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As an offensive lineman in the NFL from 1982 to 1988, Darryl Haley saw plenty of success on the gridiron. But in his retirement, he went after a different athletic endeavor altogether: Ironman.
“Once I retired, there was a huge void. I still wanted to compete, still had that desire to challenge myself and see where I could go with it,” he said previously.
Like so many others, Haley, then 34, was first clued in to Kona via the TV broadcast—although he admitted his initial thought was that those gutting it out in the Hawaiian sun for hours and hours on end were insane.
“Never in my wildest days did I think I’d be willing to do something like that,” he said.
But the more he thought about it, the more intrigued he became. Especially with the idea that he could smash barriers in the sport the same way he busted past opponents while playing for the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, and Green Bay Packers.
“I was inspired by the challenge. But more importantly, I was aware that it was a challenge designed for a different body type, if not a different race,” he said. “As a 6’6” African-American, I knew that the physical challenges would be only one part of it.”
Indeed, Haley—who tipped the scales at around 300 pounds, 11 pounds more than the combined weight of Greg Welch and Mark Allen, who won the 1994 and 1995 Ironman world champs—met his share of hurdles en route to Kona. First, he had to learn how to swim. (“If you had a pool party,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1996, “I could make it from one end to the other. But that was about it.”) And he had to work on his endurance, something he never had to rely upon on the football field. A voracious student of the sport, Haley attended training camps and learned from the best, including Paula Newby-Fraser and Allen himself.
“Seeing a human Darryl’s size on a bike was a life changing experience,” Allen wrote in a blog post. “He was strong, super strong. And big, super big. And determined.”
With about a year of training and a few races under his belt, Haley reached the shores of Kona, Hawaii for the 1995 Ironman World Championship. (He gained entry through a special exemption from the race organization.) Clad in a purple Speedo and wearing a powder blue swim cap, he plunged into the Pacific Ocean and swam with rhythmic, assured strokes. When he exited the swim after two hours and 14 minutes—dipping just six minutes under the cut-off—the crowd chanted his name as he grinned and tossed his goggles in celebration. The support and cheers continued throughout the day: As he muscled through 112-mile bike course on a custom-built Cannondale (once more just barely making the cut-off) and as he shuffled along for 26.2 miles before crossing the line in 16 hours, 44 minutes, and 15 seconds.
Biggest Dreams (1995): In 1995, 6'5 300 lbs. former NFL Offensive Lineman Darryl Haley was the biggest to ever attempt an IRONMAN. #AnythingIsPossible #IRONMANtri #IRONMANtraining
Posted by IRONMAN now on Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Haley finished in 1,323d place, five people from dead last—but he finished. And he proved that when it comes to triathlon, size doesn’t matter. He also proved that people like rooting for the underdog, even more so when he’s a big dog.
“Darryl was a trailblazer,” said Robert Perry, who was the Ironman communications director from 1991 to 1997 and ran part of the marathon alongside Haley in 1995. “He broke the mold of what an Ironman athlete looked like and brought countless people into Ironman events who otherwise wouldn’t have looked in the mirror and dreamed they could do the race.”