Remembering Darryl Stingley: The Player, The Hit, The Man

Terry RobinsonSenior Analyst IJuly 29, 2009

It has been called the most violent hit in NFL history.

It also has been called simply a case of bad luck in the extreme, a fluke.

It was almost certainly among the most unnecessary hits ever put on a player.

Many fans have forgotten it; others are too young to remember it.

Anyone who saw it would not, could not, forget it. I saw it, and I think about it often.

I think about it during every preseason game I watch.

I think about it every time I see a player for any team being carried off the field on a stretcher.

I think about it every time someone complains that the NFL has become “pansied down.”

I will never forget it.

Darryl Stingley was a five-year wide receiver for the New England Patriots, a member of the Class of 1973, one of the most productive drafts in Patriots history.

He was the 19th pick overall, the Patriots' third first rounder, behind John Hannah and Sam Cunningham.

He had starred at Purdue, where he initially had played in the backfield. It was not until his last year there that he switched to wide receiver.

Known for his soft hands and deep-threat potential, he had set a Boilermakers record of 18.2 yards per catch. At 6’0” and 194 pounds, he seemed to have all the tools he needed for a successful NFL career.

In New England, his work ethic and drive to excel quickly made him a fan favorite. He became known affectionately as “The Stinger.”

He was popular among his teammates, who dubbed him the unofficial team barber because he was pretty good with the scissors. He had a voice too, and loved singing Stevie Wonder songs.

In his rookie year, he played in every game and became the Patriots’ fourth-leading receiver on a team helmed by the great, if somewhat unfortunate, Jim Plunkett.

The Patriots’ quarterback was sacked 37 times that season and threw three more interceptions than touchdowns. The team finished with a 5-9 record.

The 1974 season looked good as the team started out at 5-0. Plunkett continued to struggle, however, and Stingley went down for the season with a broken arm in game five. The Patriots played to a lukewarm 7-7 finish.

Stingley returned the following year, fully recovered and bringing his blistering speed back to the attack. But Plunkett's completion percentage was worse than ever, and his sack percentage skyrocketed through the first five games.

With his team at 2-3, coach Chuck Fairbanks made a decision to bench Plunkett and bring in a promising rookie out of Kansas State, a kid by the name of Steve Grogan.

But the Patriots continued their losing ways, winding up at 3-11 by the end of a season almost too painful to watch. These Patriots were Murphy's Law in pads and cleats.

Plunkett was shipped off to San Francisco in 1976, where things weren’t much better for him.

Steve Grogan was now the Patriots’ quarterback, and Darryl Stingley was the team’s top receiver, ranking third in the NFL.

New England won the AFC East that year with a record of 11-3, the best in its brief history and a dramatic turnaround from the dismal 1975 season.

Much to the disappointment of anyone who cared, the Patriots lost to Oakland in the first round of the playoffs. The Raiders went on to win the Super Bowl.

Tennessee wideout Stanley Morgan was drafted by the Patriots in 1977, adding yet another deep threat to a team that seemed poised for success.

Stingley was the top receiver on the team again that year, but New England finished with a disappointing 9-5 record, missing the playoffs entirely.

Looking to secure the future of their often explosive passing game, in 1978 the Patriots offered Stingley a contract extension that would have made him one of the highest paid receivers in the game. He planned to sign it after the preseason.

He never got to sign that contract.

His career came to a tragic end in Oakland Coliseum on August 12, 1978, the result of a brutal hit by Raiders safety Jack Tatum, a man who was well known for playing seriously vicious football.

There is nothing wrong with playing vicious football. It is, after all, a pretty vicious game. But this hit changed a man’s life forever.

Stingley was running a slant as Grogan dropped back to fire the ball over the middle. Tatum lowered his shoulder and laid a forearm and helmet to Stingley’s face mask as the receiver lunged for a pass that would sail over his head, out of reach.

Stingley dropped to the ground, unconscious, at the Raiders’ 10-yard line. His roommate, Pro Bowl tight end Russ Francis was the first Patriot to reach Stingley’s motionless body, and it was clear to anyone watching that Francis knew right away that something was terribly wrong,

Training staff for both teams rushed onto the field to assess the situation and quickly came to the same conclusion.

The stretcher was brought out, and Stingley was carefully strapped onto it, his head secured in a stabilizing brace as he was rolled off the field.

There was an ambulance, there was tension, there was chaos.

There was no flag, however, no penalty assessed. The Hit was entirely legal at the time. Defensive backs were free to initiate this kind of contact with a receiver anywhere on the field, whether or not he had the ball.

It took some time for things to calm down on the field, but eventually the game resumed.

Darryl Stingley’s life as he had known it did not.

The Stinger never walked again. The hit had crushed and dislocated two vertebrae in his neck, severely damaging his spinal cord. He was rendered quadriplegic and would spend his remaining years in a wheelchair.

During Stingley's three months in a California hospital, Oakland coach John Madden was an almost daily visitor. Madden was reportedly devastated by what had occurred, and he and Stingley remained close for years.

The late Gene Upshaw, who was playing for the Raiders in that game, also came to know Stingley well. In his eventual role as executive director of the NFLPA, Upshaw pushed for owners to provide compensation for players who were disabled as a result of the occupational hazards of professional football.

Thanks to Upshaw’s efforts, Stingley eventually was awarded $48,000 a year.

For their part, the Patriots’ organization unsuccessfully tried to cancel Stingley’s health insurance, typical of the Sullivans. In the end. however, they paid his medical bills and kept him on the payroll.

Tatum apparently was not inclined to be apologetic or otherwise helpful. From his perspective, it was a clean hit, requiring no apology.

Technically, he was right.

But given that the injury took place in a completely irrelevant preseason game, many Patriots fans felt that there was no justification for the kind of hit he had put on Stingley.

Does the importance of a game make a difference in how it is approached by players?

It is safe to say that it does now, as players are more aware of the consequences of a tough hit in an inconsequential game.

But the professional football of Tatum’s era was played in a different universe. The rules were much looser for defenders, and men like Tatum were encouraged by coaches, owners and fans to make a statement on every play.

And men like Stingley were encouraged to run slants into the jaws of the most feared secondary on the planet.

Today, The Hit likely would result in a penalty, maybe an ejection and a fine, possibly even a suspension. But we can't very well judge Tatum by today’s standards.

Maybe we should thank him for his role in bringing about much-needed change in the rules of the game.

After his hospital stint, Stingley was transferred to a rehabilitation facility in his hometown of Chicago, where he began the long and painful journey toward whatever recovery was possible. Over time, physical therapy helped him to regain some minor movement in his right hand, enough to manage the controls of his motorized wheelchair.

But he had more than his physical condition to cope with. He was bitter about what had happened, and he held a grudge against Tatum for years. At age 26, he had seen his dream crumble before his eyes, and he couldn’t stop wondering why me?

He and his wife, high school sweetheart Tina, had separated, which he said in one interview was more traumatic than his injury.

Ultimately, it was his spirituality that pulled him through. In 1983, Stingley published a book, Happy To Be Alive, in which he wrote of his prayers to forgive Tatum and to get on with his life somehow.

He would later speak publicly of his forgiveness, adding that it was only after he was able to stop asking why me? that he began to live again.

It was a prayer answered.

Stingley settled into a life of helping himself by visiting hospitals to counsel paralyzed patients.

He and Tina reconciled.

He was again involved in football, working as a scouting consultant for the Patriots. He was even able to attend Super Bowl XX, dreadful as it was for the Patriots.

He completed his Purdue degree from his bed.

He started the Darryl Stingley Youth Foundation in his old neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.

Life went on. Somehow.

Though Tatum never apologized to Stingley, he has said that he tried repeatedly to contact Stingley to arrange a meeting and was turned down.

His only verifiable effort to speak with Stingley privately occurred while the paralyzed player was still in the hospital. Tatum was turned away by the family.

Tatum retired from football in 1980 and published a book, They Call Me Assassin, in which he confirmed that he never considered an apology because he was just doing what he was paid to do. The book was really more an indictment of the glorification of violence in professional football than an autobiography.

The book made a bit of a splash at the time, a splash that quieted down as many of us recognized our collective role in the culture of violence that was and is the NFL.

And while we were feeling a little hypocritical, Tatum clearly was a man in serious conflict with himself.

He wrote of his ongoing anguish about what had happened that night in 1978, while at the same time referring to his best hits as "bordering on felonious assault." 

And in interviews he said that he took offense to the fact that the Raiders had been tagged as the "criminal element" of the NFL.

Would the real Jack Tatum please stand up?

Following his retirement, his former coach and some teammates spoke of the change in Tatum after The Hit, saying that he never approached the game as aggressively again.

John Madden went so far as to say that Tatum seemed to withdraw into a shell after The Hit.

Maybe that was the real Jack Tatum.

But a few years later, Tatum wrote another book, They Still Call Me Assassin.

In 1996, Stingley accepted Tatum's invitation to meet in what he originally perceived as a televised reconciliation.

Stingley cancelled the meeting when he learned through a trusted friend in the press that he was really being lured to promote Tatum's third book, Final Confessions of NFL Assassin. 

In the end, the two never spoke together of the game that changed both their lives forever.

The true measure of Stingley's character came about in 2003, when complications of Tatum's diabetes resulted in the partial amputation of one leg.

Many of us, myself included, would have said, That's what you get, tough guy. Serves you right. You won't be intimidating anybody now, will you?

But not Stingley. He wasn't that kind of man. He actually felt badly for Tatum. Having watched his own father suffer through the same illness, he felt compassion for the man who had been held responsible by many for ending his career and ruining his life.

Stingley had long since let go of the bitterness and blamed no one for his injury.

Stingley died peacefully in Chicago on April 5, 2007. He was 55 years old and had spent more than half his life in that wheelchair. Cause of death was determined as bronchial pneumonia, cardiac arteriosclerosis, spinal cord injury, and quadriplegia.

I don't believe that Stingley died with many regrets.

I know that he felt sad that he would always be remembered as a casualty of the game. He would have preferred being remembered for his talent.

He was sad that reporters rarely called on the phone or knocked on the door to talk about anything other than The Hit.

He was sorry that he never had a chance to see The Razor, travel having become too difficult in his last years. He had remained a die-hard Patriots fan, and he really wanted to see the place.

Most of all, I think that right up until the day he died, he held onto the hope that someday the phone would ring and that it would be Tatum, calling to say, Hey Darryl, what's up? Can we talk, just you and me? I got some things I need to say.

The call that would never come.  

The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, CBSSports, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University contributed to this article.