Saturday, July 31, 2010

They Called Him Assassin

When I was a kid Jack Tatum was one of the most famous players in the league. Kind of a strange position to be in for a safety. And no one thought he was the greatest safety either; dude never made an All-Pro team despite what some of the recent obituaries are saying. Tatum was a good player but the All-Pro nods in his time all went to guys like Jake Scott, Dick Anderson, Ken Houston, Paul Krause, Cliff Harris and Donnie Shell. But Tatum was a bigger name than all of them. Why? Well, for one he seemed to wind up a part of some of the most high-profile moments of the 70's. Tatum was the guy who popped Frenchy Fuqua in the 1972 divisional playoffs and set in motion the Immaculate Reception. He knocked Lynn Swann from the 1975 AFC Championship Game with a concussion. Tatum was the guy who jarred the ball loose from Rob Lytle causing the fumble that wasn't in the 1977 AFC Championship Game. And Tatum made one of the biggest hits in Super Bowl history when he blasted the helmet right off Sammy White's in Super Bowl XI. Yeah, Tatum made some big hits.

That's what he was famous for. Like another of his contemporaries, Conrad Dobler, Tatum got a rep as a dirty player, a cheap-shot artist. Maybe it was unfair. Maybe he was just a bad-ass. An enforcer. An intimidator. An assassin. If any receiver tried to make a play in Tatum's territory he was going to pay a price for it. Tatum was doing his job. That's football. To some people Jack Tatum played the game like it was supposed to be played. Old school. But I wasn't one of those people.

I've written before about how much I hated those "Bad Boy" Raiders teams. They cheated. They played dirty. And they revelled in it. When Chuck Noll called out the "criminal element" on the Raiders he was referring to Tatum's teammate George Atkinson but everybody took Noll's words and applied them to Tatum as well. Mel Blount and Jack Lambert weren't angels either but there was just something about the Raiders. They seemed to go all-out to move the borderline separating a legal hit from a cheap shot. Tatum more than anyone.

And Tatum's reputation was sealed forever after he delivered his most infamous hit, a hit that unlike the ones listed above came in a game that didn't even count. Tatum didn't get flagged for his paralyzing hit on Daryl Stingley and he didn't get fined either. So it was a legal play, something Tatum's defenders over the years have used as their main evidence that Tatum did nothing wrong. I remember getting into an argument about it with a college roommate (a Raiders fan) several years later and that's exactly what he said. And now in the wake of Tatum's death a lot of people are claiming Tatum was completely blameless over what happened.

To me, Tatum made a conscious decision to try to hurt somebody in a game that meant nothing, on a play that meant nothing. He said so himself in his book, "It was one of those pass plays where I could have attempted to intercept, but because of what the owners expect of me when they give me my paycheck, I automatically reacted to the situation by going for an intimidating hit."  And then to compound it all Tatum went and put out that book where he bragged about his efforts to maim his fellow players and seemingly savored his reputation as a football assassin. In fact, he put out a couple of follow-up books as well where he did the exact same thing.  Worse, he never expressed true regret over what happened to Stingley. Now I suppose Tatum thought he did nothing wrong so no apology was necessary.  But some sort of gesture towards Stingley should have been made, some expression of remorse, some show of kindness.  And Tatum never made one. Actually on one occasion, years later, Tatum did make an overture, an offer of reconciliation. But he wanted it to be televised. And Stingley found out why; Tatum had another book coming out. The proposed meeting wasn't heartfelt after all. Tatum just wanted to sell some books. About the affair Stingley said in 2003:

"I told him if they showed up at my door without a camera then we could have some real healing," Stingley said. "This is a world built on hype. Selling newspapers. TV ratings. Those are real. But in my world what's important is to have a forgiving nature. I was always ready for reconciliation with Jack Tatum. I was willing to do it once before until we learned at the final hour that it was about selling a new book. That changed my mind. I could not allow anybody to capitalize on my situation any more.

"I could not understand why a person would still take that approach so many years later. How could he try to take advantage of the situation again? How could he not feel serious regret or remorse for what happened?

"If he called me today, I'd answer. If he came to my house, I'd open my door to him. All I ever wanted was for him to acknowledge me as a human being. I just wanted to hear from him if he felt sorry or not. It's not like I'm unreachable. But it's not a phone call I'll be waiting for anymore."
Though hurt by Tatum's behavior Stingley spoke eloquently and forgivingly about the man.  But he died four years later without ever having received the acknowledgement from Tatum that he'd hoped for.  Many understandably don't want to think about that in the wake of Jack Tatum's death but I don't see how you can ignore it.

Postscript: The man who threw that fateful pass to Stingley, Steve Grogan, shared some interesting thoughts on Tatum.


sptrfn said...

I think I read somewhere where Tatum said that he tried to visit, but their family wouldn't let him. Maybe that was the time when he tried to publicize his book.

Here is another side to this: Otis Armstrong, former Denver RB, grew up with Darryl in Chicago. After that hit, Otis would always try to get back at Tatum when they would play. Otis said that he would knock him down, and Tatum would just get up and laugh.

Jack was a punk, though, just like those other Raider punks of the 70's. When Denver got a great defense and a dependable QB, they finally beat them.

Jeff said...

Another fine post by Rob. Dying doesn't make you nobler, there is no reason to look at Tatum as anything more than he was just because he has died. If what he did to Darryl Stingley on the field wasn't an abomination, what he did afterwards was.

Rob said...

Thanks for the Armstrong story sptrfn. I didn't know about that.

Rockfish Files said...

iis nice faceless nameless osers to comment on a legend like Jack Tatum,who will always be immortalized in NFL Films blowing up Sammy White,Frenchy Fuqua or Terry Bradshaw.
Your unsubstantiated column about a man Ronnie Lott called the hardest hitter he'd ever seen in his life,blames Tatum for not trying to apologize to Stingly who in fact rebuked Tatums original attempts and slandered Tatum through the press repeatedly for years.
Nice try at defaming Tatum,however,as I said,he has become immortalized.