The National Football League is doing a comprehensive review of head trauma and their conclusions may change how football is played. Spectators and television viewers may appreciate the violence of football but not the true elemental level of danger. As a physician and fan, I learned this firsthand from Darryl Stingley and Jack Tatum. Tatum died this week but his legacy remains current.
Darryl Stingley was a wondrous running back from Marshall High School, in one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods. A hometown contemporary, I followed his career safely from the suburbs. Lithe and fast, Stingley escaped the mean streets of the West Side, when he was recruited to play football at Purdue. The coaches, impressed with his speed, converted Stingley to wide receiver since they had another powerful running back from inner-city Chicago, Otis Armstrong. Both went on to have a wonderful careers, Stingley as a New England Patriots first-round draft choice and top NFL receiver, Armstrong as a Denver Broncos star.
One particular college game bears mention. Stingley’s senior year, I was at Michigan Stadium with 105,000 watching, when Purdue played Michigan, then #3 in the country. An upset might give the Boilermakers a Rose Bowl berth, something unheard in the days the Rose Bowl was the exclusive domain of Michigan and Ohio State. Besides Stingley and Armstrong, Purdue had quarterback Gary Danielson (future TV announcer) and Dave Butz, future Hall of Fame lineman for the Washington Redskins.
Purdue actually outplayed Michigan but lost when Armstrong, with a clear path to the winning touchdown slipped on the artificial turf deep in Michigan territory. Without that sure touchdown, Purdue lost by three points, dashing their Rose Bowl hopes.
In high school, Jack Tatum was named one of New Jersey’s top ten defensive players of the century and went to Ohio State. The Buckeyes won a National Championship with Tatum anchoring the defense.
Tatum, a two- year All-American and 1970 College Defensive Player of the Year, had a reputation as a vicious hitter, inspiring fear in wide receivers. Not surprisingly, he became part of Al Davis’s 1970’s Oakland Raiders. Davis, a tough Brooklyn kid, molded the Raiders in his image, tough and intimidating. Tatum’s fearsome hits, and his nickname,The Assassin, burnished that image.
Tatum’s Raiders won two Super Bowls and might have won a third but for Tatum’s crushing hit on a Pittsburgh receiver causing Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception that beat Oakland in a fluke.
Stingley and Tatum’s paths crossed literally in a meaningless 1978 exhibition game when Stingley went for a pass over the middle. Tatum unleashed a savage hit on the defenseless receiver fracturing two of Stingley’s vertebra, leaving him quadriplegic. No penalty was called.
Chuck Fairbanks, the Patriots’ coach, said “I saw replays many times, and many times Jack Tatum was criticized. But there wasn’t anything at that time illegal about that play”.
“It was one of those things that happens everyone regrets,” Gene Upshaw, Tatum’s teammate said. “I know a lot of people in New England think differently, but Jack had no intention of hurting him. I saw him hit people like that lots of times. That was the way he played.” Stingley’s injury motivated Upshaw, then director of the NFL Players Association, to provide disabled players benefits.
Years later, I cared for Darryl Stingley at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The muscular athlete I remembered, now small and contorted, was wheelchair bound. Some of the kids he grew up with were there, victims of spinal trauma from neighborhood gunfire that he ironically escaped. I mentioned I followed him at Marshall, watched him at Purdue, and saw that Michigan game. He smiled perceptibly with a nod that said, “We should have won that one.” There was amazing spirit and resolve in him. He married, had children, and started a charitable foundation in Chicago.
When he learned Tatum, who never apologized, had a diabetic leg amputation after retirement, Stingley said, “You can’t, as a human being, feel happy about something like that happening to another human being, Maybe the natural reaction is to think he got what was coming to him, but I don’t accept human nature as our real nature. Human nature teaches us to hate. God teaches us to love.”
John Madden, the Raiders’ coach that day, made Stingley an honorary Raider, always to be treated as such. During Madden’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, he referred to Stingley, “We all like to see hard, aggressive play, but you always want the guy to get up.”
Before he died of paralysis complications in 2007, I saw Darryl Stingley once more at a Chicago Bulls game. Courtside in his wheelchair, he made eye contact with me in the stands. I think he mouthed “Michigan”.
Tatum played several more years after the Stingley hit, but was never the same. By most accounts, off the field he was a decent person but will always be remembered as the villain in the Stingley story. He didn’t help his cause when he wrote books describing his career as a football assassin, never showing contrition.
Although Jack Tatum has died, he will forever be linked with Darryl Stingley and everything we don’t want to acknowledge about the violent nature of football.
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