Aspiring defensive backs don’t want to be known as soft. They don’t want to be billed as tentative. They don’t want to be pushed around.
Players that roam the secondary want to be tough, intimidating, and fierce. Jack “The Assassin” Tatum was the first of that kind. Tatum died Tuesday at the age of 61, but his impact on the game of football will live in the history books.
The following are the five most significant, but not necessarily important or memorable, moments in Jack Tatum’s football career.
After he was drafted with the 19th pick in the 1971 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders, Tatum eventually became the starting free safety his rookie year.
He made his presence known in his very first game against the Baltimore Colts. By the end of the game, Tatum’s vicious hits had knocked out Colts tight ends John Mackey and Tom Mitchell.
Tatum famously said in his 1980 book They Call Me Assassin, "I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault."
The stage is a 1972 AFC Divisional playoff game between the Los Angeles Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers trailed the Raiders 7-6, facing fourth-and-10 on their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw, under pressure from the Raider defense, threw in the direction of halfback John “Frenchy” Fuqua.
Tatum smashed into Fuqua, sending the ball backwards several yards. Steelers fullback Franco Harris caught the ball just before it hit the ground and ran it in for the game-deciding touchdown.
The catch was ruled legal because the ball appeared to hit Tatum and not Fuqua. The Raiders lost 12-7.
If it wasn’t for Ohio State assistant coach Lou Holtz, Tatum might never have made the switch to defensive back for the Buckeyes.
Originally recruited as a running back, Holtz convinced Woody Hayes to switch Tatum to defensive back during Tatum’s freshman year.
The rest is history.
Not only did Tatum cover the opposing team’s best wide receiver, he occasionally played linebacker due to the shockingly physical nature of his hits, which were more than enough to bring down opposing fullbacks and tight ends.
Tatum was All-Big Ten from 1968-1970. In 1969 and 1970 he was a unanimous All-American, and in 1970 he was selected as National Defensive Player of the Year.
The Buckeyes were 27-2 in Tatum’s three seasons in Columbus and won the national championship in 1968.
In 2001, Jim Tressel created the “Jack Tatum Hit of the Week Award,” given to the best defensive hit of the game.
In Super Bowl XI against the Minnesota Vikings, Tatum came up with one of the biggest hits in Super Bowl history.
Vikings rookie receiver Sammy White came sprinting off the line of scrimmage and immediately broke left into the middle of the field just past the 50-yard line.
As he hauled in the football, White turned his head around just in time for his eyes to get a front row seat of Jack Tatum’s shoulder pads laying into his helmet.
Tatum’s hit simultaneously popped off White’s headgear, sending it spiraling into the air and creating a lasting Super Bowl memory. The Raiders won the game 32-14.
Tatum’s most famous hit came in a game that didn’t matter. But the hit’s repercussions would have lifelong effects on both players involved.
During a preseason game in 1978 between the Raiders and the New England Patriots, Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley was running a crossing pattern and leaped for the pass. Tatum brutally collided with him in the air.
The force of the hit fractured two vertebrae in Stingley’s neck and left him partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound for the rest of his life.
Tatum never apologized for the legal hit. He and Stingley never reconciled before Stingley’s death in 2007.
However, in They Call Me Assassin, Tatum wrote, “When the reality of Stingley’s injury hit me with its full impact, I was shattered. To think that my tackle broke another man’s neck and killed his future.”