ORLANDO, Fla. – Those closest to Darryl Talley are terrified. His wife, daughters and former teammates openly cry for him. They lament what has befallen him. They dread what his future might hold.
Talley’s life is in tatters. Loved ones say his mind is deteriorating. He’s begrudgingly starting to agree.
He’s 54, but his body is a wreck and continues to crumble. He suspects collisions from playing linebacker for 14 NFL seasons, a dozen with the Buffalo Bills, have damaged his brain. He’s often depressed beyond the point of tears.
He’s bitter at the National Football League for discarding him and denying that he’s too disabled to work anymore. He says the Bills have jilted him, too.
He learned after he retired that he’d played with a broken neck.
He had a heart attack in his 40s.
He lost his business. The bank foreclosed on the Talleys’ home of 17 years. Against her husband’s pride, Janine Talley has accepted money from friends to pay the bills.
He contemplates killing himself.
“I’ve thought about it,” Darryl Talley flatly said last month on the patio of the house he and Janine rent. “When you go through the s--- that I’ve gone through, you start to wonder: Is this really worth it? Is it worth being here, worth being tortured anymore?
“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.”
Bruce Smith is among those most frightened for Talley.
Although they thrived alongside each other during the franchise’s glory days and consider themselves brothers forever, Smith isn’t willing to trust Talley’s rationalizations.
“A moment of weakness, a moment of darkness, a moment of hopelessness,” Smith said from his home in Virginia. “Those are pretty powerful things that can come into play that makes one forget about how we were raised or what state we would leave the rest of the family and friends in.”
Talley, like Smith and the rest of their mates from the Super Bowl era, maintain a mythological presence with Bills fans. They’re like superheroes leaping off the pages of a Marvel comic book. One of Talley’s trademarks was the Spider-Man ski suit he wore under his uniform.
Buffalo’s football legends, however, are not indestructible cartoon characters. They are mortals, as we’ve been reminded through Jim Kelly’s cancer ordeal or 50-year-old Kent Hull’s death from liver failure in 2011.
Talley is the first Bill from the Super Bowl years to disclose ominous mental, physical and financial difficulties seemingly rooted in playing football.
“I never thought this would be our life, but this is the reality of it,” Janine Talley said. She met Darryl at West Virginia University; they’ve been together 34 years. “I don’t see it getting any better. This’ll kill him one way or the other.
“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. I don’t know if I’ll be able to care for him.”
Gabrielle Talley, the younger of their two daughters, said through tears, “Hope is not in abundance right now.”
Other teams have suffered tragedies linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma.
San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters, New Orleans Saints safety Gene Atkins and Pittsburgh Steelers guard Terry Long are among Talley contemporaries who committed suicide and were found afterward to have CTE.
“We’re talking about real tragedies of life,” Smith said. “Through Darryl, the Bills and their fans can actually identify a face with the problem now. It’s an ugly problem.
“Hopefully this will never happen with Darryl, but we know what path Junior Seau went down. There are a number of other players that chose to take that route and not endure or get back on track.”
The CTE Center, an independent academic research center at Boston University, explains on its website the disease “is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression and eventually progressive dementia.”
West Seneca native Justin Strzelczyk, a retired Steelers lineman, was in CTE’s early stages. He was only 36 when he died in September 2004 at the end of a high-speed police chase on the Thruway. Strzelczyk’s pickup truck collided with a tractor-trailer and exploded. He had been hearing voices.
Talley has not been diagnosed with CTE. That can be determined for sure only through an autopsy, although advancements give researchers hope it can be detected in the living. A pilot study last year at UCLA indicated Bills Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure’s brain carried the abnormal protein characterized by CTE damage.
There are dark clues surrounding Talley.
“I’m not convinced that I’m dead yet,” Darryl Talley said. “But the future doesn’t look bright. People say these are supposed to be the twilight years of your life. When are they coming? The stars aren’t twinkling.
“It’s the damnedest thing to think ... to think that ... it’s over? Not yet, but it’s close. I’m not ready to call it quits yet or phone it in.
“But it’s just an unbelievable fight to deal with the pain.”
A warrior laid bare
Talley’s street is under construction. He and Janine live in an area of Orlando called Doctor Phillips, about 14 miles from Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. From the main road, barriers and heavy equipment prevent a quick turn toward their home.
Instead, you must take a detour down Bittersweet Lane.
All of this reads like a poetic metaphor, but it’s the truth.
“You never had to worry about Darryl when we played,” former Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett said. “He just threw caution to the wind and did whatever he had to do to play on Sunday.
“I worry about him now.”
Talley’s family and friends know how serious his issues have been. They’ve advocated for him. They’ve encouraged him to come forward and admit he needs support.
A significant hurdle, though, is one of the undeniable traits that made Talley such a remarkable player, a two-time Pro Bowler despite an astounding list of injuries.
Pride has kept Talley from speaking up, from accepting his circumstances, from seeking relief.
Talley remained his typical, stubborn self until agreeing to sit down with The Buffalo News last month for an exclusive interview about his hardships.
When told her father was hosting a reporter, Gabrielle Talley thought, “There’s no way Daddy’s going to go for it.” The 21-year-old predicted he would back out. Alexandra Talley, 27, didn’t want to discuss her father because she was too distressed over him.
Bennett broke down in tears and called it “a shock” when informed Darryl Talley finally wanted to talk.
“This ... this ... this ... This just took me by ...” Bennett said, his voice breaking. “For Darryl to talk about it and get help, to hear him say, ‘I want to get help, and I want to talk about it,’ that is the most ... That is what it’s about.”
The Talleys are nervous how people will react to their situation. Darryl is particularly uneasy about revealing that his brain isn’t working as well as it should, that his body won’t let him be the man he wants to be, that his business failed.
Most of all, it has been difficult for him to concede the delicate spot his family is in.
“I’ve struggled with the idea of speaking out,” Talley said in his favorite wicker chair, which allows him to sit for longer than a few minutes. His neck was rolled back and his legs fully extended, almost as if lying down.
“If you tell people you’ve been concussed so many times and forget what you’ve walked into a room for, they’re going to go, ‘Oh, there’s a scarlet letter!’ ”
His hope is to salvage a more tolerable future and to shine a light on the truth many former players face long after they have served their purpose to the NFL.
Talley received the NFL’s total-permanent disability B plan, which pays $50,000 a year. The league ruled he didn’t file his paperwork in time to qualify for the A plan, which pays $120,000 a year. The Talleys contend he applied for his disability benefits in accordance with the collective-bargaining agreement that he played under.
“When you’re done playing,” Darryl Talley said, “you’re like a piece of meat. They treat you like, ‘None of what you say is our fault. None of these injuries happened from playing football.’
“They tell you whether or not you hurt. Ain’t none of them son of a bitches took a hit ... took a knife cut.
“None of us playing this game is normal. To compare an NFL player’s pain threshold to the average person who’s never done it? They’re going to tell me I don’t hurt?”
Without naming names, Talley claimed to know several retired players who tanked their disability exams or lied throughout the process to gain full benefits.
The doctor who evaluated Talley’s disability case ruled he was capable of working at a job where sitting or standing was required. A significant problem, Talley insisted, is that his body can do one or the other for only a few minutes at a time. He wondered aloud if some company would hire him to be a staggering receptionist.
“I want to let everybody know what this has done to me,” Talley said. “A lot of people don’t have a voice. There are a lot of guys that didn’t say anything before they died.
“Somebody’s got to ring the bell.”
Behind closed doors
A visitor to the Talleys’ ranch home wouldn’t detect anything amiss. Darryl and Janine reside in a prim gated community dotted with gorgeous palm trees. The front lawn is thick. Their back yard is on a golf course.
Theo, their Shih Tzu-Maltese mix, rambunctiously trots around with a golf ball in his mouth, eager to play.
Janine Talley confessed they don’t own this house, which is half the size of the one they were evicted from last year.
The Talleys are tenants now. They’ve had to move twice in the past 17 months. Their credit is so nuked from the foreclosure and the failed business that their landlord required them to pay three months rent in advance. They didn’t have the money.
Darryl Talley used to own superb credit. On just a signature, banks would lend him whatever money he needed for his business or personal needs.
To move into their home, three old friends – Smith, Bennett and Thurman Thomas – gathered the rent deposit and gave it to Janine without Darryl’s knowledge because they knew he would be too proud to accept it. When Darryl learned where the money came from, he cried.
The Talleys are convinced their lives would be different if the NFL institution took proper care of its own.
“It’s the most disappointing thing ever to go out and play and to stand up for that shield and then to have them f--- you the way they do,” Darryl Talley said. “I put team and league in front of everything, in front of my family.
“Where are the team and league to back me up now?”
Darryl Victor Talley’s toughness is unquestioned.
He was a 146-pound linebacker with a 28-inch waist at Shaw High in East Cleveland. He played much larger, a sideline-to-sideline berserker.
His nickname was Big Chief from his Native American bloodlines and resemblance to the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” character. Both front teeth were knocked out when he ran into a telephone pole to catch a football in his neighborhood.
Scholarship offers were limited because he played only 10 varsity games. A broken ankle kept his senior season to three games.
Even so, West Virginia was amazed by Talley’s tenacity.
He became WVU’s first consensus All-American in nearly three decades. The College Football Hall of Fame inducted him in 2011.
The Bills drafted him 39th overall in 1983. He missed one game in 12 years for the Bills (not counting the three-game NFL strike in 1987) and five his entire career, which included one-year stops with the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings before he retired in 1997.
“The league is full of tough guys,” former Bills special-teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven said. “But if I had to go down a dark alley and could pick one guy to go with me, it’d be Darryl Talley.
“I don’t know if he’s the best fighter, but I know two things: He’d have my back, and he’d stay there until they killed him.”
Early in the 1990 offseason, Talley underwent surgeries on each elbow and one knee on the same day. He then had surgery to repair a torn meniscus two weeks before starting in the season opener.
He recalled resetting his own mangled right ring finger after it got entangled in Miami Dolphins guard Keith Sims’ jersey and breaking his left middle finger so he could remove it from Los Angeles Raiders fullback Steve Smith’s facemask.
Then there was the time Talley, while with the Vikings, walked six snowy blocks back to the hotel after knee surgery.
Talley emits his infectious, warbling laugh when he blithely explains how he handled myriad injuries and 14 surgeries.
But he and his wife were dumbfounded to learn during a 1998 post-retirement NFL Line of Duty disability examination that years earlier he’d suffered a broken neck.
He can remember only two major neck injuries: versus Washington in 1987 and Pittsburgh in 1991. Each time, the Bills’ medical staff cleared him for the next game.
On the drive home from his Line of Duty exam, the Talleys phoned the Bills to request medical records pertaining to his neck. The Talleys said the Bills told them those files no longer exist.
The Bills declined to respond to the Talleys’ allegation about missing medical records.
“Our alumni play a very important role in the Bills organization, and each individual is unique in his own way,” the Bills said in a statement to The News for this story. “Darryl Talley has always been one of our favorites throughout our storied history, but we believe, respectfully, that some of the accounts for this story are factually incorrect.
“Additionally, the Bills organization is very proud to have assisted many former players, either personally or with their various endeavors, that dates back to the 1960s. The fact that our organization currently employs three of Darryl’s former teammates should also be noted.”
The Bills’ statement didn’t impress the Talleys.
“The Bills’ response is disappointing and comes off to me, Darryl and our daughters as dismissive,” Janine Talley said. “We were specific, but they’re not specifying what they debate to be inaccurate.
“Why would we lie?”
Darryl Talley noted an NFL team wouldn’t draft a college prospect with X-rays that showed he once had a broken neck. Yet he’s convinced he played for Buffalo with that serious injury.
“He loved being the person nothing could stop,” Gabrielle Talley said. “That man wasn’t stopping until a doctor or a coach told him he wasn’t allowed. Nobody ever did.
“It’s the NFL culture. As much as I resent my dad for not having his own well-being in mind when he played, that’s what medical professionals are there for. Trainers and doctors went to school for that, to be the responsible voice of reason.”
Only five players in Bills history played more seasons or games than Talley. He’s on their Wall of Fame and was voted to their 50th anniversary team in 2009.
But for years he hasn’t been able to flip his shirt collar down or fashion a necktie. His arms can’t rise up and bend that way.
He rarely sleeps longer than 90 minutes, frequently climbing onto the floor with his legs propped on an ottoman for back relief.
He sometimes must use his knees to steer his pickup truck because of wrist pain from jamming linemen and tight ends.
“This is not what he signed up for,” Gabrielle Talley said. “My dad is one of the toughest people you’d ever meet. He’d walk through a wall for you.
“But nobody would sign up to put their brain and their body through that if they knew what the risks were.”
Janine Talley was asked what she felt the biggest points were to make about her husband’s story.
She looked up from her laptop and studied her husband. She thought for a few moments.
Janine: “What I want people to know is how much he loved being a Buffalo Bill and how difficult it was to leave the team.”
Darryl: “Oooooooo ...”
Janine: “Darryl offered to play for the veteran minimum wage.”
Darryl: “Because I didn’t want to leave. The man is dead now, but [former Bills General Manager] John Butler said he offered me a contract, and he didn’t.”
Janine: “The separation was awful for him and awful for me to watch.”
Darryl: “That sent me into a deep depression. There’s nothing in this world that I’ve seen or heard that will replace that void of playing in front of those fans.”
The Talleys agreed that it took him at least four years to get over his 1995 Bills departure.
Within that gloomy period, Janine Talley started to get frightened for her husband. One particular incident confused and scared her.
She woke up at about 3 a.m., and Darryl wasn’t in bed anymore. She searched the house yet couldn’t figure out where he was. She saw no lights on.
Eventually, she opened the door to their recreation room. In pitch blackness, Darryl sat cross-legged in front of the pool table, a glass of Jack Daniels in his hand, staring at the framed jerseys of his former teammates: Andre Reed, Hull, Smith, Thomas, Bennett.
She asked what he was doing. He didn’t answer.
Upon hearing his wife recount that story, Darryl Talley muttered, “I’ve felt that way a number of times: ‘I’m just lost.’ ”
He never was diagnosed with a concussion, but he’s no fool. Seau and Strzelczyk didn’t have documented concussions either.
So how many concussions would Darryl Talley guess he suffered? He emitted that warbling laugh again.
“Too many to count,” Talley replied. “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.”
Dr. Julian Bailes is the former neurology department chair at the Talleys’ alma mater. They have not met, but Bailes knows those flashbulbs Talley described.
Bailes is co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill. He has conducted brain autopsies on NFL players, oversaw DeLamielleure’s living CTE exams, examined Strzelczyk’s brain and sits on several sports safety boards. Bailes is chairman of the Pop Warner medical advisory committee.
“Every time you get hit and see flashing lights and you feel it in your head,” Bailes said, “that’s probably a significant subconcussion blow.”
Subconcussions are brain injuries that might not rise to the level of a diagnosed concussion. Players don’t necessarily wobble off the field or experience memory loss with a subconcussion. But the damage from repeated subconcussions can accumulate exponentially and may contribute to CTE.
The Talleys have lived in the same area for the past 17 years, but Darryl cannot remember the garbage is collected every Monday and Thursday. He cannot remember their ATM identification number, which hasn’t changed since his rookie year.
On a visit to Gabrielle Talley’s home in Birmingham, Ala., he tried to make repairs to her SUV. Each time he needed a tool, he went to her second-floor apartment to retrieve it rather than get the toolbox.
“He just doesn’t make the simple connections that come easily for the rest of us,” Gabrielle Talley said.
Depression and suicidal thoughts are common CTE characteristics.
“It’s horrible, and it has to be taken seriously,” Bailes said. “Junior Seau played football for 30 years. You think of his style of football and how he played his position. He drove off a cliff two years before he shot himself in the chest.
“It’s an extremely terrible and poignant part of the emerging CTE profile. We always worry that prior brain injury can be associated with an increased incidence of suicide later in life.”
Seau shot himself in the chest two years ago, preserving his brain for examination. A year earlier, Dave Duerson killed himself the same way and left directions in a suicide note for his family to donate his brain.
Seau and Duerson had experienced failed businesses, memory loss, abrupt mood swings, angry outbursts and other issues the Talleys can identify.
Darryl Talley admitted an especially dark moment while a guest at the 2002 Pro Bowl. Miserable over how much he missed football, he considered jumping off the balcony at the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel.
In explaining why he wouldn’t kill himself now, Talley emphasized over and again that he’s not a “coward.” Upon reflection, he regretted using that word and took it back. He didn’t want to disparage anyone’s memory or offend their families.
“I think he needs to look at suicide prevention,” Duerson’s widow, Alicia Duerson, said from her home in the Chicago area. “If he’s ever done some study on that or dealt with anybody who’s lost a loved one, it’s not about being a coward.
“It’s someone who’s in agony and pain and can’t deal with it anymore. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to take your own life.”
Alicia Duerson paused for a moment before rushing off the phone.
“People who commit suicide are not cowards,” she said. “I just ... I don’t know. I’m sorry. I can’t talk right now. I have to go.”
Failure and denial
Darryl and Janine Talley tried to prepare for NFL retirement the prudent way. They saved money while he played. Their goal merely was to keep working, make enough money to exist, send their daughters to private school and then pay for their college educations.
“I didn’t play golf every day, chase hos up and down the street or do drugs,” Darryl Talley said.
What he initially wanted to do was serve as a Bills assistant coach. He said he called owner Ralph Wilson to inquire about an entry-level job but was told the Bills don’t hire former players. Alex Van Pelt and Pete Metzelaars later became Bills assistants while Wilson was alive.
Darryl Talley in August 1999 purchased Sentry Barricades, a business that handled traffic signage and detour control for emergencies, construction sites, road closures and the like.
Even though Talley was coping with depression and physical decline, Sentry Barricades grew to 17 employees.
The economy ravaged Sentry Barricades in 2008. Some clients went bankrupt. Not only did those contracts evaporate, but so too did the money they owed Talley’s company.
Janine Talley said he tapped his 401k and bought out his NFL pension at 25 percent value to salvage Sentry Barricades, but they still couldn’t honor their vendors or make payroll.
“My dad’s work ethic and perseverance is what you see in children’s books and people tell myths about,” Gabrielle Talley said. “But he couldn’t do anything to save the business even though he kept trying.
“He couldn’t get it to work and feels that he’s let everyone down.”
Most heartbreaking to Darryl and Janine was cashing in their daughters’ college funds.
“Do you know how humbling that was?” Janine Talley said. “At this point in our lives, we thought we probably would be retired, golfing and have enough financial security to travel, visit our girls, be able to buy a vehicle when one broke down.
“That’s not the way it’s played out. I don’t see at our age where things are going to get any better.”
The Talleys couldn’t afford to attend Reed’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last August. Just as Smith, Thomas and Bennett helped with the rent and some of Gabrielle’s college, they picked up the tab to get the Talleys there.
Smith is paying for the Talleys’ health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
The NFL’s all-time sacks leader has reached out to the Bills to get Talley some help but came away disillusioned with the team’s indifference.
“I’ve had a conversation or two, and I’ll just leave it at that,” Smith said. “I was somewhat optimistic, but there was no follow up. That was the disappointment,”
Smith declined to divulge names or specifics about the Bills’ lack of response.
“For someone to be so loyal to his previous employer,” Smith said, “for someone who gave his all to their organization, to see the lack of support is just very concerning. It’s sad.
“There should have been a lot more help than is being presented to him. It’s imperative we do whatever we can to make sure this does not end up as a tragic story of someone who was beloved by players, coaches, fans.”
The Bills declined to comment on Smith’s frustrations. Smith conceded the Bills could be in an awkward spot by assisting one former player but not all of them.
Then Smith rattled off a handful of times when Talley played hurt or came back from surgery seemingly faster than possible for the Bills.
“If that doesn’t show your allegiance and commitment to the organization, I don’t know what does,” Smith said. “Darryl wanted to help the team win.
“Once a player is done playing, the team pretty much washes their hands clean so they don’t have issues with retired players. From my standpoint, though, there’s something that should be done in this circumstance.”
Darryl Talley isn’t a fan of all this sympathy and charity.
He doesn’t want it, but he knows his family needs it.
“To rely on somebody else to help you? It hurts like you don’t want to believe,” Darryl Talley said. “You can lay in the bed and cry thinking about it. It drives at you. It eats at you.
“Not to be able to do whatever you want to do mentally or physically, you have a dignity ... It’s very disheartening. But I want to see my kids get old. That’s the only reason I’m here. Other than that, there’s nothing.”
His hands cradled his forehead then slumped hard onto the wicker chair’s armrests. Janine Talley watched from the couch across from him.
“I’ve used up most of my useful life,” he continued. “The part that hasn’t been used up doesn’t look like it can be too useful.
“It’s going to be a pain in the ass. Getting old is not for sissies, but what drives me nuts is the NFL doesn’t think it has anything to do with it.”