Jack Tatum: American footballer famed and feared for his heavy hitting

By Michael Carlson
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:26

For all the excitement of its long touchdown passes, or the cerebral nature of its complicated tactics, American football remains at heart a battle between blocker and defender, ball-carrier and tackler, a game of violence epitomised by "The Assassin" Jack Tatum. Tatum was a great defender because he was one of the game's hardest hitters, but his legacy will be just one hit, the one which left Darryl Stingley paralysed for the rest of his life.

Tatum's collision with Stingley came in a pre-season "exhibition" game in Oakland in August 1978. Stingley, a wide receiver for New England Patriots, was cutting across the middle of the field, looking back for the pass from his quarterback. Tatum, the Oakland Raiders' safety, was approaching from behind him, the situation when his reputation would cause many players to "hear footsteps". The pass was high and slightly behind Stingley, who contorted himself in mid-air; as the ball passed by, Tatum launched himself and met Stingley's neck with his shoulder pads. Stingley crumpled to the ground, two vertebrae severed. Stingley retained movement only in one hand; he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Tatum's refusal to apologise saw him portrayed as a villain. As he explained in 2003, "I didn't apologise... that was football. I was sorry that he got hurt. But to go out and apologise for the way I played football? That is never going to happen... Even today, people still think I'm a bad guy... what did I do wrong?" Tatum's hit was legal, though rules were later changed to protect players in defenceless positions. But Tatum also celebrated his fearsome reputation. He published three autobiographies, each of which contained "Assassin" in the title. "I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault," he said in the first, They Call Me Assassin (1980).

Tatum's parents moved to New Jersey from North Carolina when he was seven. As a running back and linebacker he led Passaic High School to the state championship, becoming New Jersey's most recruited star. He chose Ohio State University, where the legendary coach Woody Hayes made him a defensive back. His class of "super sophomores" led the Buckeyes to an undefeated national championship in 1968; he was all-American the next two seasons.

The Raiders chose him with the 19th pick of the 1971 NFL draft; in his first NFL game his tackle knocked out the All-Pro tight end John Mackey, then another knocked out his replacement, Tom Mitchell.

With cornerbacks Willie Brown and Skip Thomas, and safety George Atkinson, Tatum transformed Oakland's secondary into the "Soul Patrol", a key part of head coach John Madden's decision to build an intimidating defence. Yet Tatum's hitting also caused the Raiders' most infamous loss, in the 1972 play-offs to Pittsburgh. Oakland led 7-6 with 22 seconds left, when Tatum jarred a desperation pass out of "Frenchy" Fuqua's hands. The Steelers' Franco Harris grabbed the ball just before it hit the ground, and took the "Immaculate Reception" 42 yards for the game-winning score.

Tatum's Raiders finally won the Super Bowl in January 1977. Tatum's hit on Minnesota receiver Sammy White, knocking White's helmet five yards downfield, remains that game's most memorable image. Reflecting the continuing ambiguity of the role of violence in football, Tatum's hit would be celebrated in countless highlight reels, including recently when NFL Films named him the sixth most-feared defender in NFL history.

In 1980 Tatum was traded to Houston, registering a career-best seven interceptions in his final season. After retiring, he invested in real estate and restaurants, and was an intimidating presence with the NFL's "fashion police", making sure players' uniforms complied with league regulations. In 2003, diabetes resulted in the amputation of half his right leg and the toes of his left foot. His response was to start a charity in Oakland which has raised $1.4m for diabetic children.

Darryl Stingley died in 2005. Asked about Tatum's amputations in 2003, he said, "I forgave Jack Tatum years ago. As a result, I was able to go on with my life without looking back with bitterness." But after that tackle, the two men never met and never spoke.

John (Jack) David Tatum, American football player: born Cherryville, North Carolina 18 November 1948; married (three children); died Oakland, California 27 July 2010.

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