Every team has them: the guys who hit and the guys who get hit. Every team has a player who has been taken out and a player who has done the taking out. In Patriots lore, one of the most infamous opponents was Jack Tatum.
The Raiders safety died of a heart attack on Tuesday at the age of 61, leaving behind a legacy encapsulating what it means to play the game with abandon. But that legacy is more infamously defined by an accidental tragedy, a single moment that continues to mar and overshadow the abundant success.
Tatum was a Buckeye who was personally groomed by an assistant coach named Lou Holtz. An impenetrable two-time All American, National Defensive Player of the Year and a national champion, who eventually became a first-round draft pick.
In the NFL, he was a three-time Pro-Bowler, a Super Bowl winner, an instrumental element of a franchise now plagued with futility. In 1972, with 22 seconds remaining in a playoff game against the Steelers, he broke up the pass that ended up in Franco Harris‘ hands, who then scored the game-winning touchdown.
But as immaculate as it was, that’s not the play by which Tatum is remembered most. That play came not during a playoff game, but during a preseason game in 1978 against New England.
On Aug. 12, 1978, Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley leaped for a pass that fell incomplete, and while he came down off-balance, Tatum came in full speed and delivered a crushing blow that left Stingley paralyzed from the chest down. Ever since, it seems, nothing else has mattered.
“I understand why Darryl is considered the victim,” Tatum wrote in his third book, “Final Confessions of NFL Assassin Jack Tatum.” “But I’ll never understand why some people look at me as the villain.”
There are rumors. According to Stingley, Tatum made no effort to apologize or express remorse for the hit. According to Tatum, he tried to visit Stingley in the hospital but was denied by Stingley’s family. After the hit, the two never spoke again.
In the aftermath, a wide receiver’s life was disrupted and devastatingly altered by a clean hit during a preseason football game. Also in the aftermath, one of the best safeties in NFL history has had his legacy diminished by an accident.
It is a cold comfort to say danger is part of the game of football. It rings hollow because football is a game that should not constitute life or death, but often does. It is a game that is, by definition, incredibly violent, and accidents happen — particularly to wide receivers and quarterbacks who are constantly put in the most vulnerable of positions.
During his career, Tatum was cultured to believe that he had a job to do. Safeties thrive on a mentality that borders upon ruthless; their job is to hit as hard as they can, hard enough to jar the ball loose, hard enough to do damage.
No matter what they are taught, though, it is unfair to assume they ever intend to inflict the kind of damage that was inflicted upon Stingley.
It’s difficult to know what to extrapolate from comments like, “I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.” A remark like that seems callous and calculated, heartless and unnecessary. But if Tatum’s hit had never happened, what’s the difference between a comment like that and the kinds of comments we constantly hear from the game’s best defensive backs and linebackers today?
Tatum never apologized for ending Stingley’s career, invoking the ire of the New England fan base and the league. In Tatum’s eyes, though, he was being asked to apologize for doing what he assumed to be his job.
“It could have happened to anybody,” Tatum told Yahoo Sports in 2007, shortly after Stingley’s death. “People are always saying, ‘He didn’t apologize.’ I don’t think I did anything wrong that I need to apologize for. It was a clean hit.”
It’s unreasonable to believe Tatum was not sorry for what happened to Stingley — anyone with a pulse would be sorry for that — but he was being asked to apologize for exactly that which was also viewed as his biggest professional asset.
Tatum was a man who retired after 10 impressive years in the NFL. He was the author of three books, a land developer and a restaurateur. He was an incredibly successful athlete who paid for it later, suffering a staph infection caused by diabetes that led to the amputation of five toes, before an arterial blockage also cost him his right leg. He was the founder of the Jack Tatum Fund for Youthful Diabetes and the co-chair of an annual fundraiser for the Central Ohio Diabetes Association.
But in the end, none of that mattered. All that mattered was the hit.
The fact that Tatum’s defining moment came during an inconsequential preseason game is devastating, and there is no denying that. But if that accident had never happened — and that’s what it was, an accident — there would be nothing remotely villainous about Tatum’s legacy.