More than just the ‘Assassin’

By Monte Poole
Updated: July 28, 2010

Jack Tatum

Jack Tatum

OAKLAND — Snug inside his Silver-and-Black helmet was a full and unruly Afro, a bushy beard, a thick mustache and a pair of dark-brown eyes, heavy-lidded and conveying malevolence.

Jack Tatum looked like an outlaw, which made his visage the most intimidating in Oakland Raiders history.

But Tatum also played defensive back like an outlaw, which is why he was one of the toughest and most feared men ever to suit up in the NFL.

Tatum, who during his career earned the nickname “The Assassin,” died Tuesday morning after suffering a heart attack at his Oakland home. He was 61.

He leaves behind his wife, Denise, three children and a vault full of indelible memories.

He also leaves behind the terrible misperception that he was a man as chilling and remorseless as his appearance — all of which goes back to a single play that overshadowed a remarkable career.

During a 1978 preseason game in Oakland, Tatum delivered a typically brutal hit to New England wide receiver Darryl Stingley. Tatum got up, Stingley did not. He instead lay supine, motionless, having suffered two fractured vertebrae. Paralyzed from the neck down, he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Tatum spent the rest of his life being vilified. It was as if he grew horns and carried a pitchfork. He was blamed for Stingley’s condition and the common feeling was he never personally apologized or showed the proper level of contrition.

Fact is, though, Tatum made efforts to visit Stingley. Before Stingley’s death in 2007, intermediaries made several attempts to bring the two together, to bury the ugly past, and each time Stingley, feeling he was being exploited, declined involvement.

“I feel sorry for what happened to him,” Tatum told Yahoo Sports in 2007.

“I tried to apologize to him a number of times, but people around him wouldn’t let that happen.”

If Tatum wasn’t properly contrite, it’s because he understood the incident was a tragic accident. Referees threw no flags. The league issued no fine. Stingley’s own coach, Chuck Fairbanks, conceded it was a clean hit.

Tatum was doing what he had been trained to do. He was making the kind of punishing tackle that put Dick Butkus in the Hall of Fame and became Ronnie Lott’s signature.

Tatum was playing as he had been taught by coach Woody Hayes at Ohio State University, then John Madden and Al Davis with the Raiders.

Tatum enjoyed playing free safety, loved it from the depths of his soul, with every inch and ounce of his 5-foot-10, 200-pound body. He was not a big man, but he packed a wallop. Nobody marked his territory with more relish. Receivers and running backs who dared to enter anticipated a punitive fee.

Tatum made a simple football play on Stingley that ended with catastrophic results. Yet that snapshot polished Tatum’s legend, sealing his reputation as a defender who specialized in terror.

Tatum understood as well as anyone that apologizing for his actions would have been disingenuous. He was paid to hit. To apologize for the hit itself was to apologize to anyone he’d ever hit, to everyone he’d ever tackled, for the tactics of football.

No apologies were sought when Tatum was being selected to three Pro Bowls.

No apologies were sought when he rammed into Pittsburgh’s Frenchy Fuqua at the precise moment the pass arrived, knocking the ball through the air and into the hands of Franco Harris, who grabbed it and raced into the end zone to give the Steelers a win in the 1972 AFC Playoffs.

There was no apology when, 19 months before the hit on Stingley, Tatum delivered a blow to Minnesota’s Sammy White that knocked the helmet off the receiver’s head. Clearly dazed, White was down for a moment but somehow held onto the ball as his helmet rolled away.

The hit became one of the most memorable — and celebrated — in Super Bowl history.

How was Tatum, or anyone else, to reconcile the response to that with the response to the Stingley hit?

Yet the outcome landed upon Jack with considerable weight. It was the curse that came with his style of play. It’s why Tatum in retirement measured his exposure, even as he cowrote three books detailing his approach to football and articulating the essence of his career — and even as he battled diabetes and established a foundation to increase awareness of the disease.

He was a creation of football and the violence it glorifies. People get hurt, sometimes seriously.

He was a tough man in a tough game. That’s what he brought to the Raiders.

If Jim Otto is the enduring symbol of the franchise, Tatum represents the enduring spirit.