(Photo courtesy of Oakland Raiders)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
Upon his death in 2010, a New York Times obituary called Jack Tatum “a symbol of a violent game. “ Indeed he was. It is the reason so many believe he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the reason he likely will never get there.
Tatum was a man from a different time in professional football, a violent time when intimidation was as much a part of a team’s game plan as Xs and Os. Even in that world, for a decade Jack Tatum was the most feared tackler in the NFL, a brooding presence at the rear of an Oakland Raiders' secondary that terrorized receivers foolhardy enough to run across the middle.
Tatum made that clear game after game, but perhaps never moreso than in Super Bowl XI when he unloaded on Minnesota Vikings’ wide receiver Sammy White, knocking White unconscious, his helmet flying five yards backwards. It was a hit that set the tone for the day, which would turn into a Raiders’ rout.
Thirty years after Tatum’s retirement, NFL Films ranked the Top Ten Most Feared Tacklers of all-time. Tatum finished sixth, trailing only Dick Butkus, Dick “Night Train’’ Lane, Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott and Hardy Brown. All but Brown are in the Hall of Fame.
Lott, for one, has said he patterned his own concussive game after Tatum, who was a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro selection, one of those All-Pro years (1977) being a season when he inexplicably was not named to the Pro Bowl.
Between 1971, when he arrived in Oakland after an All-America career at Ohio State, until leaving in 1980 for a final season in Houston, Tatum was the leader of the “Soul Patrol’’ -- the Raiders’ violence-prone secondary that included Hall-of-Fame cornerback Willie Brown, George Atkinson and aptly named fellow safety Skip “Dr. Death’’ Thomas. Their style of play was the epitome of aggression, and none was more aggressive than Tatum, who was a force in run support and a heat-seeking missile who extracted a high price for running pass routes in his space.
“My idea of a good hit is when the victim wakes up on the sidelines with train whistles blowing in his head...I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault," Tatum once said.
But he also said, "I always wanted to hit someone hard, and if they got hurt, that was part of the game. But you always wanted them to be OK."
Sometimes they were not, and one of the most tragic such occurrences came on Aug. 12, 1978 when, in an innocuous exhibition game, Tatum leveled Patriots’ wide receiver Darryl Stingley. Tatum’s trademark forearm and shoulder crashed into Stingley’s head, breaking his neck. Darryl Stingley would never walk again. Jack Tatum would pay the price for the rest of his life.
Yet the hit itself, if one is honest about it, was like thousands delivered by defensive backs around the NFL then. There was no flag thrown because there was no penalty. It was a commonplace occurrence in an uncommonly violent time in pro football. Even Chuck Fairbanks, Patriots’ head coach at the time, said he couldn’t find anything illegal or dirty about it.
"I saw replays many, many times, and many times Jack Tatum was criticized," Fairbanks said. "But there wasn't anything at the time that was illegal about that play.”
Perhaps not, but the narrative became that the man who called himself “The Assassin’’ not only violently assaulted a defenseless receiver (which Tatum would say was his job) but was then callous about it. Stingley always believed Tatum made no effort to visit him in the hospital in Oakland. Tatum claimed he did but was rebuffed by Stingley’s family.
Whatever the truth, he appeared to try to capitalize on Stingley’s misery when he authored an unapologetic book titled, “They Call Me Assassin.’’ In it he made clear his belief was that football is a dangerous game and his job was to make it more dangerous.
He would later write in one of the three books he penned with the name “Assassin’’ in the title that "when the reality of Stingley’s injury hit me with its full impact, I was shattered. To think that my tackle broke another man’s neck and killed his future … I was paid to hit, the harder the better,” he wrote in the final book. He added: “I understand why Darryl is considered the victim. But I’ll never understand why some people look at me as the villain.”
Although the hit itself was not unlike many delivered every Sunday throughout the NFL in those days, the tragic result made it seem different, in part because of Tatum’s well-established reputation for mayhem. But what compounded the problem was the belief many shared that Tatum felt no remorse.
On one level he did not, because he believed everyone faced the same risk on a football field. But a week later he was run over by Rams’ running back Wendell Tyler as he came up to unload on him, clearly stopping at the last moment rather than running through Tyler. Witnesses were stunned.
"It was something that ate on him for his whole life,’’ his coach, John Madden, once said. Madden also supported Tatum’s claim that he had tried to visit Stingley in the hospital but was rebuffed.
Perhaps. But years later the two were finally set to meet for a joint television interview when Stingley learned at the last moment that it would be part of an effort to promote Tatum’s latest autobiography. They never spoke again, although Stingley did tell me in 2003 he had found a way to forgive Tatum in his heart.
"It's hard to articulate," he told me. "It was a test of my faith, the entire story. ‘In who, and how much, do you believe, Darryl?’ In my heart and mind, I forgave Jack Tatum a long time ago.’’
Much of the football world never did. With 37 career interceptions -- including four seasons with four, one with six and his final one in Houston with seven -- plus nine fumble recoveries (including a record 104-yard return against the Packers in 1972) and a feared reputation that daunted many a receiver, there is no disputing Jack Tatum was one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL throughout the 1970s.
Yet he has never been discussed by the Hall-of-Fame selection committee, and it seems unlikely he ever will. The last pure safety elected to the Hall was Paul Krause 17 years ago. He hasn’t played in 36 years. The last pure safety elected to the Hall to play was Ken Houston. His last game was 35 years ago.
So the safety position has long been one ignored by Hall-of-Fame voters. That being the case, it’s been easy to overlook Jack Tatum, whose football life was always on the edge of mayhem.
"Some defensive backs covered wide receivers,’’ Conrad Dobler once said of Tatum. “Jack buried them."
Indeed he did. And, it seems he buried his Hall-of-Fame chances with them.