Darryl Stingley’s near fatal injury in ’78 was the first time I came to grips with how expendable NFL players are. I was left deeply conflicted over the game’s entertainment value vs. toll taken on it’s participants.
Flash forward 29 (!) years later and I’m not conflicted in the slightest. Every day we’re getting a vicarious charge from someone else’s exploits or misfortune. That Darryl Stingley paid a heavy price for our amusement is less an indictment of pro football but rather just another example of how the human race sucks.
From the Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner.
Former pro football wide receiver Darryl Stingley, a quadriplegic who became a symbol of the game’s violence, died early this morning at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. He was 55.
The cause of death was not immediately available. An autopsy will be performed later today.
Stingley’s life changed forever on Aug. 12, 1978, in a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. A wide receiver for the New England Patriots, Stingley was the victim of a vicious but legal hit by Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum. The blow broke Stingley’s neck and left him a quadriplegic for life.
Stingley grew up in Chicago and was a star player at John Marshall High School, where he was a standout running back. He received a scholarship to Purdue University, where he was converted to wide receiver. He was the third of three first-round draft picks of the Patriots in 1973.
Stingley recalled the viscious hit in a 2004 interview with the Tribune. “There was no penalty called on the play and there was a lot of controversy about it,” he said. “The best thing that resulted is that the game changed in terms of officiating and what they call excessive violence. It has opened the game up to allow receivers to get downfield. And it has made the game more exciting.”
But reconciling his fate was no easy task for him. His downtown condo had been been renovated to accommodate his special needs.
“I was at my peak at that time . . . You have to try to find a rhyme or reason when things like that happen,” he said in the 2004 interview. “It took me a while to exorcise all the demons. All I had to do was come out of the house or travel around the country. Everybody I came in contact with let me know there was more of a purpose for me in life than looking at it negatively. So I decided to look at it in a positive way.”
Tatum suffered his own setbacks, eventually losing his left leg to diabetes and his right leg to an arterial blockage.
Tatum wrote a book, “They Call Me Assassin,” celebrating his reputation as a vicious hitter. On the 25th anniversary of his hit on Stingley, HBO attempted to put the two together on the air. Stingley declined.
Stingley said at the time that he was willing to talk to Tatum, but he wouldn’t be exploited.
(also – see Ron Borges’ profile of Stingley from the August 8, 2002, Boston Globe)