Assassin’s Last Stand: The Lost Tatum Interview

Jack Tatum died today of a heart attack in Columbus, Ohio. He was 61. The former Oakland Raiders defensive back was best-known for his 1978 preseason tackle of former New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley. The hit left Stingley paralyzed from the neck down for life. Stingley died a quadraplegic of heart disease and pneumonia in 2007.

Jack Tatum

Some of Tatum’s last, extensive comments about Stingley were made to former BERGEN (NJ) RECORD reporter Adrian Wojnarowski in 2003. Wojnarowski’s piece containing Tatum’s remarks is no longer available online, so I’ve reprinted it below.

January 26, 2003 / Sunday / All Editions
Tatum Will Never Apologize For Stingley Hit
Bergen Record / North Jersey Media Group
BY ADRIAN WOJNAROWSKI

SAN DIEGO — Some day, Jack Tatum had to tell his son the story of the most infamous hit in National Football League history. “I knew it was coming,” he said. Three years ago, it did. Lewis Tatum walked into the house. The kids at school had been talking about Darryl Stingley. Now, he wanted to hear for himself: Why had his father paralyzed a man?

They used to call him Assassin, but now they call him Dad. Tatum hadn’t met his wife, Denise, until his professional football career was over in 1980. She and the children — Jestyn, 15, and Lewis, 13 — had never watched Tatum play a down of football. Especially the kids, they just knew him as the man who was there every day in retirement, packing lunches, driving to swimming and soccer practices, and reading bedtime stories.

Yet, if Tatum wasn’t obsessed with the rest of the world understanding his truth, he was with his own son. “I told him that you never intentionally try to hurt someone,” Tatum said. “That what happened was an accident. What matters is what kind of father I am, what kind of husband I am to my wife. If someone can tell you that your dad was a dirty player, you can go back and watch some of the films and see what kind of football player he was.”

Jack Tatum stopped trying to tell the rest of the world a long time ago. It’s no use. Almost 25 years ago, with a preseason hit on the New England Patriots star, Stingley, with four words on a book jacket — “They Call Me Assassin” — most of America had its case to consider an All-American out of Passaic as a cold, unfeeling monster.

“I’m not going to beg forgiveness,” Tatum said. “That’s what people say: You never apologized. I didn’t apologize for the play. That was football. I was sorry that he got hurt. But to go out and apologize for the way I played football? That is never going to happen.

“I never did anything wrong. I apologized for the result. It was portrayed that I did something wrong — by the NFL, by papers - because that’s what they were fed. Even today, people still think I’m a bad guy.

“My only question is this: What did I do wrong?”

Tatum, 53, let his question hang in the air Friday night. He was sitting in the lobby of the Barona Casino and Resort on Friday night, about 40 minutes beyond a wild night in downtown San Diego for Super Bowl XXXVII. He had come for a golf tournament with a couple of old teammates, but couldn’t be found on an end-to-end walk of the casino floor. Grab a house phone, connect to his room, and Tatum could be found talking to his family on the phone. It was 9:30 p.m., and he had called it a night.

“I’m not a gambling man,” Tatum said downstairs, settling into a chair for something he so reluctantly and rarely does: Tell his story. The white streaks peel back through his long parted hair, tumbling down into his bushy Fu Manchu. He is still lean and taut. He still has presence. His Super Bowl XI ring glistens on his hand, the Raiders’ 32-14 victory over Minnesota punctuated with Tatum hitting Sammy White so hard, White’s helmet popped off.

Nobody remembers it. Nobody remembers his three All-AFC selections between 1971 and 1979 as a Raiders’ safety. They remember Aug. 12, 1978, a preseason game when Stingley turned toward Tatum on a slant pattern. The pass was incomplete, but Tatum stayed on course and jarred Stingley in the spine.

Tatum still sees Stingley laying on the Oakland Coliseum grass, still expects to see him stand up. Only, it will never happen. Stingley is a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair and a life believing that Tatum isn’t just remorseless over the hit, but coldly profited with his best-selling book, “They Call Me Assassin.” This will be the 25th anniversary of the hit in 2003, inspiring people to bring the story back to life and try to make sense of this unresolved element of the story:

Jack Tatum still has never spoken to Darryl Stingley.

Tatum insists he tried years ago.

Stingley says Tatum never did.

“I made some attempts but it seems people around Darryl thwarted that,” Tatum said. “It’ll happen when it’s meant to happen. You can’t keep banging your head against the wall.”

If it never does, Tatum has learned to live with it. So has Stingley, who no longer does interviews on the issue.

Tatum wasn’t just the NFL’s most feared hitter, but an exacting student of his craft. He was a great cover man, voted one of the 25 best college football players in history for his time at Ohio State, where he moved between safety, linebacker, and corner. Tatum isn’t sure anyone remembers it. Or even cares anymore. All they ever heard was this: He paralyzed a man and sold 1.2 million books bragging about it.

“They thought that I was crowing about hurting Stingley,” Tatum said. “I had to go back after the book was finished and add that chapter, because it happened after the book was finished. He was barely in that book.”

Tatum has never confessed to this, but the hit on Stingley changed him on the football field. He stopped hitting in 1978. Naturally, he was scared of hurting someone else. He never told people, because this could’ve cost him his edge on the field. Yet eventually, Wendell Tyler of the Rams ran him over late in the season. He was a small back, but “I stopped short and didn’t make the big hit,” Tatum said. His older brother, Manuel, had watched it on television. He called Jack and told him, “If you’re not going to play, get your ass off the field.”

He started hitting again, because nobody in football hit like Jack Tatum. Even now, he confessed: “If you were a little afraid, I wanted you to be a lot afraid. If you weren’t afraid at all, I wanted to try to make you afraid.”

He talked this way years ago, and talks this way now. People hate to hear it, but it was the truth. Jack Tatum was a Raider. He was the hardest-hitting safety in the NFL. That’s who he was, that’s who he’ll always be. What it’s cost him, it’s cost him. After his retirement, Tatum wanted to be a football coach, just like his beloved second father at Ohio State, Woody Hayes. He didn’t want to work in the NFL, but college. How about that: Jack Tatum wanted to be Woody Hayes.

“You could teach there,” Tatum said. “You could have a bigger role in the lives of kids. Guys who go to the pros are million-dollar ballplayers. A lot of them don’t have fundamentals, but how are you going to tell a million-dollar guy that he can’t tackle? Or that he’s got to do it this way? I wouldn’t be a good NFL coach.”

So, Tatum started to touch base with old friends in college coaching, checking on even the lowest level of assistant jobs. All of them told him that he would make a good coach, “but told me that they couldn’t afford me in the program,” Tatum said.

“I was blackballed. It’s nothing that I did, but what I was perceived to have done. But then, I started to think that maybe I didn’t want to coach. If I was coaching and a kid got hurt, it would be because I was coaching him. That’s all people would say: I taught someone to do that.”

Nobody can believe his job now: He’s a paid employee of the National Football League’s so-called “Fashion Police.” On appointment by Al Davis, Tatum works the Raiders’ sidelines on Sunday, instructing shirts to be tucked and sneaker logos covered. “I don’t know if the NFL was too happy about it,” he said, “but Al Davis wanted a guy the players would respect.

“I don’t agree with all the rules, but I enforce them.”

It isn’t just the fashion that bothers him, but rules on contact. “They’re trying to make it safer, but this is a violent game. They’re teaching tackling wrong now.”

His son isn’t a football player, which is fine with the father, who understands football is a dangerous game and people get hurt. Denise Tatum was on the telephone Saturday night, a wife who met her husband weeks after his football career ended in 1980 and said: “I never fell in love with a football player. I fell in love with Jack.” She was telling the story of him “changing far more diapers than I ever did,” staying home with the kids, of him spending five years of mornings and afternoons feeding and caring for her father afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

“He’s the most kindhearted man I’ve ever known, the absolute best dad on the planet,” Denise said. “It’s hurtful to hear what people say about [Jack] and [Stingley]. He did hurt over it. He did. He tried to reach out and do the right thing, but he was turned away. It was an accident, what happened. But he didn’t do anything wrong.

“Apologize?” She stopped for a second and took a deep breath. The 25th anniversary is on the way, the story of Jack Tatum and Darryl Stingley starting all over again.

Finally, she said, “My husband is never going to apologize.”