Football still a hard-hitting game, despite pain it causes

Updated: April 5, 2007, 6:32 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Darryl Stingley, who died early Thursday a quadriplegic at age 55, had his career and his life irrevocably altered during an NFL game in which he absorbed a vicious and arguably unnecessary hit from Oakland safety Jack Tatum. Which brings us, sort of, to Ronnie Lott. Or Steve Atwater. Or John Lynch, Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert …

Stingley Interview
Stingley
In an August 2003 interview with Dan Patrick, an upbeat Darryl Stingley discussed his injury the day after the 25th anniversary of the hit delivered by Jack Tatum. Listen
Stingley's death and the difficult circumstances around it, with their unseemly loose ends and profound lack of closure, revive again the conversation around Tatum's hit, and perhaps appropriately so. But on the larger subject of violence in the sport, the issue is long settled.

It thrives. And that's exactly as the people who support it wish.

There's a great old hockey story in which somebody goes up to the legendary Conn Smythe and tells him the violence is really getting out of hand, with people blasting into people and genuine malice attached to the force of their collisions. Smythe replies, and I'm paraphrasing, you're right. If we don't stop soon, people will continue lining up to buy tickets.

And that's football, or at least one significant element of it. Mourning the passing of Stingley, who had a pro career of great promise cut short by Tatum's hit in a meaningless preseason game, is not the same as advocating a move away from the basic savagery of the sport itself.

In Lott's biography on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Web site, oblique salutations to the beauty of the vicious hit are made. "Known for his hard-hitting style," is how the Hall tastefully describes it. But the reality is the same no matter how eloquently worded: Lott was famous not merely for being a brilliant defensive back, but for beating the breath out of receivers with the ferocity of his attacks.

It's no badge of dishonor; it is, rather, part of the basis of his greatness. Butkus surely would say the same. LT, as Taylor came to be known, essentially was revered for reinventing the linebacker as the scariest new monster on the field: as fast as anyone out there, but with a weight and a strength that made him the most violent projectile in uniform. And there aren't many fans of the game who weren't completely transfixed watching Taylor do his thing, with a crushing hit the preferred ending to the play.

Stingley turned his abruptly changed life pattern into an instrument for good. He developed a nonprofit foundation in support of the troubled kids growing up on Chicago's West Side, where Stingley himself was raised. He maintained a full dignity around his life, and its tragedy, throughout. He consistently declined to appear together with Tatum, who, sadly, never reconciled with Stingley, and whom Stingley suspected of being willing to appear together strictly for the sake of commercial gain.

Tatum himself discussed his horror at seeing Stingley's life changed by his hit -- legal, under the NFL rules at the time, but nevertheless a crushing shot from behind on a pass Stingley had no chance to reach with his leap. But Tatum did so in books, for money, and often declined the opportunity to speak about it further, though friends and Raiders teammates say he remained deeply anguished by the event. (A person trying to ask Tatum a question about Stingley during a 2003 fan meet-and-greet at the Oakland Coliseum had the microphone pulled from his hand.)

Around the Raider camp itself, the prevailing feeling over the years has been that Stingley was the victim of almost preternatural bad luck. Tatum hit everybody hard, after all. It was his thing -- and he was hardly alone. He'd hardly be alone today. There are very few players in the NFL who won't deliver the most vicious hit they believe they legally can deliver. The violence is inherent in the game -- it's right in the middle of everything.

It's interesting to note that, according to teammates such as George Atkinson, Tatum wasn't the same player after the Stingley hit in 1978. John Madden, then the Raiders coach and a man who visited Stingley regularly in the Oakland-area hospital where he stayed after the incident, later was quoted as saying that Tatum "went into a shell" after the play. Others have said that Tatum -- who would go on to suffer significant health problems of his own -- never again played with the kind of all-out ferocity he had employed before the incident.

The consensus? Tatum was worlds better before, when he went into every collision with everything he had. It is a hard, unsentimental truth as old as the game itself. Not even real tragedy dilutes it.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland", published by HarperCollins, is in its third printing. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.

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