So he worked on his swimming. Last October he finished the Ironman in 16:44:15—barely 15 minutes before the official 17-hour cutoff time.
Haley has never been one to impose limits on himself, or to allow others to. Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, he graduated from high school at 16, having played just a single year of football. Among the many schools that recruited him was Utah. "Everybody said, 'Don't go there,' " he recalls. "One guy told me that as a young black man, I would never succeed at Utah." The contrarian in Haley was aroused. "My view has always been, Your race or creed does not determine your destiny," he says. "That's determined by the person within and by how hard you're willing to work." He went to Utah.
He had a blast. In addition to playing football, he skied, hiked, rode horseback and got his degree in human kinetics. To his vast surprise, he was selected by the Patriots in the 1982 draft, despite having started only one season for the Utes.
Haley had a solid NFL career. In 1984 he was a member of one of the most formidable offensive lines in the NFL, starting alongside Pro Bowl linemen John Hannah and Brian Holloway. During the season Haley made a pest of himself, asking Hannah and Holloway, "How did you get to be so good?" But as hard as he worked, as assiduously as he gleaned tips, Haley never became an elite player. Bill Muir, who was his offensive line coach (and is now an assistant with the New York Jets), says Haley was always hampered by his limited playing experience in high school and college. "He never really was an instinctive player," says Muir, "and that prevented him from maximizing his talent."
The two have stayed in touch. After completing his first triathlon, in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, in 1995, Haley phoned his old coach. "I can't tell you how excited he was," says Muir, who understands why Haley has embraced triathlons. "I think he got out of football before he wanted to, and he's still looking for physical challenges, still trying to fulfill a self-image of athletic success."
As an amateur triathlete Haley has succeeded in touching more lives than he did as a pro football player. "People have seen me and said, 'If this dude is twice my size and he's doing it, then I'm doing it too,' " says Haley. "That's happened a lot. It's very fulfilling."
In a riveting display of determination 14 years ago, Julie Moss crawled over the Ironman finish line. "For years," says Ironman spokesman Rob Perry, "Julie was the triathlete people credited with getting them interested in the sport. Now the same thing is happening with Darryl."
Before a triathlon in Columbia, Md., earlier this year, a man introduced himself to Haley, then told his story: A year before, his daughter had died of cancer. He was floundering, drinking a lot of beer, getting fat. Then he saw Haley in the telecast of the Iron-man. "I was inspired," he told Haley. "I'm training hard, I've lost 40 pounds, this is my first race, and I'm dedicating it to my daughter."
The world's largest triathlete attracts media attention wherever he races, and the top pros are cool with that. Says Sian Welch, who won the Escape From Alcatraz two years ago, "Any exposure the sport gets helps all of us. Darryl's brought people to triathlon who otherwise wouldn't be a part of it. It's great having him around."
As long as he keeps his distance during the swim.