You don’t earn a nickname like “The Assassin” unless you are one of the most-feared, hard-hitting players in the NFL. Jack Tatum embodied that. The Oakland Raiders safety was a 1971 first-round pick out of Ohio State before administering pain to players throughout the 1970s.
The three-time Pro Bowl defensive back is known for one of the hardest hits in Super Bowl history on Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Sammy White. Though it didn’t cause internal bleeding or cracked teeth, it knocked the helmet clean off White’s head. Tatum also played a key role in knocking the ball in the air to running back Franco Harris during the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Immaculate Reception” in 1972. Unfortunately, neither of those were the last of Tatum’s massive hits.
In a 1978 NFL preseason game, one of the most tragic incidents on a football field took place.
Jack Tatum’s Hit Paralyzes Darryl Stingley
The Raiders and New England Patriots faced off in a preseason game on August 12, 1978. As Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley stretched for a pass over the middle of the field, he was hit hard by Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum.
Stingley’s spinal cord compressed, and he broke his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. He laid on the field at Oakland Coliseum before being taken off on a stretcher. Tragically, the hit paralyzed him and he spent the rest of his life as a quadriplegic.
Fast-forward to the 2:00 minute mark and you’ll find the gut-wrenching hit.
At age 26, Stingley’s career was over. The promising receiver was in the midst of negotiating a contract that would have made him one of the league’s highest-paid receivers. For whatever reason, fate had other plans.
Tatum Never Apologized To Stingley
Tatum’s hit was entirely legal at the time. The NFL didn’t fine or suspend him for it but these violent collisions were eventually outlawed. You rarely see hits like that in today’s game, unless you’re watching Vontaze Burfict.
Tatum and Stingley reportedly never made amends. The former Raiders safety contacted Stingley many times but did so while promoting his autobiography, which was insensitively titled Final Confessions of NFL Assassin Jack Tatum.
“I think that over a 14-year period I’ve been across the country, out of the country, in the country, I’ve talked with John Madden who was Tatum’s coach. He calls me on a regular basis. He called me to invite me to the Super Bowl this year,” Tatum told Jet magazine in 1992. “All these people have been able to contact me and he’s never really tried.”
While Tatum never apologized, he was never the same player or person after the terrible accident. Madden once said he “went into a shell.” According to ESPN, former teammates said he never played like “The Assassin” he became known as before the Stingley hit.
“I’m sorry he got hurt, but I will never apologize for the way I play football,” Tatum later told ABC. “That just won’t happen.”
Instead it was Madden, the longtime Raiders coach, who formed a close bond with Stingley. After that preseason game, Madden rushed to the hospital to visit Stingley and stayed in touch with him years afterward. Former Raiders offensive lineman Gene Upshaw also became close with Stingley was a vocal proponent of the NFL providing health benefits for disabled players like Stingley.
The Patriots paid for all of Stingley’s medical expenses for the rest of his life as well as funding his children’s education.
Stingley’s Grandson Is LSU’s Star Cornerback
Darryl Stingley died at 55 in 2007 but not before becoming a proud grandfather.
He had four children, one of which was Derek Stingley, who played football at Purdue like his father and in the Arena Football League. Derek Stingley’s son, Derek Stingley Jr., was a top recruit coming out of high school and is currently a star cornerback at LSU who won a national championship with the Tigers in 2019.
Stingley Jr. didn’t remember much about his grandfather except that he saw promise in him.
“We would go up there for Christmas. And he would always give me a Darth Vader mask and cape and the voice thing. That’s pretty much all I remember. And my dad said that he saw something in me back then, but I don’t remember,” Stingley Jr. told the Lafayette Daily Advertiser.
As for Tatum, he finished his career with 37 interceptions and one touchdown. His final season came in 1980 with the Houston Oilers. He wrote three best-selling books: They Call Me Assassin (1980); They Still Call Me Assassin (1989); and Final Confessions of NFL Assassin Jack Tatum (1996).
Tatum ran into health problems of his own in 2003. A staph infection caused by diabetes led to five of his toes being amputated. He later had his right leg amputated as well and required a prosthetic leg. In 2010, three years after Stingley passed away, Tatum died of a heart attack at 61.
Tatum is still remembered as one of the hardest hitters in professional football history. Stingley will forever be remembered for the spinal cord injury in an exhibition game that ended his career.