Darryl Haley – A Former NFL Player Gives Back to Veterans

Darryl Haley, born in 1961, grew up in South Central L.A. where just walking to school each day required a combination of courage and smarts. “You begin to realize that every day you walk to school, there’s a 75 to 80 percent chance that you’re not going to make it back home,” he said.

Still, Haley said that the neighborhood was like a family, filled with love. “It wasn’t just my mom in the house,” he said. “As long as you were in your neighborhood, you could go to anyone’s house for dinner. If you’re doing something wrong, just about any parent was going to reprimand you.”

Haley excelled in the classroom and on the field and when he graduated from high school, he won a scholarship to play football for the University of Utah. He would go on to be drafted by the New England Patriots where he played for five years, followed by stints with the Cleveland Browns and the Green Bay Packers. Since 2000, Haley has been doing health and fitness reports for Howard University’s radio station, WHUR. He’s used that platform and his contacts and experience in sports for a cause near and dear to his heart – helping the military, veterans, and their families. Last May he launched “Music at the Monument,” an event that not only raises funds but also helps to put veterans in touch with the services they need. And from the bed and breakfast he operates in Luray, Virginia, Haley bakes more than 200 cookies a month, collecting donations to help women veterans and the wives of veterans.

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Haley promoting his “Fitness Friday” event

Haley is an imposing presence, and not just because of his size (6-6, and more than 300 pounds), his deep voice (perfect for radio), and his booming laugh (frequently punctuating his conversation). At a time when there’s so much talk about helping veterans, Haley is actually doing just that, staging his events on the mall, steps from the monuments commemorating those who have served in wars. “You begin to understand that freedom is not free,” Haley said. “The opportunities that I’ve had to play sports, get an education, all these things, somebody had to watch the gate.”

He credits one of his teachers – Miss Peters – for pushing him to succeed when he was nine years old. “She was the first teacher who challenged me,” he said, emitting one of his hearty laughs. When Miss Peters asked the students what they wanted to do for a living, Haley said he wanted to study the solar system. “What I didn’t know was that we had to write a report about it,” he said. Soon, that school project became larger than life. After he came home crying, his mother went to school to plead his case. “Miss Peters convinced my mother that I would get it done.” He went to the library, did the research, wrote the report and constructed the solar system out of Styrofoam balls he bought at the store. He earned an “A.”  “From that point on, I realized education is going to be key – sports and school – and then I don’t need anybody to tell me what I can do because I just put together the solar system!”

Haley was a natural athlete and he began first by playing baseball. Then he learned that a young man in his neighborhood was going to college with all his expenses paid. “I had no idea what a scholarship was, but I knew I had to get one,” he said. “That’s when I started to take the football thing seriously.”

Haley knew he also had to succeed academically. “I didn’t learn about the SAT until three weeks before it was time to take it,” he said. “I turned over the paper, started looking it over, and by the gift of God, it made sense to me,” he said. “I got a good score.”

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Haley, No. 68, offensive lineman for the University of Utah

Haley was scouted by a number of California colleges, UCLA and USC, as well as football power houses in the Midwest and the South. When the University of Utah came into the mix, he decided to visit the campus in Salt Lake City. “I had never been there,” he said. “The Mormon religion? I had never heard of it. But when I went to visit, I started looking at the mountains, at rivers and streams.” Growing up in South Central L.A., Haley said he spent most of his time in his house, not willing to risk the dangers that lurked out on the street. Looking at the wide open spaces in Utah, he thought: “You mean to tell me I can stand outside in the middle of the quad, walk down the street, or just stand in this green space as long as I want? I’m good here.”

With only seven or eight black players on the team, the culture shock was great and racist statements were often made. One white teammate refused to speak with Haley, invoking the “n” word, while one young woman told him that she had heard black men raped white women. “I was like, wow, OK, I get it,” Haley said, “but that’s your problem. I was never supposed to make it out of high school, so the fact that I’m here, I’m good. I beat the system.”

Graduating from high school earlier than usual, Haley was only 15 when he began college. “When you have [Mormon] teammates who have been on missions, they come back and they’re in their 20s,” he said. “I was ten years younger, so my focus was on books and ball. I’m learning things that are mind-blowing.”

The offensive line coach who had recruited him, Pat Hill, “a great guy,” left to go to the University of Las Vegas. His replacement told Haley flat out that he would never play him. Haley’s response was to keep working hard both in the classroom and on the field. Haley majored in human kinetics, computer science, and marketing. “I loved the human body, the science of it,” he said. “Computers were really coming into play, so I wanted to know how to program and then I would have a job for life. Then marketing, because you go into a college stadium and you’re seeing these advertisers.”

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Haley, No. 68, with the Patriots

By senior year, the coach had to play Haley if he wanted the team to win. At season’s end, when the rankings came out, Haley was one of three top offensive linemen in the country. He got invites to exhibitions in Tampa and Dallas where scouts from the NFL came to assess the talent. He was asleep in his dorm room when the phone rang. This is Dick Steinberg (director of player development) for the New England Patriots and you’ve just been drafted in the second round. Haley thought it was a joke and hung up. Steinberg called back. Haley had to consult a map to figure out where the Patriots were located. Eventually, he found someone to negotiate his contract and moved to Boston. In the off season, he would come back to Salt Lake City. “You understand the science behind high altitude and training,” he said. “But I also liked that Salt Lake was manageable for me.”

Haley approached pro football the same way he approached college, eschewing a social life to stay focused on his future. When traveling with the Patriots, he would check into his room, turn up the heat, stretch to get his muscles loose, and have dinner in the hotel before retiring for the night. “I’m still only 20,” he said. “I was also keenly aware that I’m able to do something in my life. I’m not interested in blowing it.”

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On the sidelines during a Patriots game

Haley had been with the Patriots for several years when he was called into the coach’s office. “When I played, I was a really lean 273,” he said. “I liked to run, the speed of it. I was told that I needed to get bigger. At the time, performance enhancing drugs were pretty popular.” Haley refused to use PEDs. “After that point, the coach and I never saw eye to eye. I played one more season under him and then the trade came.” Was there was a connection? “There was absolutely a connection.”

Haley was traded to the Cleveland Browns and then to the Green Bay Packers. “I enjoyed the game, I enjoyed playing, but I’m ready to get out. My plan was to get four, and if I get four I get vested. I wasn’t that person who was going to live and die football,” he said. “I would always say that I was a Patriot at heart. I really loved Boston. I loved the history of Boston, I loved the atmosphere of Boston. Cleveland was nice you know, but by that time, my heart wasn’t there.”

Does he think about the lasting effects of injuries, specifically CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, resulting from blows to the head? “You do think about it. I constantly try to test my own faculties. I had a couple [of bad hits.]” Haley believes that the dangers in football begin with Pop Warner, involving children from ages eight to 13. “You never see a kid in Pop Warner where the helmet fits right,” he said. “They don’t know how to brace themselves. They fall, the helmet hits the ground. The head hits the front of the helmet. The brain hits the front of the skull.” (The Pop Warner League recently settled a lawsuit brought by a family whose son played in the league, committed suicide, and was found to have CTE.)

After leaving football, Haley went back to Utah for a year and then moved to Washington, D.C. “We used to come to D.C. and play the Redskins and I always thought that it was fascinating, that whatever happens in the world comes through D.C. at some point,” he said. “I always said that once I got done playing, I was going to come to D.C.”

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Haley swimming in the Iron Man Triathlon 

Haley’s time as an athlete, however, was not over. Watching sports with friends one day, there was a segment about an Iron Man Triathlon to be held in Hawaii. He came up with the idea of doing it, something that so amused his friends they made a bet. After registering online, he received a call from the triathlon’s PR people. He needed to complete two other events, then he would be entered as a celebrity and have stories written about him. Even for an NFL player, a triathlon is a grueling event – a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run. “I went to the pool and tried to swim,” he said. “I thought I was going to die. Reality met fantasy.” But he trained hard and became the first person weighing more than 300 pounds to finish the triathlon. “Unbeknownst to me it was a big thing,” he said. “Being that size, being from a mainstream sport, being a man of color, all those things came into play.” And his friends had to pay up.

On the Air

Haley (left) at WHUR interviewing Eddie Levert from the musical group The O’Jays

Haley was now well into health and fitness. An avid radio listener, he called WHUR’s general manager and suggested doing those segments. “I had a couple in my head,” he said. The GM asked him to record a few and Haley was off and running. He’s been doing the tips ever since. How does he keep it fresh? “I stay in the streets,” he said. “I talk to people who are doing some really cool stuff.” He defines health and fitness in the broadest sense which allows him to do features on restaurants, chefs, clothing, politics, anything that might interest his listeners.

Haley’s love for food and cooking began when he was a boy. “I remember making my first breakfast, my first steak when I was eight or ten,” he said. His mother, who was from Louisiana, began to teach him, not only to cook, but that people’s personalities and emotions go into the food. “She said if somebody’s having a bad day, I don’t want to eat their food.” It was advice that her son took to heart.

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Haley’s B&B in Luray, Virginia

Learning from many of the chefs he interviews, Haley continues to work on his cooking techniques. When he travels, he educates himself on the local cuisine. He also takes cooking classes to hone his skills. In 2002, he found a way to combine his love of food and his dedication to health and fitness when he bought an impressive home in Luray, Virginia, and began operating it as a bed and breakfast. “It’s a pretty fabulous place,” he said. The nine-room mansion has a perfect location, close to the tourist attraction, Luray Caverns, the artistic community in town, local wineries, and a lake where guests can catch catfish and bass.

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Baked goods by Haley served at his B&B

On weekends, breakfast and dinner are prepared on site by Haley. “Fitness Friday,” which he also promotes on WHUR, encourages guests to take advantage of the many physical activities the area offers, from hiking and cycling, to tubing and golf. Haley even plans overnight camping trips for those who are interested in a true outdoor experience.

The idea for Music at the Monument came after Haley’s partner, Judy Xanthopulos, suggested that he do something for himself. Except for Haley, doing for himself meant doing for others. Living in Washington, he had developed an appreciation for the military. For the veterans coming home, the issues are complex – fitting back into the family and the community, getting or resuming an education, finding employment, and, in some cases, dealing with depression, drug use, and even homelessness. Haley conceived an event that could provide entertainment by Grammy-nominated musicians, raise money, and also put veterans in touch with officials to help with their issues.

Now in its second year, Music at the Monument, will take place from May through October on the first and third Friday of each month. The Veteran Employment Services Office (VESO), within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), supports the event by providing a veteran “Honoree” for each show and marketing the event to its networks. The National Park Service, Healthy Parks, Healthy People, some branches of the Office of Professional Management (OPM), and Quantico also support the event. Having worked in sports, Haley uses those skills to enlist others who believe in the cause. “You just build a team so it’s not all you,” he said. In 2015, attendance ranged from 100 to 400, but Haley plans more publicity this year to increase the crowds. (VESO publicizes the event on its VA for Vets website and Facebook page.) Also, working with the Park Service, Haley will be able to get additional support from corporate sponsors.

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Billy W. Wright on stage during one of the Music at the Monument events 

One official who has been with Haley from the beginning is Billy W. Wright, National Program Manager for VA’s Disabled Veterans Affirmative Action Program, organized under VESO. Wright and his co-workers attended the events, handing out brochures and making themselves available to the veterans. “It’s a great venue for veterans to get out and enjoy themselves and socialize,” said Wright. “A lot of the veterans brought family members, kids, neighbors, and even co-workers. It turned out to be a great time to unwind after a busy week. Relaxing and listening to really good music. That really is a great idea.”

Often it’s the veterans themselves who reach out to help others. “Last year, a lot of veterans gave their testimonies,” Wright said. “Donald Brooks, who was a homeless veteran and now works in the military services department for Easter Seals, shared his story about being homeless and the way he’s helping homeless veterans find jobs.” Another veteran showed up with his uncle, also a veteran, who had become a recluse. “The uncle’s spirits were lifted,” Wright said, after he came to Music at the Monument.

“We like what Darryl is doing,” Wright said. “A lot of folks know him in the D.C. area from his radio show. He had already worked with a lot of programs supporting veterans.” As word spreads, Wright said more veterans services organizations are contacting the VA asking what they can do to help. Music at the Monument, Wright said, will continue to grow.

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With the Military Intelligence Readiness Command (MIRC)

Haley’s research – he spoke with officials at the Military Intelligence Readiness Command, at Ft. Belvoir, the Department of Defense, and others – revealed that while the military takes care of soldiers when they are deployed, the families left behind are the bigger issue. He came up with the idea of raising money by baking cookies and he decided to focus on women veterans and the wives of veterans. Often the need is to handle everyday chores – replacing a broken window, repairing the car, cutting the grass. “Basically life maintenance,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to fill out an application and wait for two weeks. So if I bake a batch of cookies, I get $100, then we can go fix that.”

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Haley’s cookies along with some of the many thank you notes he receives from women veterans and wives of veterans

Requests for help come in from a variety of sources – several members of the D.C. City Council, a medical center, friends, or just someone who has heard about Haley’s project. Many of the cookie deliveries are made by Haley in person (photos can be seen on his Facebook page), unless the recipient is too far away. “Hawaii was the farthest,” he said. Haley also accompanies the repair person or service provider if the woman who has made the request lives in the D.C. area.

Since the baking began in January, Haley has turned out 450 cookies at his B&B in Luray. “Some people have the impression this is a full bakery,” he said, with a laugh. Haley bought a machine to shrink wrap the cookies to keep them fresh in transit. He offers chocolate chip, chocolate chip with walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and coconut, and oatmeal raisin. He covers all costs for the ingredients and shipping. The recipient makes a donation and receives six cookies. So far, Haley has raised $2,500.

CalendarHigh on Haley’s agenda is refurbishing the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. “It  was originally put there for the arts,” he said. “It’s still being utilized for the arts, but it’s not being taken care of. It just needs some assistance to bring it back.” In October, 2015, Haley staged a concert there to benefit the Amphitheatre and provide trail maintenance for Rock Creek Park. Starting in June, he plans to hold concerts in the Amphitheatre the first and third Saturday of each month to raise more funds. “If you get 3,500 people [coming in], paying $15 or $10 a ticket, you could begin to do some serious refurbishing,” he said.

While admiration and praise continues to pour in for all that Haley does, he said he stays grounded because he doesn’t seek approval. “I think that we all have a degree of blessings that are bestowed upon us,” he said. “Those blessings are gifts. And if we get out of our own way, and let those blessings happen, then whatever it is that you are looking to do or want to do, will come forth.”

For more information:
Music at the Monument
WHUR 96.3 Fitness Friday 
Darryl Haley’s Bed and Breakfast
VA for Vets

About Charlene Giannetti (591 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.