A versatile defensive player, Haley began his career as a specialty outside linebacker, eventually progressing to pass-rusher and finally full-fledged defensive end. He was the first five-time Super Bowl champion. Haley was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011 and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015.
Haley attended William Campbell High School in Naruna, Virginia where he was a three-year starter, while playing linebacker and tight end. As a senior, he received defensive player of the year honors, All-Region III and All-Group AA accolades, while helping the team win the Seminole District championship. He was also a star basketball player, and was an All-district selection.
He wasn’t highly recruited at the start of his senior season, so he accepted a scholarship from James Madison University, which at the time was the only Division I-A or I-AA school to make an offer. He was named a starter at defensive end / linebacker as a freshman, posting 85 tackles (second on the team), 5 sacks, 6 passes defensed and 4 forced fumbles.
The next year he was moved to inside linebacker, making 143 tackles (led the team) and 4 sacks. As a junior he tallied 147 tackles (led the team), 3 sacks and 2 interceptions. In his final year he was switched to outside linebacker for the last four games, registering 131 tackles (second on the team), 5 quarterback sacks, 3 blocked kicks and one interception.
He was a two-time Division I-AA All-American and finished his career with 506 tackles (school record), 17 sacks and 3 interceptions. Haley is a member of the Xi Delta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at James Madison.
Haley was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round (96th overall) of the 1986 NFL Draft, after dropping because he initially was timed at 4.8 seconds in the 40-yard dash, although he was later clocked by a 49ers scout at 4.55 seconds. He played outside linebacker in a 3–4 defense, finished second behind Leslie O’Neal for rookies with 12 sacks and was voted to the NFL All-Rookie team by Pro Football Weekly and the United Press International. The following year he played again in a designated pass rusher role, coming into the game in likely passing situations, while making 25 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
In 1988, he was named the starter at left outside linebacker, registering 69 tackles, 11.5 sacks and would hold that spot through the 1991 season. The next year he tallied 57 tackles and 10.5 sacks.
In 1990, he had 58 tackles, 9 passes defensed, was third in the league with 16 sacks, was voted the UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year and was a consensus All-Pro.
In 1991, his relationship with the organization began to deteriorate after safety Ronnie Lott was left unprotected—eligible to sign with any team under Plan B free agency. He still recorded 53 tackles, 6 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles and 7 sacks, tying for the team lead with Larry Roberts. While with the 49ers from 1986 to 1991, he led the team in sacks every season, and played on the Super Bowl XXIII and Super Bowl XXIV championship teams.
On August 26, 1992, his volatile temperament and clashes with head coach George Seifert forced the team to trade him to the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for a 1993 second round selection (#56-Vincent Brisby) and a 1994 third round selection (#99-Alai Kalaniuvalu).
In 1992, he was moved to right defensive end in the Dallas Cowboys 4–3 defense, made 39 tackles, 6 sacks, and 42 quarterback pressures (led the team), and helped the team improve from 17th in total defense in 1991 to first. Haley received the UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year Award and was a consensus All-Pro once again. He is often mentioned as the final piece that helped propelled the Cowboys into a Super Bowl contender.
In 1993, he made headlines after smashing his helmet through a wall in the locker room following a home loss to the Buffalo Bills, showing his displeasure with the team’s inability to sign holdout running back Emmitt Smith, which contributed to an 0–2 start and put the season in jeopardy. The Cowboys relented and reached an agreement with Smith the following week, getting them back on track and making them the first team to win a Super Bowl after starting a season 0–2. He registered 41 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 passes defensed, and 3 forced fumbles, but his recurring back problems began to require a series of surgeries.
In 1994, he recovered from off-season surgery (lumbar microdiscectomy) to post 68 tackles, 12.5 sacks and 52 quarterback pressures. He immediately announced his retirement after losing 28–38 to the 49ers in the NFC Championship game, but decided to return after being offered a new contract.
In 1995, he posted 10.5 sacks, 33 quarterback pressures and 35 tackles in the first 10 games, until suffering a ruptured disk against the Washington Redskins, which derailed his season. He started in Super Bowl XXX six weeks after having back surgery, making one sack, 3 quarterback pressures and 5 tackles. The next year, with the team trying to limit him to 30 plays per game, he appeared in the first three contests, in week 9 and 10, before being deactivated with a back injury. He retired after the season, because of his back injuries and his youngest daughter Brianna having been diagnosed with leukemia.
On January 2, 1999, he was signed by the San Francisco 49ers after being out of football for almost two years, to provide depth for an injury depleted defensive line in the playoffs (2 games). He was re-signed for the 1999 season and tallied 3 sacks.
In his 12 NFL seasons, Haley recorded 100.5 quarterback sacks, two interceptions (nine return yards), and eight fumble recoveries, which he returned for nine yards and a touchdown. He was also selected to play in five Pro Bowls (1988, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1995) and was named NFL All-Pro in 1990 and 1994. In his first four seasons in Dallas he was on three Super Bowl winning teams: in 1992 (XXVII), 1993 (XXVIII), and 1995 (XXX). Haley and Tom Brady are the only players in NFL history to have won five Super Bowl rings.
Haley was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 2006, the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011, and the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. He was enshrined into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor on November 6, 2011. In 2015 he was inducted into the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame. One of 15 finalists for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010 and 2011, he was not selected. After being elected on January 31, 2015, Haley felt that his election may have been delayed by his image and behavior: “I thought that what you do on the field would govern whether you get in the Hall”. On August 8, 2015, Haley was inducted at the Enshrinement Ceremony where his bust, sculpted by Scott Myers, was unveiled.
After football he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began to undergo therapy and to take special medication. Haley was an assistant defensive coach for the Detroit Lions from 2001 to 2002. He is a special advisor mentoring rookies for both the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. He also has dedicated his life to help fund several local initiatives with organizations such as The Jubilee Center and Salvation Army.