The man in the red, white and blue uniform went into the air to catch a short pass and was crushed sickeningly by the man in silver and black. The receiver crashed to the ground at Oakland Coliseum and lay unmoving. Minutes later, still motionless, he was driven away from the scene on a cart.
The date was Aug. 12, 1978, and Darryl Stingley had sustained a broken neck. He spent the next 29 years until his death April 5 of this year at age 55 as a quadriplegic — and as a reminder of just how mindlessly brutal football can be.
The man who ended Stingley’s career and nearly his life was Jack Tatum, an Oakland Raiders defensive back who was considered one of the NFL’s hardest hitters. Tatum now is 58 and in poor health because of diabetes and five amputations on his left leg, which ends just below the knee. Some might consider his physical problems just retribution for what he did to Stingley.
Decades after their fateful collision, two questions remain: Did Tatum mean to injure Stingley, and was the devastating hit illegal? True, Tatum put his head down and rammed his helmet into his victim’s chest, but such “spearing” tactics were permitted then, and no flag was thrown.
Many have denounced Tatum for performing that way in a preseason game, but this is not legitimate criticism. The only way to play football is all out, all the time — which Tatum always did. His nickname was “The Assassin,” and he gloried in his reputation as a bully, once bragging, “I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.”
Tatum also has been condemned for not apologizing or visiting Stingley during his long hospitalization. Tatum has said he felt no need to apologize because he did nothing illegal and that his attempts to visit the hospital were rebuffed by Stingley’s family.
Horror, like beauty, often is in the eyes of the beholder. The esteemed John Madden, who was Tatum’s coach at the time, described the incident this way: “There was a collision, and Darryl was in the air and put his head down a little [resulting in the broken neck]. It was an accident that happened. There was no one to fault.”
The opposing coach, Chuck Fairbanks of the Patriots agreed, saying years later, “I saw replays many, many times, and many times Jack Tatum was criticized, but there wasn’t anything about the play that was illegal. I do think probably that play was a forerunner for some of the changes in rules that exist today that are more protective of receivers, especially if there is head-to-head type contact.”
Yet former Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan, who threw the pass to Stingley, insists, “I’ve thought about [the play] over the years. … That play probably was not necessary in a game with no meaning.”
And Sports Illustrated football columnist Paul Zimmerman, aka “Dr. Z,” hung Tatum out to dry on SI.com: “In those days, players used their helmets to punish each other, and along with that philosophy went the desire to inflict maximum punishment on anyone in an unprotected or vulnerable position … which played right into Tatum’s style. … [It was] an awful, vicious hit but not uncommon in those days.”
Tatum never spoke to Stingley afterward. Reportedly, they were scheduled to meet in 1996, but Stingley backed down — figuratively, of course — after learning the session was intended to publicize Tatum’s third book. Attempts to get them together in 2004 also failed.
During Stingley’s funeral this spring in Forest Park, Ill., speakers recalled the grace with which he accepted his life-altering injury.
“People wanted to hear Darryl curse God or at least curse the man who took his dreams away,” said Rev. Edward C. Brown, Stingley’s cousin. “Darryl was a good man. He didn’t stop serving God just because he had a life of suffering and pain. … He lived a life focused on the future, not on the past.”
Fairbanks remembered Stingley this way: “He made up his mind that he was going to try to live a new life and to give things to young kids — that maybe he could help somebody and show them that you could overcome adversity.”
Tatum commented only in a pro forma statement released by the Raiders: “I am deeply saddened by the death of Darryl Stingley. … My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Before the injury, Stingley appeared poised to become one of the league’s premier wideouts. He caught 39 passes for an average gain of 16.8 yards and five touchdowns in 1977, impressive numbers at the time. Later, despite his physical handicaps, he worked as a consultant with the Patriots, visited frequently with paralyzed patients and established a foundation in Chicago to benefit inner-city youths.
“I have relived that moment over and over,” he told the Associated Press in 1988. “I was 26 years old at the time, and I remember thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ It was only after I stopped asking why that I was able to regroup and go on with my life.”
All these years later, it is impossible to determine whether Tatum or merely fate was responsible for Stingley’s catastrophic injury and early death. After all, football is an incredibly savage sport, particularly at the NFL level, and the wonder is that tragedy doesn’t strike more often.
But if we’re looking to evaluate the nature and character of the two men involved, perhaps we should consider their literary efforts.
Darryl Stingley wrote a book called “Happy to Be Alive.”
Jack Tatum wrote three books — each with the word “Assassin” in the title.