The Jack Tatum hit that paralyzed Darryl Stingley was neither illegal nor intentionally dirty. But when Stingley died last week, it was characterized that way by writers who did not see the game.
I was at the game between the Raiders and New England Patriots in Oakland on Aug. 12, 1978. It’s fair to say that nobody there thought it was unusual when Tatum hit Stingley on a crossing pattern, causing him to drop a pass.
There was no penalty on the play and no discussion by officials. It was only when Stingley didn’t get up and had to be taken off the field on a stretcher that we realized that he might be seriously injured.
In the years since, the legend was built that Tatum was intentionally trying to injure Stingley. Some of the most respected writers in the business have repeated it. But it is simply not true.
Tatum brought this on himself with an ill-advised book titled, “They Call Me Assassin.” In the autobiography, he says, “I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.”
Neither the title nor the words were actually Tatum’s. I talked to Tatum many times in the ’70s, both in formal interviews and in casual conversations, as a beat writer for the Raiders and then as a columnist. He never talked that way. In person, he was soft-spoken, shy, modest. He never bragged about his accomplishments, which were considerable. He certainly never claimed to be trying to injure opposing players.
There have been many athlete “autobiographies” in which the athlete’s contribution is no more than lending his name to the operation. Remember whenDarryl Strawberry said he was misquoted in his autobiography? Tatum probably had little connection to the book that bore his name.
The fallout from that book has haunted him since, though. He might have been considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame because he had a great career, but his name has never been brought up.
Pro football at that time and in many years before it was a much rougher game than it is now. In the ’70s, Jerry Rice could never have run his signature play, the slant across the middle, which he turned into a long gain with his running ability. Any receiver who came into the middle against linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Willie Lanier, Ray Nitschke and Jack Lambert got leveled by a forearm across the throat. And that was perfectly legal.
The Raiders’ defensive backs were a rugged group. George Atkinson broke the nose of New England tight end Russ Francis in a playoff game and nobody thought anything of it. The rivalry between the Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers was especially violent. Referring to the Raiders, Steelers coach Chuck Noll said there was a “criminal element” in the NFL. Atkinson’s lawyer — Willie Brown in his pre-politician days — filed a suit against Noll.
But Tatum was never regarded as anything but a very good, very tough safety until the tragic hit on Stingley.
Stingley’s career was on the rise at the time of that game, and he seemed to have a bright future. Instead, he had to spend the rest of his life, nearly 30 years, in a wheelchair, a heart-rending story.
But unfairly vilifying Jack Tatum does nothing for Stingley — then or now.
Tatum is not a villain.