When it comes to the soul of the game, purists like our CEO thinks of games being dominated by fierce and aggressive defense. One player that embodied that spirit was Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders. When his name is brought up it’s hard to not think of the unfortunate paralysis injury suffered by Darryl Stingley in 1978. However he was much more than that. During the 1970’s he made the Oakland Raiders defensive secondary the forceful equivalent of the Pittsburgh Steelers front four.
The Raiders weren’t a great defense from a statistical standpoint. In fact their highest ranking against the pass during the 1970’s was 5th in 1975, and 8th in 1973. As a matter of fact the year the Raiders went 13-1, won Super Bowl XI & the Raiders were 22nd against the pass. However for a record 5 straight years (1973-1977) the Raiders made it to the AFC Championship Game and Jack Tatum was a main reason why.
It was his physical style of play the Raiders fed off of and his mentality became that of the Oakland Raiders defense. Even SS George Atkinson, who began his career as a corner with the Raiders in the late 1960s’, had Jack’s playing style rub off and become his style of play. Nowhere in football history were there ever more cases of “alligator arms” than there were going across the middle when Jack Tatum was on patrol. His hits were like car collisions.
One of his most famous hits occurred in what has been called the single greatest touchdown in NFL history, The Immaculate Reception. The famous Franco Harris touchdown with :22 left in the 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff the Steelers won 13-7. Initially on 4th and 10, Terry Bradshaw was trying to complete a pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua when the ball and Tatum all arrived at the same time. NFL rules at the time didn’t permit a pass to be tipped by a receiver then caught by another receiver. Had that occurred the play would be ruled incomplete and penalized for “illegal touching”. The problem was it was so close you couldn’t call what happened from the naked eye.
When the Steelers were awarded the touchdown it touched off a bitter 5 year playoff rivalry and controversy over that play rages to this day. Tatum had another famous hit that you saw in the first video when he knocked Sammy White of the Vikings out in Super Bowl XI. It was the fourth quarter and the Vikings were forced to pass and the Raiders knew it. However, 11 months later in what would be John Madden’s last playoff game as coach of the Raiders, another Tatum hit was in the middle of another controversy. It was during the 3rd quarter of the 1977 AFC Championship with Oakland trailing the Denver Broncos 7-3. The Raiders had fumbled to put the Broncos in business inside the Raiders 20 yard line. Several plays later when it was 1st and goal with the momentum teetering toward the Denver sideline, Tatum comes through with a thunderous shot…
Another case of the Raiders coming up on the short end of the stick and was one of the reasons they lost 20-17. Although our CEO lived in Denver at the time and was cheering for the Broncos, he believes they were robbed. Rob Lytle clearly fumbled. Had they won they would have gone to Super Bowl XII with a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. They would have beaten Dallas and would have been crowned a dynasty had they made it there. Jack Tatum would play two more years with the Raiders before joining the Houston Oilers in 1980. He and quarterback Ken Stabler were traded to the Oilers to help Bum Phillips “Kick In The Door” which was the slogan used that year. Ironically they didn’t face Pittsburgh in the playoffs, instead they lost in Oakland to the Raiders in the 1980 AFC Wildcard Game 27-7. For his 10 year career, he did intercept 37 passes with a high of 7 in the lone year he played in Houston. Yet it was the fierce way he hit that brought Tatum his notoriety.
Epilogue: However fame and memory of his play has been purposely obscured by NFL Films selectively after the event where Darryl Stingley was paralyzed. For every fearsome defender that has come through the NFL, there are videos of these tough players, many of which we feature here, yet Tatum is a glaring omission. Contrary to popular belief he did try to see Darryl Stingley while he was in the hospital in Oakland but the family turned him away. John Madden chronicles it in one of his books. Former Ohio St teammate John Hicks said Stingley’s paralysis had an affect on Jack Tatum, saying he became a recluse.
He seemed to be be caught between the tough guy persona and the humanity that did lie within. He’s been quoted from his book They Call Me Assassin that “I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.” Trying to capitalize on his bad boy persona since that was what he had to go off of in future years. We don’t know what was said to Jack Tatum by the Stingley family that night in that hospital. Yet defensive players using hyperbole to describe what they perceive as the perfect hit isn’t anything new. In the Soul of the Game article with Dick Butkus, he describes a scene from Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. Where he describes how a decapitated head rolls down the stairs and he liked to project those things happening (to his opponent) on the football field.
In other writings and videos we celebrate the over the top intensity and meanness of an Ed Sprinkle, a “Bulldog” Turner, a Wilber Marshall, a Hardy Brown, a Cliff Harris, a “Mean” Joe Greene, a “Mad Dog” Mike Curtis, or what about the comments and actions of a one Jack Lambert?? None of these men were asked to apologize for the way they played nor should they have to. Well, neither should Jack Tatum. The question remains: Did Jack Tatum handle the whole situation with Darryl Stingley the right way?? In my opinion he could have done more to make amends with him but it’s not up to me to be the complete judge on all that took place. Again we don’t know what was said between the Stingley family to him that fateful night. Understand I’m not trying to make the villain into the victim, but it’s high time that someone says something in Tatum’s defense. Quit treating him like a pariah, almost like he didn’t exist.
Ronnie Lott, Kenny Easley, Todd Bell, Dennis Smith, Dennis Thurman, Leonard Smith and the generation of NFL Safeties that came onto the scene as he was retiring patterned much of their game after his. On July 27, 2010, Jack Tatum passed away, but the way he played lives on as the generation who saw him play share memories of him with grandchildren like a Paul Bunyan type. There isn’t a lot of footage on him so the stories have to be told of how he was such a hitter. Well he was an intimidating performer and definitely a Soul of the Game defender.
Dedicated to the memory of Jack Tatum (November 18, 1948 – July 27, 2010)
RIP Darryl Stingley (September 18, 1951 – April 5, 2007)
RIP Rob Lytle (November 12, 1954 – November 20, 2010)
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