The Bills had one of the most feared defensive units during the 1990s. But there was a player who flew under the radar and was arguably the hardest hitter on the roster. His name: Darryl Talley.
Cleveland Born and Raised
Darryl Victor Talley was born on July 10th, 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Jacqueline and John Talley. During his upbringing, he was teased for his physical features, as he was tall, thin, and had curly hair.
He also lost his two front teeth after smashing into a telephone pole while trying to catch a football.
But growing up the streets of Ohio made a man out of Talley. He says he had to fight for everything.
“Guys used to mess with me all the time to try and take my money. I refused to let you have anything of mine. This is not give me Ohio, this is Cleveland, Ohio, and we go to war,” Talley said.
The only time Talley was not fighting was in front of church, but he was not going to let anyone take advantage of him.
“I fought every day from the time I was in fifth grade until I got to be a freshman in high school. I was not going to let anyone take advantage of me or bully me,” he said.
His fight and determination crossed paths with his brother, who remembers the games they would play with their home’s heavy back door.
“We had this big back door, so if I make it up the stairs and grab that door, I could slam that door. And I made it to the bathroom and they used to have a pillow and blanket in the tub for me because they knew I would probably end up in there,” John Talley II said.
Even with his body type, Talley told his father he wanted to play football. Seeing his son’s passion, his father supported him the whole way.
“I told him, if you want to play football, that’s what you want to do,” John Talley said.
Shaw High School Cardinals
Growing up on the east side of Cleveland, Talley attended Shaw High School. But once Fall rolled around, it was all football for Talley.
Injuries were a hindrance for Talley in his junior year, as he appeared in only seven games.
However, Talley’s defensive coach, Clayton Burroughs, said it was mesmerizing watching him play.
“He had a motor that was second to none. The boy would cover a field,” Burroughs said.
His play earned Talley the name Big Chief. Chief was a character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Talley did not use injuries as an excuse. Instead, he played with anger.
“I played with a controlled anger, and I looked at everybody else as if they were out to get me,” he said.
Unfortunately for Talley, his senior season was much like before. He appeared in three games after breaking his ankle during summer workouts. But he still made his presence known, recording 56 tackles.
One of those games was against Valley Forge, one of Shaw’s rivals. College scouts were on hand to see other players.
Hearing the doubters, Talley made a bet with his friends that he would win player of the week for his performance against Valley Forge. Against the odds, Talley recorded every tackle but two in the victory.
This finally made some college scouts turn their heads, including West Virginia’s Gary Stevens.
Talley Becomes a Mountaineer
The lack of game film hurt Talley in being recruited. But some schools were interested.
Iowa and Iowa State wanted Talley, but they were too far away from home. Syracuse was the other school who inquired about Talley, and he almost jumped the gun.
However, former East Cleveland native and West Virginia scout, Gary Stevens, saw something in Talley.
“He was a tough kid. He was going to knock your ass off,” Stevens said.
After his performance against Valley Forge, Stevens invited Talley to visit Morgantown. And the rest is history.
“I fell in love with WVU because there were a lot of guys from the Cleveland area here already. And there was a bunch of guys coming to school here that were from my area. So I said, okay. I’m going to WVU,” Talley said.
So, Talley traded in the black and red for blue and gold. But once he got down to Morgantown, things got off to a rocky start.
Redshirt Becomes Motivation
Once at West Virginia, Talley hoped to be a plug and play starter for the Mountaineers. The coaching staff had other plans, redshirting Talley his freshman year.
Disgruntled by the decision, Talley almost gave up. He even fell asleep on the sidelines during the Backyard Bowl versus Pittsburgh in 1978.
“They ain’t going to play me anyways, so what do I care,” he said.
Talley could have easily walked away or transferred to a different school. But he stuck around, wanting to prove the coaching staff wrong.
Using this as motivation, Talley became an animal at the linebacker position. He would rip up tackling bags and ladder ropes in practice to the point where his teammates went first instead of last.
Every day, Talley would work on his craft. He specifically remembers learning his technique from Defensive Coordinator Bob Simmons, which involved a piece of tape on a wall.
“He put a piece of tape on the wall and had me stay in my stance. You stay in your stance and step with one foot and your hands and head are to meet at the wall at the same time. And when you step, that will bring your hips and everything with you,” Talley said.
You could see the rise of Talley’s talent in his freshman year. He recorded 83 tackles and two sacks. Talley also tallied two interceptions and a touchdown.
But after a forth-straight losing season, Frank Cignetti was let go as head coach. And once Don Nehlen filled the vacancy, Talley and the Mountaineers began their rise.
Talley Becomes a Leader
Coming into his sophomore year, Talley was ready to release his never die, never quit attitude. And with a new defensive scheme, there was hope the team would have a fast incline.
But the 6-6 record did not represent Talley’s accomplishments. His total tackles rose from 83 to 127, and he had four sacks. He also had one interception return for a touchdown, two fumbles recoveries, and a punt block.
The fans of West Virginia could sense the Mountaineers were turning a corner. And Darryl Talley was bringing an extra flavor to the defense that would transform West Virginia.
“What Darryl brought to the team was leadership on defense. When guys would get tired or thought it was over, he would grab you and pump you up,” one teammate said.
Flash forward to 1981. With Oliver Luck leading the offense and Talley leading the defense, West Virginia jumped to an 8-3 record. Yes, they did lose to #4 Pitt led by Dan Marino and #1 Penn State. But nothing could prepare Florida from what was coming in the 1981 Peach Bowl.
No one gave the Mountaineers a chance until Talley and his unit showed up in front of a national audience to defeat the Gators 26-6. People were starting to take notice of West Virginia, and Darryl Talley was continuing his quiet but steady rise.
Once again, his total tackles jumped from 127 to 139, and his sack total rose to five. What’s even more impressive is 75 (53.9%) of those tackles were solo.
Talley’s accomplishments won him the John Russell Award for best spirit and leadership. But nothing could have prepared him for what he went through in his senior season opener against Oklahoma.
The Flu Game Against the Sooners
Michael Jordan had his flu game in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, scoring 38 points while chugging Gatorade to stay hydrated. Walter Peyton rushed for 275 yards with a 101 fever against the Vikings in 1977. But Darryl Talley had one of those performances on the biggest stage for him at the time.
To start out their 1982 season, West Virginia traveled to #9 Oklahoma. In the middle of the 105 degree Oklahoma heat, the Mountaineers struggled to adjust. One of those players was Talley, who had a 102 degree fever.
The defense looked lost throughout the first half, and Talley was trying to get through the pain. That is until LB Dennis Fowlkes went after Talley on the sidelines.
“I got my head down and Dennis comes off the sideline and goes up one side of me and down the other. I said look I’m sick, and he looked at me and said, I don’t care you got to play, you aren’t the Darryl Talley I know,” Talley said.
And like flipping a light switch, the Mountaineers pulled off the upset over Oklahoma, 41-29. Defeating Florida in the Peach Bowl and Oklahoma back-to-back put West Virginia football on the map. But Dennis Fowlkes knew Darryl Talley would become an All-American based on his grit to fight through the pain and play.
“That’s the game I knew Darryl Talley was going to be All-American. When you go out their with a temperature of 102 and still perform, that makes you a great player,” he said.
1982: All-American Season and Pitt Rivalry
After the win against Oklahoma, Talley and the Mountaineers were on top of the world. That was until their October 2nd match-up against #2 Pittsburgh and Dan Marino.
Known as the Backyard Brawl, both teams had blue and gold on their jerseys. But only one team could be victorious in them.
During those years, Talley and his teammates would get teased by the Pitt players. They called them hillbillies and hoopies because they went to West Virginia. But Talley was going to take nothing from them.
“I used to get so mad. I would say what are you. And that’s when I started really giving Pitt garbage,” he said.
And he turned on that extra motor when it mattered. Being on the punt team, Talley blocked an attempt and ran it into the endzone for the score. But the Panthers came out of the game victorious by a field goal, 16-13.
With the loss, Talley never defeated Pitt during his time at West Virginia. But with the game on national television, he knew he gave it all he had.
“I’m still going to outplay everybody because this game is on national TV. And guess what? You put me on national TV, I’m going to show my butt,” Talley said.
West Virginia would finish the 1982 season with a 9-3 record and a loss to Florida State in the Gator Bowl. But Talley did something that had not been done at the school in over 27 years: he became an All-American.
Let the stats speak for themselves: 135 total tackles, seven sacks, and two interceptions. And all these years later, his accomplishments on the field still ring today.
Career Accomplishments and NFL?
His 484 tackles remain second all-time in team history. And he was inducted into the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame (1996) and the College Football Hall of Fame (2011).
But after the 16-13 loss to Pitt, many thought Talley was NFL bound. He did not believe them.
“I remembered people telling me after I played Pitt, you are going to get drafted. I said yeah right man, keep going,” Talley said.
Talley Gets Drafted
Going into the 1983 NFL Draft, Talley was ranked as the fifth best player available. But when Talley told teams about an injury he suffered in college, his stock plummeted.
“I had a pinched nerve in my neck and shoulder, but I did not miss any games. The draft was so stacked, that little thing got me kicked to the second round,” Talley said.
Falling out of the first round, it was only a matter of time before Talley was selected. And after selecting Jim Kelly 14th overall, the Buffalo Bills scooped Talley up with the 39th overall pick.
Talley did not know much about the city of Buffalo but figured it was better than nothing. But former teammate, Bruce Smith, says it was destiny for Talley to end up in Buffalo because of its hard-working atmosphere.
“He could identify with that atmosphere, meaning blue-collar workers because that’s what he was. He put in an honest day’s work, and he got an honest day’s pay,” Smith said.
Talley’s early statistics for the Bills were not exactly head-turning. In his first six seasons, he only recorded over 100 tackles once (116 in 1986). But the stories of grinding and teaching his teammates were more important than any statistic in the book.
Talley Takes Bennett Under His Wing
Darryl Talley had a god-given talent at the linebacker position. And his wisdom was starting to rub off on his young teammates.
Cornelius Bennett was originally drafted 2nd overall by the Colts in 1987. But both sides could not come together on a deal post draft. So, the Colts shipped Bennett to Orchard Park for two first round picks and a second rounder. Those picks were sent to the Rams in exchange for Eric Dickerson.
Nevertheless, Bennett was now a Buffalo Bill. And he remembers his first interaction with Talley quite well.
“After meeting with the defensive staff, Darryl came in and introduced himself. I was sitting with the training camp playbook, and this was week nine of the season. Darryl told me to put the book away and said everything I needed to know, he would teach me. And he did just that.”
Talley’s wisdom must have rubbed off well on Bennett. In his seven years in Buffalo, he reached the Pro Bowl five times and recorded 52.5 sacks. But there was more than just wisdom that Talley gave his teammates.
Talley Learned to Trust and Become Role Player
He also gave them trust. Talley did not have to be the immediate workhorse he was at West Virginia, as he had others around him: Bruce Smith, Bennett, Shane Conlan, and Leon Seales to name a few.
He knew his role needed to be switched to benefit the team.
“I am taking on duties that I did not want. But by me doing that, I freed somebody else up to make some plays,” he said.
Some of those duties included pass coverage as the nickel linebacker while Bennett blitzed from the weak side. But Talley still had the hunger to find a way to be the big hitter he was.
“I’m going to get mine from somewhere. Somebody’s going to pay for me being back here, and that was my attitude. They going to pay, and I am going to get you,” he said.
Talley’s motor attitude continued during his early years in Buffalo. But things were just beginning for the linebacker.
Magical 1990 Season Despite Elbow Injury
Before the 1990 NFL season, Talley had surgery on both of his elbows and two on his right knee. Coming off his most successful season for the Bills at the time in 1989 (97 tackles, six sacks), there was doubt he would be ready for the Bills season opener against the Colts.
But Talley had his last elbow surgery on Monday and was right back on the field the next day. According to him, Jim Kelly had his doubts of Talley playing.
“Jim Kelly comes out and he goes, you ain’t going to play on Sunday. And I said, look if you can stick your hands under Kent’s butt on Sunday, I’m going to line up and play,” he said.
Talley proved Kelly wrong, recording a sack in the 26-10 win over Indianapolis, even though he did not start. However, the best was yet to come in 1990 for Talley.
Starting in all 16 games, he had 123 tackles (11th in NFL), four sacks, and one interception returned for a touchdown. His stat line earned him his first Pro Bowl nod.
But his playoff performance was more important. In the 1990 AFC Championship game, Talley picked off Raiders QB Jay Schroeder twice, returning one to the house.
Paired with an outstanding defensive performance, Buffalo strolled into Super Bowl XXV with a 51-3 win over the Raiders. We all know what happened next.
But Talley had one of the best seasons for a Bills linebacker in team history. And he was not done yet.
1991-1994: Consistency Continues in Orchard Park
After the Bills lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XXV, it was time to go back to the drawing board. However, Talley and his Spiderman under suit continued to rise.
His 1991 season is widely considered his best as a Bill. Starting in all 16 games, Talley’s tackle total dropped to 117, but his five interceptions (tied for first for LBs), and four fumbles made up for the drop.
Once again, Talley earned another Pro Bowl nomination, as he and seven other teammates had a date in Honolulu. But they had a different date circled on their calendar: January 26th, 1992.
The Bills fell apart again on the biggest stage, losing to Washington 37-24. And 1993 and 1994 were the same against the Dallas Cowboys.
But Talley was still consistent in his early 30s. He reached a new career high in tackles with 136 in 1993 and had three more interceptions. But his stretch of Pro Bowls ended. And after the 1994 season, his time in Buffalo was over.
1995-1996: Happy Trails
Darryl Talley was not released by the Bills in 1995. In fact, he was never offered a contract.
It may have had to do with Bills GM Bill Polian leaving to head the NFL’s new shiny toy in the Carolina Panthers. Or it was because the 34-year-old’s services were no longer needed.
But once his career in Buffalo was over, Talley had other plans. He took out an ad in a Buffalo newspaper thanking the fans of Buffalo for twelve seasons of love and appreciation, as the Tampa Bay Times pointed out in 2005.
“Those four Super Bowls will live on in my memories and in my family’s memories forever. I’ve done things, gone places, and met people that most only dream of because I played for the Buffalo Bills,” Talley wrote.
And Bruce Smith summed it up the best. “He was the best and most unselfish teammate that anyone could want for.”
But his football career was not over yet. He traded in #56 for #99 when the Atlanta Falcons signed him to a one-year deal.
And the 35-year-old Talley started all but one game that season, recording 73 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
But his time in Atlanta was short lived, as the aging Talley signed with Minnesota in 1996.
Once again, his tackles dropped significantly to 51. And it was time to hang the cleats up, as Talley officially retired in 1996.
Career Stats Equals Impact Player
Yes, Darryl Talley never won a MVP or Defensive Player of the Year. But his stats still stand as one of the best in Bills history.
He was a Michelin man on the field, appearing in 188 games, which is first all-time for any Bills linebacker. That is not the only record he holds.
His 1,128 tackles are first in team history and unofficially fifth in NFL history. And his 38.5 sacks are eighth in team history.
For his accomplishments, Talley was inducted into the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame in 2003, the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, and the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.
On the eve of his Wall of Fame induction, Talley told the Buffalo News it was an honor to be included with some of the best players to put on a Bills uniform.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “You got to think about it. The Buffalo Bills have 43 years of tradition, and I’m just the 20th inductee, the 15th player. Think about it. When I first got in the NFL there were 1,600 jobs. To be in the realm of those players is quite an honor. I can’t wait.”
Talley’s NFL journey was over, but the post-football impacts were just beginning. And they were very concerning.
“Is it worth being here, worth being tortured anymore?”
Football is one of the most physically-demanding sports in the world. The amount of pain and bone-crushing hits each player endures is traumatizing. For Darryl Talley, it was more than that.
In a 2014 article with Tim Graham of the Buffalo News, Talley outlines his struggle with depression and how he has thought about ending it all.
“I’ve thought about it. When you go through the s— that I’ve gone through, you start to wonder: Is this really worth it,” he said.
His bitterness towards the NFL and their care of players had a ripple effect for him, as he played his entire career with a broken neck.
But he has fought through his demons for two reasons: his parents and his children.
“It would be just as easy to call it a day. But there are two reasons why I won’t. First of all, my parents didn’t raise a coward. The most important is I want to be around for my grandkids.”
But it has not been just the post-playing battle scars that have impacted Talley. He lost his personal business and family home of 17 years through his struggle.
Talley’s college sweetheart, Janine, has been outspoken about her husband’s struggles.
“His mental issues have accelerated a lot in the last year. I don’t know what the future holds for either one of us. I don’t know if in a few years dementia will set in,” she said.
Once Talley retired, he received the NFL’s total-permanent Type B plan for retired players. The payout is $50,000 a year. Talley originally signed up for the Type A plan, which pays $120,000 a year. But the NFL said he did not file the paperwork in time to receive the extra money.
Everything was taken away from Talley. His credit was blown by the wayside, and he needed the help of three former teammates (Thurman, Bruce, and Cornelius) to pay the rent deposit on their home in Orlando, Florida.
Things were looking grim for the former superstar … until Bills fans stepped up in a big way.
Bills Mafia Steps in
After Talley’s interview appeared in the Buffalo News, Bills fans knew they needed to help out. It was not about feeling good. Instead, it was about helping one of their own who helped spur lifelong memories.
To help their struggling hero, a GoFundMe campaign was started by Bills fan, Frank Croisdale.
Croisdale’s original goal was $100,000 by the end of the month. Well, BillsMafia smashed that goal, raising over $150,000 in two days.
At first, Talley was reluctant to take the money. His upbringing taught him to find a way to work his way to the top with hard work and determination
But Talley knew the deeper meaning behind it.
“This is heavy duty, man,” Talley said. “It could very well save my life.”
The money helped Talley and his family get back to some form of the normal life of a former NFL superstar. But Talley’s wife, Janine, still sees her husband struggle through the post-career adjustment.
The Effects Still Linger
Even with the financial support from the NFL and Bills fans, it cannot repair the mental scars Talley obtained on the field.
In terms of concussions, Talley told Graham the number he had during his career was near the century mark.
“I’ve hit people, got up, felt like my eyes were bouncing back and forth, or I’d see mini lights. I’d have to say at least 75 times I saw little lights. I’d have to say it’s got to be more than 100 concussions,” Talley said.
The hard-hitting linebacker who played with a 110% motor was now the one who needed support. Janine Talley recalled her husband struggling to do simple things, such as ordering breakfast in an interview with BuffaloFambase.com in 2019.
“As the server took our orders, Darryl asked for sausage, even though he and I both knew that wasn’t what he wanted. I reminded him that Denny’s serves link sausage and he only likes sausage patties, so he attempted to correct his order but still asked for sausage,” she said.
And once his eggs arrived with sausage instead of bacon, Talley snapped.
“He was so frustrated with himself, and the server was so confused by this point, he snapped at her when she said she’d correct the misunderstanding, telling her he had an appointment and didn’t have time to wait,” Janine Talley said.
Despite his daily struggle, doctors have reported Talley has no symptoms of dementia. They claim it is due to “a discrepancy in the cognitive testing because it varied too much and for over-reporting of symptoms”.
Darryl is not fighting just to save himself. He is fighting to save his entire family. And his wife wishes they did not live this way.
“I wish we didn’t live like this. I wish this concoction of unwelcome manifestations hadn’t invaded our lives; it’s killing our marriage, it’s killing our family, and it’s slowly killing both of us.”
Talley will be dealing with the scars of his playing days for the rest of time. But there have been recent happier times in his life.
The scars may still be there. But Darryl Talley is still the linebacker 90s Bills fans all know and love.
Even though he currently lives in Orlando with his wife and two kids, he still makes routine trips back to Western New York.
He has appeared at many autograph shows in the Walden Galleria and at the Legends and Batavia Sports Card Expo at Batavia Downs Casino.
Talley even helped introduce a new Anchor Bar franchise restaurant near Atlanta, Georgia by signing autographs.
But the appearances and autograph sessions are not the most significant portion of support Talley is giving.
He is also a member of the NFL Legends Community, who helps former players after their careers are over. His passion for helping his former teammates or opponents has been a big part of his rebound.
“We have had over 20,000 guys play in the NFL. And what we’re trying to do is get everybody connected back up with their team, so they can feel they are a part of their team and part of a family,” Talley said.
His passion involves letting players know of the resources available to them and bring some of them back from the brink.
Talley has been also very active on Twitter, recently celebrating the Bills first AFC East title in 25 years.
Darryl Talley is a NFL Legend, PERIOD
Yes, he may have never won a Super Bowl or an MVP. But Darryl Talley is the person we all should strive to be. He is a man from a hardworking family who has beaten the odds and became the best linebacker in Bills history.
You can argue he played in a different era. But their is one thing you cannot argue. Despite all of the negatives in his life, Talley has become one of those former players you root for.
Some may only see Darryl Talley as a player who lost four Super Bowls on one of the best sports franchises in the world. I see him as a man who has fessed up to his past mistakes and has become a role model for former and current players everywhere.
Put that on a golden jacket and put this man in the Hall of Fame. Because even though he does not have the stats to get in, he had the power and determination to play 110% all the time. And he was and will always be a fan favorite.
What are some of your favorite memories of Darryl Talley? And do you believe he deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Let me know by connecting with me on Twitter @BenBlakely18.