MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – During his senior year of high school, linebacker Darryl Talley wrote letters and made phone calls to all of the big Midwestern schools looking for a football scholarship.
None of them were returned.
Well, 33 years later, Talley is one of 14 players and two coaches being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He is just the sixth from West Virginia University to be elected as a player, and the 12th overall.
“I think it’s a tremendous honor,” said Talley, who now resides in Orlando, Fla. “To have that feather in your cap is really a wonderful, wonderful thing to have. Think about how many guys play college football. How many kids have come to West Virginia? To be honored is something really special.”
Talley’s class will be officially introduced at the National Football Foundation Awards Dinner on Dec. 6, 2011 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, and the official enshrinement is tentatively scheduled to take place during the summer of 2012.
Talley became a consensus All-American at West Virginia University in 1982 before embarking upon a long and successful career in the NFL, spending 12 seasons in Buffalo and two more in Atlanta and Minnesota before retiring in1996.
“I don’t think there were that many guys who played as long as I did at the level that I did,” Talley said.
Back in 1978, when he was a senior at Shaw High in East Cleveland, Ohio, professional football stardom and the College Football Hall of Fame almost seemed beyond reach.
“I broke my ankle my senior year of high school and I only played three games, and in two of them, I made every tackle,” Talley said. “One coach asked me, ‘Where have you been all year, son? You can run!’ I’m like, ‘No I can’t. I’m actually kind of slow now because I just came off a broken ankle.’ He said, ‘You’re running like that with a broken ankle?’ I said yeah.”
Assistant coach Gary Stevens recruited Northeastern Ohio for West Virginia, and at that time, the Mountaineers were desperate for good football players – even undersized ones with bum ankles like Talley.
“He was recruited, but they didn’t see what I saw in the guy,” Stevens recalled. “They weren’t pounding after him. I pounded after him. He could run like crazy. All you had to do was watch him. I studied every film and I said, ‘This kid is going to make it as a player.’ It turned out he was.”
Talley still recalls some sound advice Stevens once gave him.
“He said, ‘Darryl, I don’t care what they tell you, just get the man on the ground. I don’t care how he gets there – just get him on the ground!’” Talley said.
Talley managed to do that like few others, accumulating 484 career tackles, 28 tackles for losses and 19 sacks while picking off five passes during his outstanding four-year career playing for coaches Frank Cignetti and Don Nehlen. He had phenomenal games against Maryland and Boston College as a senior in 1982, and a career-high five TFL performance in the freezing rain at Mountaineer Field during a close loss to Penn State as a sophomore in 1980.
But it was the Pitt game up in Pittsburgh, playing against the second-ranked Panthers on ABC that really showcased Talley’s terrific all-around skills to a national audience. He was everywhere that afternoon, intercepting passes, blocking punts for touchdowns and spending nearly the entire game in the Panther backfield. Most agree that was the game that led him down the path toward consensus All-America honors.
But the two games that really stood out to Talley - and the ones he believes were responsible for turning him into the great player he became - were his first career start against Richmond in 1979, and the Oklahoma game in 1982 when West Virginia came back from an early deficit to upset the ninth-ranked Sooners.
“The Richmond game was the first one that I started and I was out of breath; I was exhausted,” Talley laughed. “At halftime they had me breathing in a brown paper bag and drinking Coke trying to get some carbon dioxide into my body because I was hyperventilating.”
Three years later, the Oklahoma game proved to be the turning point not only for Darryl Talley’s football career, but also Mountaineer football as a national program to be reckoned with.
“I was on the team that went to Oklahoma and got beat 52-10,” Talley recalled. “So when we go out there again in ’82, I’m playing with a temperature of 102 and it’s hotter than that out there on the field. I remember coming to the sidelines and I could barely hold my head up.”
When he reached the sideline Talley’s best friend, linebacker Dennis Fowlkes, lit into him.
“Who the hell are you?” Fowlkes yelled. “This ain’t the Darryl Talley that I know!”
Talley, feeling weak and fatigued, looked up at Fowlkes and told him that he was lucky he was even out there on the field playing that afternoon the way he was feeling.
“He just looked at me, shook his head, and he told me I had to play better than that,” Talley said. “I’m like, ‘OK, from this point forward it’s going to be hell for everybody to pay.’”
There were other moments as well.
Shortly after Don Nehlen took the job at West Virginia in 1979, he was handed a picture taken of Talley who appeared to be asleep on the bench during a game.
“The picture doesn’t tell you if he was sleeping, but his eyes were closed and his legs were hanging out,” Nehlen said.
Also, whenever the linebackers were tired they would usually ask Talley to lead the dummy drills because they knew he would knock the bags everywhere, giving them enough time to catch their breath while they were being reset.
“I used to tear through those bags,” Talley laughed.
The coach who really tapped into Talley’s deep reservoir of talent and got the most out of him was Bob Simmons. It was Simmons who taught Talley the basic skills he needed to eventually become an all-pro linebacker.
“Bob Simmons, who was from East Cleveland and went to my high school, he became my coach and he told me, ‘Look, we’re going to teach you to use your hat and your hands.’ I’m like, ‘Ok, we’ll try it.’ Well, he drew a line up against a wall and he had me practice hitting my hands up against that wall while keeping my body low, because I was tall and I was gangly," Talley said.
“I was a forearm player beforehand, and he taught me to use my hands and my hat. He taught me how to explode into people and get off of them,” Talley continued. “He taught me how to read steps, lead the hat, get my hands on him, step with him, and stay under him. That is where I got all my technique from. Then, I got stronger and after that, it was just a matter of going out and playing football.”
It turns out Darryl Talley did that better than most. West Virginia University’s College Football Hall of Fame Inductees
Fielding Yost, Coach, 1951
Ira Errett Rodgers, Player, 1953
Clarence Spears, Coach, 1955
Joe Stydahar, Player, 1956
Greasy Neale, Coach, 1967
Sam Huff, Player, 1980
Bruce Bosley, Player, 1982
Ben Schwartzwalder, Coach, 1982
Don Nehlen, Coach, 2005
Bobby Bowden, Coach, 2006
Major Harris, Player, 2009
Darryl Talley, Player, 2011Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik