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Stingley's Saga Beginning Another Chapter

It's 25 years since he was paralyzed by Tatum's hit. Now former Raider's left leg has been amputated.

August 12, 2003|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Twenty-five years after the most catastrophic collision in NFL history -- a fierce tackle that forever changed the lives of the two men involved -- neither Darryl Stingley nor Jack Tatum can walk.

Stingley never will. The former New England Patriot receiver was paralyzed from the neck down in an exhibition game Aug. 12, 1978, after absorbing a hit by Tatum, the feared Oakland Raider safety whose autobiography is titled, "They Call Me Assassin."

Now, Tatum will have to learn to walk with the help of a prosthetic device. His left leg was amputated just below the knee this spring because of poor circulation resulting from diabetes. Already, he has undergone five surgeries this year.

"When I heard about Jack Tatum, my first reaction was shock," said Stingley, 51, whose father was a diabetic who lost his toes and then a leg before his death in 1989. "I thought about the irony of both our situations. And I thought about my dad. I think about how much I miss him, how much I still hear his voice. I think about whether he's pleased with the man I turned out to be."

Stingley has not heard from Tatum since the fateful hit, and he doesn't expect to. Tatum, who lives in Oakland and in recent years has worked Raider games making note of uniform violations, declined to be interviewed for this story.

"I forgave Jack Tatum years ago," said Stingley, who has a foundation dedicated to helping underprivileged youth in his hometown of Chicago. "You forgive, but you just don't forget. In my heart and in my mind, I've forgiven him and moved on. As a result, I was able to go on with my life without looking back with bitterness."

In an interview with a New Jersey newspaper at this year's Super Bowl, Tatum said he has stopped trying to convince the world he's a good person.

"I'm not going to beg forgiveness," he told the Bergen County Record. "That's what people say: You never apologized. I didn't apologize for the play. That was football. I was sorry that he got hurt. But to go out and apologize for the way I played football? That is never going to happen."

Just in case Tatum has a change of heart, Stingley plans to keep the same phone number he has had for the last 20 years. Sometimes Stingley feels comfortable speaking with reporters, and other times he doesn't. He turned down an interview request from CBS' Deion Sanders last fall because he didn't feel he could fully tell his story in two minutes. Stingley wrote a book titled "Happy to Be Alive," published in 1983.

There have been relatively few cases of paralysis in the NFL, considering the number of brutal collisions. Detroit Lion guard Mike Utley suffered a neck injury in a 1991 game that left him paralyzed from the waist down, and several players have had temporary paralysis, among them Dennis Byrd of the New York Jets, Frank Bush of the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh's Tommy Maddox.

Stingley is believed to be the only NFL player rendered quadriplegic because of something that happened on the field. Technically, he has "incomplete quadriplegia" with limited movement in his right arm. When he wears a brace to stabilize his fingers, he can dial a phone or surf the Internet. He completed his bachelor's degree at Purdue in 1992, and he leads a more normal life than people might think.

"If no one brings it up, we don't even look at my father as being handicapped," said Derek Stingley, 32, who has spent the past eight seasons as an Arena Football League player. "He goes shopping, goes out partying. He goes to plays, movies. Travels the country. There's nothing really holding him back, except it might require a little more planning."

The younger Stingley played out his one-year deal with the Carolina Cobras last season as a defensive specialist usually assigned to the opposition's best receiver. His father is never too far from his thoughts.

"Now that I'm a pro athlete myself on the defensive side, I'd naturally be concerned [if I hurt someone]," he said. "I know the nature of the game is to be violent, make great hits, put on a show for the fans. But at the same time, we're all in this together. I would love to see everybody walk away without an injury."

He was 7 when his father was injured, and most of the memories have faded. He recalls that he and his older brother, Darryl, were awakened by their mother the night it happened. She was rushing from their home in Chicago to Oakland, and she wanted to say goodbye to her sons.

"I had no idea what paralyzed meant," said Derek, who didn't see his father until he was transferred to a Chicago hospital more than four months after the accident. "When he was in the hospital, it just looked like he was sleeping. No tubes, no halo [apparatus], nothing. I remember trying to get him to move, to get up. It took me a while to believe my father couldn't move or get up."

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