason in ‘95 after losing only four games.
They took care of Green Bay and Philly in the first two rounds before facing Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX.
Haley was having a good year with 10.5 sacks, 33 quarterback pressures, and 35 tackles in the first 10 weeks.
During a game against Washington, he suffered a ruptured disk in his back.
Haley would return for the Super Bowl and help the cause with a sack, three quarterback pressures and five tackles.
The 27-17 victory gave Haley his unprecedented fifth championship ring.
That mark would not be passed until Brady did so years later.
Tom Brady (41) and Bill Belichick (66) are now the oldest QB and head coach to win a Super Bowl.
Brady passes Charles Haley for the most Super Bowl titles by a player (6).
Belichick ties George Halas and Curly Lambeau for the most NFL championships by a head coach (6). pic.twitter.com/34twatAfjp
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 4, 2019
Injuries lead to Retirement #1
Haley’s back injuries cut short his 1996 season.
After only five games, the team shut Haley down for the rest of the year, deactivating him due to his back.
Haley had one sack, seven total tackles and a forced fumble.
Once the year concluded, Haley retired, citing his back issues and the fact that his daughter, Brianna, had been diagnosed with leukemia.
Return to San Fran and Retirement #2
Haley had been retired for nearly two full seasons when he got a call out of the blue in January 1999.
The Niners were sorely depleted on defense and heading into the postseason after a 12-4, 1998 record.
Basically, the team gauged Haley’s interest in returning to San Francisco for a quick playoff run.
Haley agreed and the two parties were reunited after seven years.
“I don’t know if this was a desperation move,” said then coach Steve Mariucci. “Maybe it’s a bold move. Maybe it’s a surprising move. I don’t know if anybody expected us to do this. I don’t know if we expected to do this. Much of this has to do with the health of our defensive line. Going into the playoffs, we would be remiss if we didn’t investigate any opportunity that we may have to improve our situation.”
“I think I’m OK. I think I can come in and help the team and that’s what I’m going to do,” Haley said after the signing.
Haley helped the Niners beat Green Bay in the Wild Card round.
Video: 49ers are in search of the next Charles Haley type of player that can disrupt, collapse the pocket, make the QB nervous & get the sacks. This draft is loaded full of different types of pass rushers. #49ers #CharlesHaley pic.twitter.com/CWbZY4oepb
— 49er_Edits (@49er_edits) February 23, 2019
However, the team came up short the following week against Atlanta in a 20-18 loss.
In 1999, Haley remained with the team and was used mainly for situational pass rushes.
He started one game and tallied three sacks and ten total tackles for the year.
After the Niners 4-12 season ended, Haley retired for good.
In 12 plus years with Dallas and San Francisco, Haley recorded 100.5 quarterback sacks, two interceptions, and eight fumble recoveries, which he returned for nine yards and a touchdown.
He was a five-time Pro Bowler, five-time Super Bowl champion and a two-time First-team All-Pro selection.
Haley would become a member of the 49ers Hall of Fame and was placed in the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
Life After Retirement
After retiring from the game for a second and final time, Haley worked for the Detroit Lions as a defensive coach in 2001 and 2002.
He has also spent time with the Cowboys and Niners as a mentor to rookies.
Charles Haley is in the building today, working here with DeMarcus Lawrence on pass rush moves pic.twitter.com/7Us6HO2M3U
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 6, 2018
In 2006, Haley was inducted into the Virginia Hall of Fame.
He was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.
Three years later, Haley was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the 2015 class.
Upon learning the news, Haley was overwhelmed.
“It was the best moment of my life,” the five-time Pro Bowler said. “I don’t even know if I can put it into words… I never thought I was good enough to go to the NFL, I did, and now I’m in the Hall of Fame. People ask me, ‘How many years did it take for you to get there?’ I say, ‘I don’t know. All I care is that I’m in the house.'”
“Charles Haley was one of the biggest impact players on the 49ers defense,” Montana said after Haley’s nomination. “He was not only a big reason for the 49ers success on defense, but the team’s success also. Just ask the Cowboys what he meant to their defense when he arrived! Plus, he has five Super Bowl rings. Who else can say that?”
Around the same time as Haley’s vote into the Hall, Siefert, his former San Francisco coach, admitted that his role in Haley’s trade from the team was short sighted.
“Yeah, that was a mistake,” Seifert said in 2015 of the Haley trade. “I think I would’ve handled him better had I had another year or two under my belt, you might say, as a head coach. There were problems. But it’s the responsibility of the coach to deal with problems. There were not a lot of problems on our team, and, at that particular time, it was a problem.”
In subsequent years, Haley would reveal that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which could explain his behavior as a player.
49ers Hall of Famer Charles Haley tackles mental illness and bipolar disease in NBC Sports' HEADSTRONG: Mental Health and Sports #HeadstrongNBC #movember https://t.co/QyRFm68XLB pic.twitter.com/vQjoBbJRs8
— 49ers on NBCS (@NBCS49ers) November 11, 2019
Haley has also dedicated his life to helping fund several local initiatives with organizations such as Jubilee Center and The Salvation Army.