by Peter Richmond
The face was weathered, etched by a lifetime of carrying a very heavy weight. The gait was slightly awkward; he‚Äôd lost his left leg below the knee in 2003, a casualty of diabetes. But on this night last winter, as fans clustered around him at Fred Biletnikoff‚Äôs anti-drug foundation dinner in a hotel ballroom south of Oakland, Jack Tatum was not wearing the expression of an assassin. ‚ÄúYou never make a tackle with a smile on your face,‚ÄĚ Woody Hayes had told him back at Ohio State, but on this night, his smile was wide, and open, and welcoming. The graying dreadlocks that swooped all the way down to his waist — hair that spoke of a 61-year-old man who had always lived by no rules but his own — swayed as he turned to accommodate each new autograph-seeker,
The hair had always been part of The Assassin‚Äôs signature. In the Seventies, as the most storied and feared member of the Raiders‚Äô fabled defensive backfield ‚Äď ‚ÄúThe Soul Patrol‚ÄĚ — Tatum had sported a fearsome Afro and a Fu Manchu and a menacing glare as he bore down on opposing receivers the way a tractor-trailer might bear down on a squirrel on a rural highway. A three-time Pro Bowler, he was the hardest-hitting safety the game has ever known, A Sports Illustrated poll named him one of the top five defensive backs of all time. NFL.com named him the sixth ‚Äúmost-feared tackler of all time.‚ÄĚ
Mike Siani, a Raider receiver of the time, puts him in the top two: ‚ÄúPound for pound, he was the toughest football player I‚Äôve ever seen. The only guy I could ever compare him to is Butkus.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúWhen Jack hit someone, it was a different sound,‚ÄĚ linebacker Phil Villapiano told me. ‚ÄúThere was a different sound between everyone else‚Äės hits and Jack Tatum‚Äôs hits.‚Äú
I introduced myself, and told him I was writing a book about his Super-Bowl winning Raiders of 1976: the last team of the old era, when you could be an outlaw and a rebel and a partier, and still play championship football. ‚ÄúCool,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúCall me.‚ÄĚ I did, and left a few messages. But his health was failing. I didn‚Äôt want to press. I knew that, 32 years after the Darryl Stingley play, the hit for which he‚Äôll forever be known, he was still reluctant to give interviews.
Then, one day, Tatum called me back, and we talked about the many unknown sides to the man. Of his grandfather‚Äôs farm in North Carolina: ‚ÄúIf I hadn‚Äôt played football, I‚Äôd‚Äôve probably been a farmer,‚ÄĚ he told me. ‚ÄúI just liked the peace and serenity.‚ÄĚ Of his other nickname on the Raiders ‚Äď The Reverend ‚Äď because, off the field, he was so contemplative and quiet. ‚ÄúBoth my dad and grandfather were quiet and reflective guys, but they were real men,‚ÄĚ he said. Clearly, in Tatum‚Äôs mind, the two were not mutually exclusive concepts,
‚ÄúHe was quick to smile, and so relaxed,‚ÄĚ Raider fullback Mark van Eeghen told me. ‚ÄúQuick to giggle and laugh. Then he‚Äôd put the helmet on, and, Jesus, the switch that would turn on.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI wanted them to know that I was in control of the field from the middle to the hashmarks,‚ÄĚ Tatum told me. ‚ÄúIf you wanted to play in that area, you had to pay. You had to pay me. But you can‚Äôt be off the field what people see on the field. That‚Äôs a whole different world ‚Ä¶ It was a different person when you take the field.‚ÄĚ
And, finally, we talked about Darryl Stingley. It had been a meaningless exhibition game in August of 1978, in Oakland: Steve Grogan‚Äôs pass had sailed high and behind the receiver, out of reach. As the two neared each other, Tatum lowered his head off to the left, so as to avoid a head-to-head hit; Tatum‚Äôs tackles had always been torso-to-torso, mano-a-mano. He had never been a head-hunter. But Stingley lowered his head, and it collided with Tatum‚Äôs right shoulder. Two of his vertebrae fractured, instantly rendering him a quadraplegic.
‚ÄúMy shoulder pad hit him,‚ÄĚ Tatum told me, reluctant but willing to discuss the play. ‚ÄúIt wasn‚Äôt head to head. And, yes, it was legal.‚ÄĚ It was a horrid confluence of events, just tragic physics. After the game, Tatum went to the hospital to visit Stingley but was denied admission: ‚ÄúWhen I got there they told me only the family was allowed to come that day,‚ÄĚ Tatum told me.
Up until his death in 2007, Stingley never professed any anger at Tatum. ‚ÄúFor me to go on and adapt to a new way of life,‚ÄĚ Stingley, who would die of complications from the injury, said in 1983, ‚ÄúI had to forgive him. I don‚Äôt harbor any ill feelings toward him. In my heart I forgave Jack Tatum a long time ago.‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs a sentiment worth following, for the Assassin disappeared years ago. The Reverend devoted his final years to the Jack Tatum Fund for Youthful Diabetes. The legacy should encompass more than the ferocity. It should speak of the farmer, too.