MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When Darryl Talley played for the Buffalo Bills in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was plenty of star power running around up in Orchard Park.
Quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, wide receiver James Lofton and defensive end Bruce Smith are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as is coach Marv Levy.
Wide receiver Andre Reed and special teams terror Steve Tasker each made seven Pro Bowl appearances during Buffalo’s remarkable playoff run from 1989-93; linebacker Cornelius Bennett made five trips to Hawaii while linebacker Shane Conlan was voted to the game three times.
And then there was Talley, West Virginia’s newest member of the College Football Hall of Fame and Buffalo’s other linebacker, who made a pair of Pro Bowl appearances in 1990 and 1991. Talley still leads the franchise with 1,137 career tackles, averaging 120 per year during his 12 seasons with the Bills, while also producing 38 ½ sacks and 12 interceptions.
However, Talley’s early years with the organization were admittedly an exercise in futility.
“Going through five defensive coordinators in my first four years, having no continuity and having to be a guy who really had to understand the game and how it was going to be played at this level, yeah, it took a hell of a lot out of me to learn how to do it,” Talley recalled earlier this week. “But I did it.”
Indeed he did.
Kelly, who was in the same draft class with Talley at Buffalo in 1983 but chose instead to play in the USFL before joining the Bills in 1986, could sense right away that Buffalo was turning the corner with the talent owner Ralph Wilson was assembling.
“I remember the day when he was drafted right out of college in the same year I was,” Kelly said. “The Buffalo Bills were on the rise (with) what Mr. Wilson said about making sure that he brings tough, quality players into the Buffalo Bills. Darryl was the catalyst of our team. He was the one who held our defense together, and if I had to say who our three top leaders were on that team, he’d be one of them.”
Levy may have inherited Talley, but it didn’t take him long to realize what a talented player he was playing alongside defensive end Bruce Smith.
“(Talley) had great enthusiasm for the game and had superb leadership skills,” said Levy. “He was an excellent athlete and a great player. He was a bit of a character and made the game fun.”
Smith was the dominant defensive player in the AFC during Buffalo’s string of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances from 1990-93, and along with Lawrence Taylor, changed the way defensive football was played in the NFL. But Smith admits it was Talley’s unselfishness that gave him the freedom to do the things he was able to do as a pass rusher.
“The fact that he was such an unselfish player made a huge impact on me,” Smith said. “The fact that he wanted the team to be successful first; he realized that once the team was successful that he would get his just due. I think that he is a huge reason for my success.”
The Virginia Tech All-American was a few years behind Talley, but he can still recall the defensive battles the Hokies and the Mountaineers had in the early 1980s when Smith first arrived in Blacksburg in 1981 during Talley’s junior season at WVU.
“He was that
linebacker and that
player that we as younger players strived to become and strived to emulate with his finesse, his resilience, and his approach to the game,” said Smith.
Later when the two played together in the pros, Smith came to really appreciate Talley’s professionalism.
“His understanding of the different schemes we were facing, whether it was the different opponents allocating three people to block us or sending a running back or a tight end to help chip and our having to come up with schemes and devising schemes to beat those different types of blocking tactics …
“And understanding what I was taught by (Bills assistant coach) Ted Cottrell and understanding Darryl’s mentality that I would go back and study film,” Smith continued. “His trusting in me that when we executed these different games properly that we would be successful as a team, as a defensive tandem linebacker-and-defensive end.
“So that’s what made us so successful playing that right side - the outside linebacker and the defensive end spot.”
Smith said Talley’s devotion to preparation rubbed off on the other defensive players as well.
“He was a student of the game,” Smith said. “His mentality towards just understanding the game and wanting to teach younger players to stick around and be effective in this game was incredible. You had to be a student of the game in understanding and knowing your opponents’ systems, the different schemes that teams would try and use against you. It was just inspirational to me to see his approach toward the game and I think quite a bit of it rubbed off on me.”
Kelly, Smith and Levy all agree that Talley is very deserving of becoming the 12th inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame from WVU.
“Having coached a game where you experience a lot of thrills, the news of Darryl getting elected to the College Football Hall of Fame is a thrill,” said Levy. “The honor is well deserved and is something that not only West Virginia University is proud of, but Darryl should be as well.
“I can’t say how much I am thrilled that he is getting this honor,” Levy concluded.Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik