Mario Haley brings leadership, veteran attitude to Sea-Tac Cobras
When the Seattle-Tacoma Cobras huddle up thing spring, they'll have a natural leader in Mario Haley, a four-year veteran who is determined to help his teammates succeed.
Haley, a member of the all-Professional Developmental Football League team in 2009, has been with the Cobras since the beginning. He's fought through personal adversity and inspires others with his ability to captivate on and off the field.
"I've had struggle in my life," he said. "I had to grow up fast, seeing people look up to me not only in the sports way but come to me for information on how to better themselves, even though I haven't been to the very top of my career yet."
Haley, 29, originally is from Chicago but moved to Washington state when he was young. He's tightly connected with his mom and two brothers, and he starred in athletics, particularly basketball, when he was at Spanaway Lake High School in Spanaway, Wash.
But before then, his family lived in the rough Tillicum neighborhood south of Lakewood, and his mom often worked two or three jobs just to make ends meet.
He got caught up in some trouble. He became a father when he was 18. And although he may have had the skills to play basketball in college, Haley never got a chance to do it.
"My life kind of went down," he said as he attended his youngest daughter's birthday party. "I had a troubled childhood growing up. … It is my past."
Haley points to his mom and his faith as reasons he's strengthened his resolve and re-focused his life. He's been in a relationship with his longtime girlfriend for 10 years and has three children, daughters ages 11 and 8, and a 9-year-old son.
"I really started putting myself around positive people who do positive things," Haley said. "Growing up, you go through things in life. I've seen family members who say, 'Mario, you could have done better at the time.' "
He didn't have a father figure in his life. And while his mom did her best, Haley said there was one thing she couldn't really do.
"She wasn't able to show me how to be a man, but she always had those serious talks with me," he said. "She said, 'Mario, when you get to that time, you're going to do it. Stay strong, be humble and stay positive within yourself.' "
Football has been Haley's outlet. He had a two-year semipro stint that began in Tacoma as he starred with the Puget Sound Invaders, and he once recorded four sacks in a game.
"I was just a monster at that level," Haley said. "I felt like I was able to participate at the next level."
Enter the PDFL, and Haley's dreams of a professional contract are continuing. A left-handed defensive end with pass-rushing skills, the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder also can play linebacker. His personal highlight came last May in a game against the Bellingham Bulldogs as the Cobras played an independent schedule.
Late in the fourth quarter in a 28-28 tie, Haley beat the offensive tackle in front of him and chased down Bellingham quarterback Cody Oakes. He got the sack, forced a fumble, and the Cobras recovered and returned it to the 5-yard line. The Cobras scored one play later and held off the Bulldogs for the final 90 seconds to earn the win.
Later, Haley said he hurt his tailbone at the beginning of the game and played all the way through it. The injury limited his action the rest of the season.
Haley was an all-PDFL honorable mention in 2010, and he's seen the league grow to include both the American Developmental Conference on the West Coast and the National Developmental Conference on the East Coast.
"Just seeing the caliber of players come through the PDFL, it made me a better player because I didn't get a chance to see that talent, not going to college.
"I've seen players go and move on overseas, play in Holland. Some of our players had tryouts in Canada (with the Canadian Football League), and they've even been drafted out of college and went to play in the NFL in training camps.
"That's the ultimate goal," he said of the NFL. "We all want to get to that point. You have to have the dedication and strive for it. You have to be hungry for it."
Off the field, Haley works two jobs, one as a cashier at 7-Eleven, and the other as a coach with Battlefield Sports Conditioning, one of the Cobras' sponsors. He said his co-workers and peers want to see him make it.
"My leadership comes from how I carry myself," Haley said. "I've got a lot of confidence, not only going through the things I've gone through in life, but seeing my mom struggle, it made me a better person.
"My life wasn't that bad, because there are other people that had it a lot worse."
Haley said he'll continue to try to get a professional opportunity for another two years, and then he'll consider becoming a coach or a scout.
"My dream is to stay in sports, to keep myself involved with kids," he said.
And he gives a lot of credit to his girlfriend, a woman he calls his wife, even though they're not officially married.
"She saved my life," Haley said. "There's been a time when I went away, and when I came back, she was there to keep me grounded, level-minded. She keeps my hopes up.
"She's the one who got me back into church," he said. "God put her in my life for a reason. We pay her back by being a better man, a better father. I have to be better than what I did 15 years ago."
This year will be key for Haley and many other Cobras.
"I not only want to get to the next level, but I want to see my teammates do good things," he said. "It's not just about me, it's about my teammates and coaches. I want to see us get out there and make it happen as one. They're like all my brothers.
"My coaches are like the father figures I never had in my life," Haley said. "We're paving the way for fellow Sea-Tac Cobras."
By Brian McLean