In many ways, former NFL safety Jack Tatum, who died earlier this week, perfectly epitomized the hard-hitting NFL of the 1970s and the renegade reputation of the Oakland Raiders of that era. Known as “The Assassin”, Tatum played hard and made no apologies for his style or the repercussions.
Sadly, he is probably best known for his hit on New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley that left the wideout paralyzed for the remainder of his life. The hit, which occurred in a preseason game, was a legal hit, but many thought that Tatum played with a dangerous recklessness that was beyond the normal violence associated with the NFL.
Tatum fed off his reputation, a fact that some think is one reason he has received little consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His biography was called “They Call Me Assassin” and in the book he wrote that “I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.”
Tatum and Stingley never reconciled, though in his 1980 autobiography Tatum wrote, “When the reality of Stingley’s injury hit me with its full impact, I was shattered. To think that my tackle broke another man’s neck and killed his future.”
In recent years Tatum endured physical hardship of his own. He suffered from diabetes and had a leg amputated. He died from a heart attack.
Drafted in the first round of the 1971 NFL Draft out of Ohio State University, Tatum made an immediate impact for the Raiders as he intercepted four passes and recovered two passes as a rookie.
The hit on Stingley was not the only well known hit of his career. In the 1972 AFC Playoffs, his hit on Frenchy Fuqua of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the final seconds was perfectly timed to keep Fuqua from making the catch. However, it occurred with such force that the ball popped up in the air and was grabbed by Franco Harris who ran into the end zone with the “Immaculate Reception.”
His hit on receiver Sammy White of the Minnesota Vikings during Super Bowl XI separated White from his helmet and is still a staple on NFL Films hardest hits videos.
The Raiders of the 1970s were a collection of characters and Tatum fit in perfectly. His straggly facial hair and afro fit perfectly with his image and added to his lore.
Often lost in his reputation is the tremendous ability Tatum displayed as a free safety. A three-time Pro Bowler, he intercepted 37 passes and had 10 fumble recoveries during his 10 year NFL career.
After playing nine seasons in Oakland, Tatum finished his career with one season in Houston. He followed up his 1980 autobiography with two additional books, “They Still Call Me Assassin: Here We Go Again” in 1989 and “Final Confessions of an NFL Assassin” in 1996.