The Assassin

July 27

Jack Tatum scared me, and I didn’t even know him.

Tatum was one of the most intimidating presences in sports history, which worked to his benefit and his detriment. As it turned out, there was a wide gap between image and reality. Those who knew him said he was a truly nice guy who loved to laugh.

Tatum died of a heart attack today at the age of 61, after years of dealing with diabetes.

Tatum was a walking morality play: a reflection of what pro football had become and how we as fans feel about the game. He was about unbridled violence, and we ate it up. Decades later, many of us still yelled “JACKED UP” along with ESPN.

Was Tatum a product of the game he played, or did he make the game more violent ? The answer to both is probably yes — he is not totally blameless but not the lone culprit.

Tatum was made the poster-boy for NFL outlaws because he was an Oakland Raider, and because of the unfortunate hit on the Patriots’ Darryl Stingley that left him paralzyed for the rest of his life. Stingley passed away in 2007.

Tatum claimed that he tried to visit Stingley in the hospital, but Stingley’s family turned him away. With their emotions raw, who could blame them ? But Tatum said he tried to make contact with Stingley in later years and there was always some problem.

Tatum was certainly not trying to paralyze Stingley, and in fact his friend John Hicks said the play haunted Tatum for years, despite the public bravado.

Tatum didn’t help matters with his book “They Call Me Assassin,” in which he showed no remorse for being a head-hunter, regardless of the Stingley incident. He claimed it was a clean hit and the NFL did not penalize him for it — only later did it change the rules.

That’s an important point. Tatum did as much as the rules allowed, and like many players tried to push the envelope. It’s also true that the game is more regulated because of players like him.

There were several players who tried to match Tatum’s ferocity, during and after his playing days. Guys like Ronnie Lott and John Lynch. What changed is that players got bigger and faster, making big hits more dangerous.

In addition, the medicine improved, and we all became more educated about the cause and effects of concussions. Quarterbacks AND receivers are protected more than ever, and that’s a good thing. It’s not quite the same game it was in the 70’s.

That doesn’t mean violence has been eradicated, and still won’t be celebrated. Just check out the highlights of any game this fall. We still eat this stuff up and the NFL is king. Jack Tatum was one of the players who made it America’s most popular game — we just don’t want to admit it.

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