By Jennifer Poff Cooper, contributing writer
From his high school days to his present role as a mentor to high school student-athletes, Dennis Haley has lived his dream. Now he’s giving back to the game.
Now a resident of Christiansburg, the Salem native helps youngsters train and provides advice to young football players like he once was, recalling that “it took a lot of people” to help him get to the pinnacle of his sports career. Haley loves seeing these boys develop from eighth grade up, and helping them achieve their dreams much as he achieved his.
Former Christiansburg High School head football coach Tim Cromer gave Haley an opportunity to help coach some of the Blue Demons’ best teams, and he was able to work with the likes of Brendan Motley and Zach Snell, who eventually went on to play college football at Virginia Tech. He has also worked with some kids from Blacksburg and is willing to help anyone who asks.
Growing up in Salem, Dennis was a standout football and basketball player at Salem High School. He joined the varsity team at running back during his freshman season and rushed for 3,762 yards and 63 touchdowns during his 4-year career. He also started at linebacker during his senior season, and helped lead Salem to three state championships (1996, 1998, 1999) and an overall record of 48-6. He also played on Salem’s state championship basketball team in 1999.
Such success made college recruiters take notice. This, combined with his personal attributes – his leadership ability, his understanding of what it took to be on a winning team, his size (he was 6’2” and 250 lb.), and his athletic ability – led to Haley being sought after by several college teams, including the University of North Carolina, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia. He chose UVa because he had always been a fan and had admired a number of individuals from the Roanoke area who had played for the Cavaliers, including Tiki and Ronde Barber.
During Haley’s junior year at UVA, he realized he had the ability to play at the next level – the National Football League. For one thing, he had handled fierce competition in the ACC that year. Also, having grown up wanting to play professional football, Haley put in the work required. He spent three to four months in Atlanta with his agent preparing and training for ‘pro day’ at UVA.
“You had one day to show them [the scouts] how strong and fast you were,” Haley said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Haley ended up an undrafted free agent. Being undrafted meant that he had to work “ten times harder than other players” to prove his abilities and his mindset. The results were fruitful, leading to his being signed by the New York Jets in 2005. That was the same year he married the former Kim Bishop of Christiansburg.
Haley attributes his success to his work ethic. Understanding that the work needed to be done every day and that it was not always going to be fun and exciting – but that it can lead to the desired outcome – was key.
His father was his inspiration. “He always coached my teams and was the voice of reason,” said Haley. “Not aggressive” with his advice, his father rather let Haley “live and learn.”
In 2009, Haley began playing for the Canadian Football League – first for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, then he was traded to the British Columbia Lions in 2010. The rule differences took some getting used to – such as having three instead of four downs and the longer and wider field – but the Canadians fill their stadiums just like Americans.
Said Haley, “It’s still football.”
His favorite aspects of the sport have been the brotherhood, the bond, and the opportunity to be on the field with friends who share the goal of winning championships.
The highlight of his career was being able to play in the NFL and seeing that ambition “come to full life,” Haley said. Knowing that he worked hard, that he reached that goal when not many have the opportunity, was the culmination of a dream.
After retiring from the CFL in 2011, Haley moved back to the area. He now lives in Christiansburg and works as a Continuous Improvement Manager at PepsiCo at the Gatorade facility in Wytheville.
The advice that Haley shares with these impressionable young men is about football, but also about life.
“Football is fun,” he said, “but I want to help these kids transition to the next phase of life.”