By Rusty Miller
ABOVE PHOTO: JACK TATUM, defensive back for Ohio State 1968-70, is introduced to the audience at the mayor’s breakfast in South Bend, Ind., Friday, Aug. 12, 2005. Tatum died Tuesday, July 28, 2010 of a heart attack in an Oakland hospital. He was 61.
(AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Jack Tatum, the Pro Bowl safety for the Oakland Raiders best known for his crushing hit that paralyzed Darryl Stingley in an NFL preseason game in 1978, has died. He was 61.
Nicknamed “The Assassin,” Tatum, died of a heart attack Tuesday in an Oakland hospital, according to friend and former Ohio State teammate John Hicks. Hicks said Tatum had diabetes the last several years, and lost his left leg because of circulation problems.
On Aug. 12, 1978, in an exhibition game against the New England Patriots, the hard-hitting Tatum slammed into Stingley with his helmet while the receiver was running a crossing pattern. The blow severed Stingley’s fourth and fifth veterbrae and left the receiver paralyzed from the neck down.
The two never met after the hit. Stingley died in 2007.
Tatum was not penalized on the play and the NFL took no disciplinary action, but it did tighten its rules on violent hits.
Despite Tatum’s failure to show remorse, Hicks said Tatum was haunted by the play.
“It was tough on him, too,” Hicks said. “He wasn’t the same person after that. For years he was almost a recluse.”
Tatum had said he tried to visit Stingley at an Oakland hospital shortly after the collision but was turned away by Stingley’s family members.
“It’s not so much that Darryl doesn’t want to, but it’s the people around him,” Tatum told the Oakland Tribune in 2004. “So we haven’t been able to get through that. Every time we plan something, it gets messed up. Getting to him or him getting back to me, it never happens.”
Part of the alienation came after Tatum wrote the 1980 book, “They Call Me Assassin,” in which he was unapologetic for his headhunting ways.
In a statement, the Raiders said, “Jack was a true Raider champion and a true Raider warrior. … Jack was the standard bearer and an inspiration for the position of safety throughout college and professional football.”
After starring for Ohio State under coach Woody Hayes, Tatum was drafted in the first round by the Raiders in 1971. In nine seasons with the Raiders, Tatum started 106 of 120 games with 30 interceptions and helped Oakland win the 1976 Super Bowl. He played his final season with the Houston Oilers in 1980.
Tatum also wrote books titled “They Still Call Me Assassin: Here We Go Again” in 1989 and “Final Confessions of an NFL Assassin” in 1996.
In the latter he wrote, “I was paid to hit, the harder the better. And I hit, and I knocked people down and knocked people out. … I understand why Darryl is considered the victim. But I’ll never understand why some people look at me as the villain.”
Tatum was a central figure in “The Immaculate Reception” in the Raiders’ 1972 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. With 22 seconds left, Tatum jarred loose a pass to Frenchy Fuqua from Terry Bradshaw, and the ball bounced off Fuqua’s foot and ricocheted into the arms of Steelers running back Franco Harris. Harris never broke stride and ran 42 yards for the winning touchdown.
Despite their lingering resentment, Stingley was gracious in 2003 when he learned that Tatum had diabetes and several toes amputated.
“You can’t, as a human being, feel happy about something like that happening to another human being,” Stingley told The Boston Globe.
Tatum began a charitable group to help kids with diabetes and helped raise more than $1.4 million to fight the disease in the Columbus area.
Tatum grew up in New Jersey and had little interest in organized sports until high school. He grew to love football and was offered a scholarship to Ohio State.
Recruited as a running back, Tatum would sneak over to the defensive side to play linebacker. In time, the Ohio State coaches — particularly secondary coach Lou Holtz — recognized that Tatum was a natural on defense.
Tatum was a part of the “super sophs” class that led Ohio State to an unbeaten season and the national championship in 1968. He stole the headlines in the Buckeyes’ showdown with No. 1 Purdue early in the season, shadowing All-American running back Leroy Keyes in Ohio State’s 13-0 upset of the Boilermakers.
In his three years as a starter, Tatum’s teams went 27-2 and won two Big Ten titles.
Each week after an Ohio State game, the coaching staff awards the “Jack Tatum hit of the week” award for the hardest tackle or block by a Buckeye.
“We have lost one of our greatest Buckeyes,” current Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said in a statement. “When you think of Ohio State defense, the first name that comes to mind is Jack Tatum. His loss touches every era of Ohio State players and fans.
Raiders safety Michael Huff sent a message on Twitter after learning of Tatum’s death: “R.I.P. Jack Tatum the assassin. One of the best safeties to ever play this game, his legacy will live forever.”