Exclusive Interview: NFL Hall of Famer Charles Haley Discusses Life with Bipolar Disorder

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nfl-footballFor nearly two decades, NFL Hall of Famer Charles Haley made headlines not only for his professional football abilities, but also for being a bad boy.

A beast, in fact.

But in his new book, Fear No Evil: Tackling Quarterbacks and Demons on My Way to the Hall of Fame, he squashes rumors and comes out about what really was going on: He is bipolar.

Among many revealing pages about life in the NFL with a mental illness, Haley says he suspects Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers staff were medicating him for his bipolar in his rookie season way back in 1986.

And he’s not mad about it. In fact, he’s grateful, which for Haley stands in stark contrast to the days when suspicions of others not having his best interests at heart would send him into a spiral.

In this exclusive interview with Foundations Recovery Network, Haley said, “Playing in the NFL truly was a blessing because the people you meet when you’re playing make you a better man.”

He added, “Sacrifice sometimes comes with a lot of things, including a lot of pain.”

Haley writes in his book that the allegations saying he abused painkillers are not true. In fact, he said that living with physical and emotional pain gave him the motivation to work harder and made him tougher. Besides, he said, he feared sustaining an injury while under the influence of painkillers. What if it were something severe, and he could not feel the pain?

“You need to go places within yourself to be this violent football player. You need to find the rage,” Haley writes in his book. “Pain was one of the ways I did that. Always try to turn a negative into a positive.”

Haley powered through pain and used it to take down others in this merciless contact sport. We now know that dozens of former football players have left the game disabled not only by bones broken multiple times, but also by concussions and even dementia.

“At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, ‘What quality of life do you need when you’re playing the game?’ It was my decision,” Haley told FRN. “If I couldn’t walk out there and play without taking pills or getting a shot, I’m not going to play. I love this game so much, I didn’t want to let my team down.”

San Francisco 49ers’ Loss Is Dallas Cowboys’ Gain

But for many years, Haley did let down people close to him. His outrageous behavior included urinating on personal property, slamming his helmet through the plaster in a locker room and always acting like “a clown,” to use his words – a really mean clown.

Haley said during those early days with the 49ers, his mood was relatively stable. “I was pretty well behaved with Bill (Walsh) there, but as much as I admired and respected him, it’s not like I could have controlled the impulses on those bad days,” he writes in the book.

That’s why he believes the team doctor had prescribed him medication to control his bipolar disorder. Haley said Walsh even told a member of the news media that Haley was “manic depressive.”

“They would give me pills and say it was for inflammation,” Haley recalled in his book. “And they would change it up here and then, saying, ‘Take this. It will help with the headaches.'”

His behavior aside, Haley is a football legend. He wears five Super Bowl rings – more than any player in NFL history.dallas-cowboys-helmet

Being bipolar can be a blessing and a curse, for both those living with the illness and for those around them. Many people who are bipolar are incredibly successful in their careers, harnessing loads of energy into money-making tasks if they can find a calling they are passionate about.

What happened when the 49ers traded Haley away to Dallas because he’d become more than they could handle? The balance of power in the NFL shifted from the San Francisco 49ers to the Dallas Cowboys.

“They fear what they don’t understand instead of attempting to understand what they fear,” Haley said of employers who shun bipolar employees. “As a society we have got to address mental illness, and the only way to do it is by coming out in the open and speaking about it, and to get the government to be a big part of it, and to do their part.”

His Advice to Others with Bipolar: Take Ownership of It

Haley said individuals with mental illness also need to step up and take ownership of the hand life deals them. “If you’re letting your family down, your company down or your teammates down, you’ve got to address it. A lot of players may not have mental illness, but life throws them a curveball and they don’t know how to deal with it. When adversity comes they go out drinking and drugging.”

Finding the right medication and supportive therapy to stabilize your life isn’t simple, Haley warns, adding that he now takes medication to treat his bipolar every day. “Everybody thinks one shoe fits all,” he said. “You need to find that person to connect to in terms of a doctor or psychologist that will help you improve your life.”

Haley admits that he did drink during his NFL days, but says it never was a huge problem (although he does talk in the book about getting a DUI on a motorcycle, even after signing a contract saying he would not ride a motorcycle).

When Haley was in the mania phase, he “wanted to please everybody,” he told FRN. He’d lavish everyone with gifts, drinks…anything they wanted. “When in the depressive state, I didn’t care about nobody.”

“As athletes, a lot of us come from nothing, and we want instant gratification. Women, cars, jewelry, instead of being forward-looking and saving. I thank God I was married and (always) had a baby on the way. It made me look up, look forward.”

Haley has four children with his ex-wife, Karen, with whom he has a good relationship, he writes in the book.

As for drugs, he talks in the book of cocaine flowing freely at NFL bachelor parties. He writes they were so wild most people would not believe what went on at them even if he revealed it.

Induction into NFL Hall of Fame

Haley talks about how during manic episodes, he thought he could do anything, and indeed he did. Earning five Super Bowl rings and induction into the NFL Hall of Fame (which only happened last year after he finally stabilized his life) is no small feat.

“What goes up, must come down, and you’ve got to address it,” he said in his interview with FRN.

“Being bipolar is about extremes,” Haley writes in his book. “I could be the fun-loving, happiest guy in the world, or I could be out of control, the most horrific person imaginable, pissing on people’s cars. There was no in between, no balance like other people.”

FRN asked Haley: “There are a lot of troubled football players that are losing off the field, and I know you have reached out to many thus far. Do you feel a responsibility to reach out to younger current or former players who are struggling off the field?”

While Haley did not speak to players in the NFL specifically, he said he tries to help anyone he can by sharing his story. “I’ll be honest, I’ve had friends, and friends of friends, ask me to come talk to their son or daughter. And that’s the only thing I can do: Share my story. I can’t tell them what to do, but I advise them to listen, and to listen very carefully.

“I tell them if they see me in them, they need to get help.”


Haley, Charles. Fear No Evil: Tackling Quarterbacks and Demons on My Way to the Hall of Fame. 2016. Chicago: Triumph.

Written by David Heitz


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