Darryl Stingley, a former New England receiver who was paralyzed on the football field by a vicious hit (in a preseason game, no less) from Jack Tatum, died today. Here's a confession: I always felt sorry for Stingley, but I idolized his crippler.
I'm not proud of that fact. But Tatum was the hardest hitting madman in the game when I was a small football player. He may be the hardest hitter in the game. He was on my favorite team at the time, the Oakland Raiders, and, like Tatum, my specialty was defense. I hit hard. I wanted to knock kids out of games. Let me tell you a story.
When I was, oh, ten, I was playing defensive end in a Saturday little league game. The other team had this short little quarterback who was supposed to be hot
shit when he ran the ball. I remember looking across the line at him while he was calling signals and thinking about knocking him into the following week. I don't know why I wanted to hurt him so bad, maybe because I knew I could. Anyway, early in the game, he takes the snap and comes running over to my side. My eyes lit up. The kid wasn't even very fast and it was just me and him. I get the angle on him, nailed him in the side, and drove him into the ground. It was a beautiful hit. The parents in the stands were cheering. My teammates were all over me. And when he didn't get up the cheering from the alleged adults in the stands got even louder.
I'll never forget that moment. I was standing over this kid getting congratulated, he's on the ground crying and writhing in pain, my coaches are jumping up and down in glee and a bunch of parents are standing and cheering. All because I hurt the little quarterback. I was reveling in it with everyone else, but, for a moment, it was as if I was watching the scene unfold from outside myself, and I was puzzled and disturbed by what I was seeing. I guess that's why it's frozen in my mind.
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But that's part of the allure and grotesqueness of football -- the animal nature of game, the way it stirs up prehistoric memories of primordial brutality. Tatum knew that and he embraced the ugliest side of the game. I remember hearing a quote from him where he said that he considered a good hit one where he knocked the other's guy helmet off ... with the guy's head still in it. Reading that quote awed me. But by the time I was 12 or 13, I realized that Tatum was nobody to look up to. There were great hitters in the game who had class. He didn't. The SOB never apologized to Stingley for paralyzing him. And all those cheers he got for what were often dirty hits on defenseless receivers, helmet-to-helmet jobs (he loved knocking out Lynn Swann, the most graceful player in the history of the game), have long since faded to nothingness. All that's left behind in Tatum's wake are a lot of cheap shots, concussions, and, of course, the memory of Stingley, who by all accounts possessed every bit of decency that Tatum lacked.