When asked about Darryl Talley, most football fans remember the All-Pro linebacker, often decked out in his signature Spiderman printed spandex undershirt, as a standout member of the Buffalo Bills defense. He helped guide the franchise to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990’s.
But folks who followed Talley’s college days at West Virginia University remember him not as an NFL great, but as an outspoken leader on Mountaineer defenses. He helped take the program from five straight losing seasons, to consecutive nine-win seasons and back-to-back bowl appearances.
This year Talley is on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame. His induction would help further cement his legacy as one of the most dynamic linebackers to ever play at the college level.
WVU stumbled upon Talley in 1978 during a recruiting trip to evaluate some of the top talent in the Cleveland area. “I broke my ankle during summer conditioning going into my senior year, and I was only able to play in three games. At the time I had some other D-I offers, but I wasn’t highly recruited,” remembers Talley, according to Metro News. “WVU assistant coach Gary Stevenson was there to recruit some other kids. I later found out he was from the Cleveland area as well.”
Even though the visit wasn’t intended for him, Talley made quite an impression on the coach from his hometown. “In those three games we played against two of the top teams in the state. During those games I made every tackle on the field, literally. So after the game he came and visited me, and I learned that he was recruiting a bunch of other guys from my area as well.”
“He extended an offer to come visit, and when I got there I met a bunch of other guys from my area. Some were also visiting and some were already on the team. One of the guys was Delbert Fowler who grew up four miles away from me. I enjoyed my visit to Morgantown and I immediately knew I wanted to come, he said, ‘We’ve got a place for you.’”
It didn’t take long for the Mountaineer coaching staff to realize that they had a great deal of potential in Talley. “After my arrival he said they were going to redshirt me because they thought I had a chance of becoming a four-year starter. The following spring I earned the starting job as a redshirt freshman,” said Talley.
But 1980 brought with it great change to the football program at West Virginia University. That season the Mountaineers unveiled their new stadium and ushered in a new head football coach.
“When Coach (Frank) Cignetti left and Don Nehlen came in I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, I’m in trouble now.’ Here I was—a redshirt freshman who had just earned a starting job—then here comes a new coach.”
“But he came in from the beginning saying, ‘Look, you are all my guys now,’ and I was like ‘What?’ I couldn’t believe it. His saying was, ‘It doesn’t matter what you did before, it matters what you do from this day forward.’ He treated us like he recruited each and every one of us, and that was a great characteristic that he possessed.”
Shortly after Nehlen’s arrival Talley was faced with another transition, a slight change in position that would allow him to showcase one of his greatest assets, his speed.
“(Assistant Coach) Bob Simmons moved me from inside to outside (linebacker), he taught me how to use my hands and that was a game changer. It allowed me to use my speed to run people down. I love nothing more than to catch somebody who thought they were faster than me so I could flat out knock the dog-snot out of them.”
“I used to thrive on the idea that I could run as fast as the wide receivers because when I came out of high school I ran a 9.8 [100 meters], anyone else who ran close to that was a receiver or defensive back. They used to always try to outrun me, and I just used to say to myself, ‘You can’t out run me, I will catch you.’ It was always me playing with a chip on my shoulder because I viewed it as if they were trying to beat me, and as long as they were trying to beat me I was not going to allow that to happen.”
One team that was able to beat Talley, and WVU, was their arch rival Pitt. The Panthers were able to beat West Virginia in each of Talley’s four years as a Mountaineer, due in large part to the play of their star quarterback, Dan Marino.
“Oh my, you want to talk about a love/hate relationship,” Talley says now with a hardy laugh when asked about Marino. “We actually enjoy each other now and we have a good time when we see one another, but when we played against each other in college I tried to do everything in my power to beat him, but I could never get it done.”
“When they would come to Morgantown we would have them on the ropes, then the next thing you know Danny would do something and we would lose the game.”
At the time the “Backyard Brawl” was no ordinary rivalry game for Talley, it was about him proving himself as a player.
“Back then we would have battles because they had two linebackers, Ricky Jackson and Hugh Green, which were pretty good in their own right. I knew I was playing at the same level as those guys and I wanted to prove it. That was what motivated me to go above and beyond what I had to do. Whatever it took to get the job done, that’s what I was going to do.”
He certainly got the job done during his time at WVU.
Talley left West Virginia as the all-time leading tackler, recording 489 stops. In 1982 he was selected as West Virginia's third-ever consensus All-American. That season in a game against Pitt, Talley intercepted a Dan Marino pass to set up a Mountaineer field goal, blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown, all in a losing effort.
During his junior campaign he was also named AP All American, 3rd team and AP All East, 1st Team. That season he was also named Sports Illustrated Player of the Week for his 15 tackles against Boston College. Talley's five tackles for a loss against Penn State still stands as a single-game record at WVU.
At the completion of Talley’s college career in 1983, he participated in the Hula Bowl and was drafted in the second round by the Buffalo Bills.
Talley played in the NFL for 14 seasons, playing in four Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls. During his career on the Bills he never missed a game in 12 seasons, while becoming their franchise leader in tackles with 1,137 take-downs.
During his NFL career Talley reached the pinnacle for which all players strive, but despite all of his professional success, the college game will always remain close to his heart.
“WVU was a great place to go to school, and I made a lot of lifelong bonds there. I got to meet guys from all over the country. They are all still friends of mine and we all still keep in close contact. When I get to see one of the guys in person it’s like seeing a long lost brother. We can sit down and talk about the experiences that we both went through together.”
“I had not seen [former WVU RB] Robert Alexander since he played with the Rams, until I saw him at the bowl game this year. Now we have been talking again consistently just like we had never separated. Those kinds of relationships are what you will never forget. We check in on each other, we care about each other. It’s just like a family, a football family.”
Induction into the College Football Hall of Fame would be the perfect way for Talley to cap such a remarkable collegiate career.
“I think it’s a tremendous honor to be mentioned or selected for the College Football Hall of Fame. I think it would be a huge feather in my cap to say the least. When you think of all of the many great collegiate players who have played the game it is truly one of the ultimate honors.”