By: Bob George/
April 07, 2007

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Finally, he's free from that wheelchair.

Now he can get up and run a deep post pattern. And look who he can now catch passes from. Otto Graham. Bobby Layne. Sid Luckman. John Unitas. Norm Van Brocklin. Any one of them are chomping at the bit, wanting to get their newest wideout on the great gridiron in the sky and being the first one to try and hit him deep.

Meanwhile, those of us here back home aren't jumping for joy right now, no more than we were on August 12, 1978. On that woeful and fateful evening, out at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (who knows or cares which computer company it's named for now), in a preseason game, Darryl Stingley was mauled by a vicious Jack Tatum hit and left a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. To those who were rabid Patriot fans back then, or to those who know the telling and the re-telling of this horrid tale too well, Stingley has never been forgotten, and hopefully never will be.

Stingley died at his Chicagoland home on Thursday morning at the age of 55. The contributing causes of death, according to a Boston Globe report, were "bronchial pneumonia, quadriplegia, spinal cord injury, and coronary atherosclerosis". Because of his existing paralytic condition, he was never able to travel to Foxborough to see the Patriots, the new stadium, or the three Super Bowl trophies despite numerous invites from the Patriot organization, an organization he deeply loved despite his Chicago roots and rooting interests.

Stingley was one of three first round draft choices of the Patriots out of Purdue in 1973, along with Hall of Fame guard John Hannah and running back Sam "Bam" Cunningham. Playing alongside such wideouts as Reggie Rucker, Randy Vataha, and for one glorious season, Stanley Morgan, Stingley developed into a nice compliment for Vataha and Rucker, with 71 catches in his first four seasons (he missed a chunk of the 1974 season due to injury) for 1,226 yards. In 1976, the year the Patriots first made the NFL playoffs, he averaged 21.8 yards per catch, and began to show the real talent he possessed.

In 1977, the Patriots selected Morgan out of Tennessee in the first round (along with cornerback Raymond Clayborn of Texas), and Steve Grogan was presented a stunning wideout combo which would bring lots of passing yards, and wins, in the years to come. Morgan had 21 catches for 443 yards and three touchdowns that year, while Stingley had 39 catches for 657 yards and five touchdowns (all career highs). This came at a time when the Patriot running game ruled the roost (the 1978 squad still holds the NFL record for most team rushing yards in a season with 3,165 yards rushing), and Grogan's forte was as a running quarterback.

Still, with Stingley and Morgan as the wideout tandem for the foreseeable future, combined with "all-world" tight end Russ Francis, Grogan had the tools to bring his passing game up to par with everything else. In addition to his great rushing ability, few other Patriots in history were as tough as Grogan, and his leadership skills were as keen back then as Tom Brady's are today.

But all that promise came to a sudden halt on that awful night in Oakland.

In the second quarter, Stingley lined up on the right side and did a little in-cut over the middle. "We had a slant pattern called to Darryl, someone flashed early, I double-pumped, and threw the ball by him, high and over his head," Grogan told the Globe. As the overthrown ball sailed over Stingley, who jumped up to try and catch the ball, Tatum blasted Stingley with a ferocious hit which fractured the fourth and fifth vertebrae and left Stingley instantly paralyzed from the neck down. Stingley lay motionless on the Coliseum floor before being carted off on a stretcher several minutes later.

In watching the play many times over the years, it is hard to call Tatum's hit dirty or illegal, based on the rules in force in 1978. Tatum's hit wasn't late. It was a shoulder pad hit, not a forearm. It might be compared to one dished out by the legendary linebacker of the 1950s named Hardy Brown, who could maim anyone with a well-placed shoulder hit.

What has incensed Patriot fans over the years is Tatum's reaction to the hit. Then-Raider head coach John Madden became close friends with Stingley over the years. Other players reached out to Stingley with well wishes. But Tatum? He wrote a book in 1980 entitled They Call Me Assassin and has largely either bragged about his desire to injure opposing players or tried to make money off of appearances related to this tragedy.

Tatum, who did release a statement expressing sadness over Stingley's death, seemed more intent on preserving his tough guy persona. He might have thought that any expression of regret or remorse might be perceived as unmanly. As John Wayne said in the movie She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, "Don't apologize! It's a sign of weakness!" This may have been Tatum's mindset all along, even back when he was a young defensive back at Ohio State and a member of some of Woody Hayes' best-ever teams.

Patriot fans may have been more incensed at a 1996 meeting between Stingley and Tatum that never took place than that execrable book Tatum wrote (followed by a sequel nine years later). Tatum contracted diabetes in later years which would lead to loss of both his legs. Word leaked out that Tatum needed this meeting to help raise money to help him out in his plight, as well as to push his third book, Final Confessions of NFL Assassin Jack Tatum. Stingley cancelled the meeting when he learned of Tatum's real intentions.

Stingley is arguably the most tragic figure in Patriot history. But he remains one of its most beloved, which is saying a lot given all the players of recent years gaining in folklore status thanks to the three Super Bowl wins. His passing now relegates Stingley to legendary status, but in life he was loved by all, admired for his courage in facing his disability, and remembered for the talented football player he was.

Tatum deserves his place in history as well. Representing everything bad about the Raider franchise, Tatum must spend the rest of his days with no legs, scrounging and scraping for his next meal, and basically hated by most any football fan who doesn't swear by silver and black or scarlet and gray. He remains non-repentant to this day, dismissing Stingley's injury as merely part of the game and willing to take that sentiment with him to his grave.

If we all can learn two things from Stingley, those things would be how to face up to any adversity in life and the importance of forgiveness. If a person were forced to choose between who they would rather be between the two men, anyone claiming sanity would choose Stingley in a second. What Stingley now reaps in his new existence Tatum will likely never know.

Meanwhile, Graham just threw a perfect deep spiral which Stingley hauled in 50 yards downfield. Unitas wants next. How lucky those quarterbacks are now.

Bob George
Ten Years (1997-2007)