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Original Issue

Ruling the Roost

Darryl Talley has nurtured his Bills defensive mates while lifting his play to Pro Bowl level

On a summer night 10 years ago, Darryl Talley got his dream car—a beat-up, engine-dead 1975 Porsche 914—up and running after spending weeks working on it at his parents' home on the cast side of Cleveland. The next day he would take the car to be painted, but now, just after midnight, all Talley wanted to do was drive it. So he and a buddy climbed in and took off. And it felt good.

So good and so relaxing, in fact, that Talley fell asleep at the wheel while doing about 65 on 1-77 south of Cleveland. The best he can figure it, the car left the road, ran up a steep, rocky hill and began to roll over sideways. Talley woke up in mid-roll. Keeping his left hand on the steering wheel, he shot his right arm across his friend's chest like a shoulder restraint, pinning the guy back against the seat.

Down the hill they tumbled, turning over two or three times, the Porsche's roll bar keeping them from being crushed. The car hit a guardrail, flipped hood over trunk and landed right side up. Talley's face looked as if a fighter had just used it for a speed bag; the facial cuts would require 22 stitches. His friend, suitably restrained by Talley, was unhurt. The car was DOA.

Last week Talley tried to explain why, when the Porsche was in mid-roll, he had the presence of mind to think of his friend. "I don't know," Talley said. Then he shrugged. "I just did what I did. 1 guess all 1 could think about was to make sure he was O.K."

Even now, as a two-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker for the Buffalo Bills, Talley, 31, tends to look out for his friends more than for himself. Rather than beat his chest and fight for a chunk of the media attention bestowed on a team laden with stars, he sits back and talks up his immensely talented teammates. A nine-year pro and one of the senior members of the Bills, Talley is well suited for his role as the defense's resident mother hen.

While Talley genuinely believes all of his teammates are swell guys, defensive end Bruce Smith is his favorite. "He's just like a brother to me," Talley says, and then he goes on and on, more like a mom than a brother, stopping just short of pulling out baby pictures.

There was the time Smith was long overdue to join Talley and a visitor at an Italian restaurant near downtown Buffalo. After an hour the 6'4", 235-pound Talley started to seethe. Frightening sight. When Smith finally showed, the doting mom turned into the chastising mom. "Where were you?" Talley demanded. "We've been waiting for you for an hour, you big fat-ass!"

Patrons stared at them.

"Sorry," Smith said, seeming truly so. "Really. I had to stop to get a haircut, and it just took a long time."

"Yeah, you're sorry," Talley said, mocking Smith. "Real sorry, you stupid fat-ass!"

Talley raged at him awhile longer, and then they lapsed into storytelling, poking all kinds of fun at each other. It's a jock thing, you see. It's the aggressive, off-color way Talley treats his friends, his way of bonding with them.

It is difficult to measure Talley's total worth to the Bills, because a large part of his contribution is the way he motivates and guides teammates. He was a particularly inspirational figure in Buffalo's 10-7 win over the Denver Broncos for the AFC championship, stalking the sideline between Denver's possessions, slapping teammates' heads and screaming in their faces to keep up their intensity.

On the field his most valuable play, other than a sack of Gary Kubiak for a 10-yard loss, may have been when he pulled Bills nosetackle Jeff Wright out of a scuffle near the line of scrimmage on Denver's first possession. Talley grabbed Wright with one hand and pushed him into the defensive huddle. When Wright jawed at him, Talley screamed, "Shut up! Keep your head! It's too big a game! We can't do it without you!" Wright said later he had figured Talley would be the one to pull him away. "Darryl's our anchor," Wright said. "I'm glad he was there for me."

Talley has been there for the Bills since the bad old days, surviving 2-14, 2-14 and 4-12 seasons until things got better in 1987, Marv Levy's first full season as Buffalo's coach. In playing the right side, Talley lines up behind Smith, the NFL defensive player of the year in 1990, and opposite left outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett, a Pro Bowl player three of the last four years.

The Bills' second-round pick in the '83 draft, Talley considered himself to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player as far back as 1986, and he blamed his lack of recognition in those days on his playing on bad teams. During the 1990 season he was moved to tape the words RODNEY'S HERE—as in Rodney (I Get No Respect) Dangerfield—over his locker-room nameplate.

"Sometimes Darryl's fought two evils," says Bills defensive coordinator Walt Corey. "He's fought the opponent, and he's fought the fact he wants to be in the Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas, Cornelius Bennett echelon. I'd compare him with Andy Russell of the great Steeler teams. They had Jack Ham, who was a Hall of Fame outside linebacker, and maybe Russell didn't get the credit he deserved. But he was a great linebacker, like Darryl is."

Talley's help in elevating the games of Smith and Bennett has made them key factors in the Bills' overall success. And Buffalo's back-to-back marches to the Super Bowl have drawn attention to Talley, who is finally getting his due, as evidenced by his selection to the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons. Ironically, though, Smith's being sidelined most of this season because of knee surgery has provided the impetus for what Corey calls Talley's best year as a pro. Taking up the slack caused by Smith's absence, Talley finished second on the team in tackles and tied for the team lead in interceptions, with five. In fact he finished the regular season having intercepted a pass, forced a fumble or recovered a fumble in nine straight games. "I think I proved I'm not a good linebacker just because I have Bruce playing in front of me," Talley says.

The leadership skills Talley provides the Bills were honed during his college days, from 1978 to '82, at West Virginia. "When I became one of the older players there, we really tried to have a family feeling," he says. "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Listen to Bennett tell his story about coming to the Bills in an October 1987 trade after being a rookie holdout with the Indianapolis Colts: "I land at the airport in Buffalo, and I see Bruce Smith, who was there to pick up somebody. Bruce welcomes me to Buffalo and he says, 'If you need anything, go see Darryl Talley.' So I go to practice the next week, and I'm lost. I'm looking at the playbook one day and thinking, There's no way I can learn all of this. Darryl sees me, and he says, 'Put the playbook away. Too late for that now. You'll have to wait until training camp to learn that stuff. I'll teach you what you need to know.' "

Talley became Bennett's pro football interpreter, sitting next to the prize rookie in team meetings every day, whispering explanations of the assignments to him. During games, when defensive huddles broke, Talley would remind Bennett of his assignment if he appeared confused. On audibles they had a crude system of hand signals. It all worked. Despite playing in only eight games, Bennett finished fifth on the team in tackles. "I owe him a lot," says Bennett.

And so does Smith, who figures he might not have become such a formidable pass rusher were Talley not playing behind him and serving as a second pair of eyes. Using both voice and hands, Talley signals Smith to make adjustments before the snap. They started rooming together early in Smith's career, and Talley became Smith's mentor. On nights before games, they discuss what stunts they think will work the next day and how they'll try to confuse the guard and tackle lined up across from them. At least that's what they do before the snoring starts. "He snores so loud that the panes rattle," Talley says of his roomie. "I had to do something to get back at him, so I learned to snore too." Brothers will be brothers.

Talley and his real sibling John, a backup tight end with the Cleveland Browns who is four years younger than Darryl, learned a valuable football lesson from their dad, John Sr., a former foundry worker and semipro player in Cleveland. "I always stressed team to them, not individual accomplishment," John Sr. says. "And Darryl does have some of that mother hen in him, in how he does things that are always for the team's good."

And he had better keep it up on Sunday in the Bills' Super Bowl showdown with the Redskins. "The most important thing against Washington," Talley says, "is playing the run. They've got one of the biggest and one of the best lines in the NFL. Everybody talks about last year's Super Bowl being the best one. Uh-uh. This one'll be more intense, I guarantee you. A head-banger. We'll need every guy on this defense to stop 'em."

It doesn't sound as if he's going to fall asleep at the wheel.



In his role as mother hen, the veteran Talley took Bennett (97) and Smith under his wings.