Nearly 29 years after the fact and NFL fans are still missing the point.
It wasn't Jack Tatum who owed Darryl Stingley an apology. It was the football-crazed world that owed Stingley.
Stingley's death this week at age 55 is another reminder of that inconvenient truth. During an exhibition game in 1978, Tatum, then a safety with the Oakland Raiders, hit New England Patriots wide receiver Stingley. The hit left Stingley paralyzed for the remainder of his life.
In the time since, Tatum's name has become synonymous with cheap hits, leading to the ever-increasing rules about what is legal. Never mind the fact that Tatum had been trained for years to dish out such hits. And never mind the fact that to this day, hits like those are what the fans love to see. Those bone-jarring hits are popularized by everything from video games to ESPN's insipid "Jacked Up" segment.
Despite those realities, Tatum has been vilified because of the result. Tatum was reminded this week about that when Stingley's death hit the news and regurgitated all the old arguments.
"They said on ESPN the other day that I hit him in the back and that's just a lie," Tatum said. "It's amazing to me that they lie like that when they can just look at the hit. They have it on tape."
Tatum was made responsible because no one else, much less the fans and the NFL itself, wanted to look at themselves and think for one second about what they've created.
"Yeah, everybody is supposed to play really hard and then get up at the end like nobody is hurt," Tatum said Friday from his home in Oakland, Calif. "It's unrealistic. If you want to play football for a living, you're going to get injured.
"If you went out worrying about getting hurt, you couldn't be a player. You certainly couldn't be a great player."
This isn't to say that Tatum doesn't feel bad about what happened to Stingley. But for Tatum, there is a line between sorrow and guilt.
"I feel sorry for what happened to him," said Tatum, who lost his left leg recently because of diabetes. "I tried to apologize to him a number of times, but people around him wouldn't let that happen."
Tatum said he spoke with Stingley's attorney several times over the years, but nothing ever happened. In a TV interview several years ago, Tatum expressed sorrow again. That part was cut out, Tatum said, because of his steadfast defense of the deeper issue.
Tatum, as he has said many times, will never apologize for how he played. He didn't then and won't now. He is defiant in that regard.
The fateful play with Stingley was one that Tatum had done thousands of time in games and practice. The quarterback dropped back, Tatum dropped into coverage.
The quarterback went to throw over the middle and Tatum sized up the play. He went for the pass, figuring to break up the pass or prevent the catch. Nothing more, nothing less.
The thing that so many people don't understand about football is that there's no half-speed once you put on the uniform.
That was drilled into Tatum's head by men like Woody Hayes, his coach at Ohio State, and then-Raiders coach John Madden.
"The only way to play for Woody Hayes was basic and tough," Tatum said. "There were no fancy West Coast offenses or anything like that. It was your 11 against their 11. Let the best team win."
In that era of football, which we glorify to this day, intimidation won. Little has changed over the years. Tatum thinks the game has gotten worse with all the rules about what's allowed and what's not though the basic premise is still the same.
"It's about who can hit the hardest," Tatum said. "That's what the game is about."
That's also what the fans expect when they pay for tickets or tune in on television – big hits and intimidation.
Of course, the fans don't want to deal with the consequences of hard hits. Sometimes people get hurt. Badly hurt.
- Jack Tatum
- Darryl Stingley