When Jack Tatum passed away on July 27, 2010, most comments were appropriately respectful, speaking of Jacks ferociousness on the field and all out mentality. But I was amazed at the vitriol spewed by some, primarily referring to the 1978 preseason hit that left New England Patriots WR Darryl Stingley paralyzed.
That single incident will likely keep Jack Tatum out of the NFL Hall of Fame, though others that played with similar viciousness, and that could just as likely have caused similar injuries, have already been inducted.
In fact, despite the ferocity with which he played the game, Jack Tatum is listed as #6 on NFL Films’ list of Top Ten Most Feared Tacklers behind Dick Butkus (inducted 1979), Dick “Night Train” Lane (inducted 1974), Lawrence Taylor (inducted 1999), Ronnie Lott (inducted 2000), and Hardy Brown. He is followed by Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert (inducted 1990), Steve Atwater and John Lynch.
Even today, many playing in the defensive backfield go out of their way to be intimidating, giving any receiver going across the middle something to think about besides catching the ball. Ray Lewis, once arrested for murder, but released in exchange for his testimony, is celebrated for his hard hits and intimidation.
Playing in the NFL of the 1970’s, the Oakland Raiders were competing with many tough defensive teams—the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, L. C. Greenwood and Jack Ham. The Denver Broncos’ Lyle Alzado, Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson. The Miami Dolphins’ “No Name Defense," the Minnesota Vikings “Purple People Eaters” Alan Page, Carl Eller, and Paul Krause, the Los Angeles Rams’ Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier, Merlin Olsen, Jack Youngblood, and Fred Dryer, not to mention Dallas Cowboys’ Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro, Randy White, Harvey Martin and Ed “Too Tall” Jones.
Tough defenses were the order of the day and intimidation was then, as it is now, celebrated even when it skirts the rules.
Jack Lambert kicked opponents, Dick Butkus was known for planting ball carriers head first, and gouging and punching in the pile was considered “tough.” Jack Tatum was one of many players before and since that played with a vicious streak.
The hit on Darryl Stingley was clean, though vicious, particularly for a preseason game with no real meaning. Even Chuck Fairbanks, Patriots coach at the time, said he couldn’t find anything illegal or dirty about it. "I saw replays many, many times, and many times Jack Tatum was criticized," Fairbanks said. "But there wasn't anything at the time that was illegal about that play.”
The results were certainly unfortunate for Darryl Stingley. It was, and remains a risk of playing the game at that level. In 1991, the Detroit Lions’ Mike Utley was paralyzed from the waist down.
There have also been quite a few scares and near misses. In 2007, the Bills’ Kevin Everett suffered a career ending spinal fracture, and in 2004, the Raiders’ Rich Gannon suffered a career ending neck fracture.
Many question Tatum’s response to Stingley’s injury, believing that Tatum wasn’t apologetic enough, though in Tatum’s mind he had nothing to apologize for, since he was simply doing what he was expected to do, albeit with tragic results.
Tatum didn’t intend to paralyze Darryl Stingley, but some, particularly New England fans, believe that the viciousness of the hit in a meaningless game proves malice. It’s this perceived callousness that will keep Jack Tatum out of the Hall of Fame.
In reality, in the NFL of the 1970’s, the same result could have come from a hit by Dick Butkus or Jack Lambert. In the ‘80’s it’s just as likely to have happened being hit by Ronnie Lott or Mike Singletary.
In today’s NFL we can accept involvement in murder, strip club shootings and drugs, yet somehow not apologizing for a clean hit with an unfortunate result is considered unacceptable.