Jack Tatum miscast as a football villain
Jack Tatum, who died Tuesday at the age of 61, will go to his grave as one of the National Football League's all-time villains.
Those who were there when he struck fear into every running back and receiver who ventured into his territory as a violent safety for Ohio State and the Oakland Raiders know that is not exactly fair.
Tatum, it says here, was not the dirty player that he has been painted as -- he simply hit harder than perhaps anyone who has ever played the game, and you remember those collisions to this day if you saw or heard them.
Ronnie Lott and Dick Anderson, among his peers, will tell you that.
Tatum (left, No. 32) delivering a patented hit on Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Sammy White during Super Bowl XI, which the Oakland Raiders won, 32-14.Richard Drew
"Jack Tatum was a great tackler," said Anderson, who played safety for coach Don Shula's "No-Name Defense" with the Miami Dolphins and was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1973.
"A lot of people called him a dirty player, but I won't do that. I don't think he was."
Said Lott: "Growing up, Tatum was my idol."
Not only that, Lott, considered by many to be the best safety to ever play the game, was not afraid to say that he patterned his game after Tatum's and that he did virtually the same things on the field.
While Lott has been revered, Tatum has been reviled.
You can see Tatum's greatest hits on Earl Campbell, Sammy White and Riley Odoms on YouTube, but the one that pro football still wishes would go away is the play on which Darryl Stingley was paralyzed.
Stingley was crossing the middle during an exhibition game on the night of Aug. 12, 1978, at the Oakland Coliseum when quarterback Steve Grogan threw a pass that sailed high over his head.
Tatum, playing his position, hit Stingley from behind as the ball went past. As someone who saw most of them, I can tell you it wouldn't have made Tatum's top 50 if not for what happened next.
Stingley didn't get up.
To those who were watching, it was a routine play in a meaningless game, until Stingley was strapped to a stretcher and carried off the field. Even then, the magnitude of the injury was not known until later that night.
"I helped Jack up off the ground after the play," linebacker Phil Villapiano recalled on Tuesday after learning of Tatum's death. "That was a legal hit, a normal play, nothing unusual about it.
"Later that night, Jack and I went to the hospital to see Darryl, but they wouldn't let us in. People said Jack didn't care, but I know better. Everyone who knew Jack Tatum knows he was a great guy, but he has been so misunderstood."
Stingley, quite understandably, was bitter until his death at the age of 55 in 2007. He and Tatum never spoke, although there were several attempts to get the two of them together.
However, when it became known that Tatum had part of his right leg amputated as a result of his battle with diabetes, Stingley softened.
"You can't, as a human being, feel happy about something like that happening to another human being," Stingley told the Boston Globe in 2003. "Maybe the natural reaction is to think he got what was coming to him, but I don't accept human nature as our real nature. Human nature teaches us to hate. God teaches us to love."
Adding to Tatum's reputation was that he played for pro football's bad boys, the Raiders, and some statements he made in his book, "They Call Me Assassin."
He was unapologetic for the way he played the game.
"I always wanted to hit someone hard, and if they got hurt, that was just part of the game," Tatum said. "But you always wanted them to be OK."
Tatum separated White from his helmet in Super Bowl XI, knocked out Campbell on a play at the goal line even though it wound up as a touchdown and once KO'd his Raider teammate Nemiah Wilson and Don McCauley of the Baltimore Colts with the same hit.
Wide receiver Frank Pitts, another of Tatum's victims, said the best thing about being traded from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Raiders was that he didn't have to worry about being leveled by football's most feared hitter any more.
Another of Tatum's famous hits was on Frenchy Fuqua of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but that one backfired when Franco Harris caught the ricochet and turned it into the "Immaculate Reception," in a 1972 playoff game.
"As a linebacker, you're always grabbing guys, the tight end or a running back," Villapiano said. "With 'Tate,' there was nothing of that. He came in to clean up and it was always solid. You could hear it.
"It was a beautiful sound. I'll never forget it."
One way or the other, neither will anyone else.
Tom LaMarre is a senior writer for The Sports Xchange and covered The Oakland Raiders for the Oakland Tribune in the 1970s.