(Ed. Note: Thanks to Athenae for letting me post on an off day. I couldn’t let this pass without a timely requiem. — Doc.)
He was about my height and had a graying mustache. His eyes
were soft and his smile was friendly. On his gnarled right hand, a relic of his
glory sat perched on his third finger. It was the only thing that distinguished
him from the other men in their 50s who wandered around the Sam’s Town casino
that repressively hot afternoon in Las Vegas.
For the $5 Dad and I each spent that day, we could have gotten a
lousy steak dinner or five minutes at a nickel slot.
Instead, we got a moment with Jack Tatum, the hard-hitting NFL safety who died
today of a heart attack.
If you played for the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s, you had
a nickname, and usually a colorful one at that. You had The Snake calling
plays, the Mad Stork at middle linebacker, the Tooz on the line
and four maniacs in the secondary known as the Soul Patrol.
Peel that nickname back a layer and you had Old Man Willie,
Dr. Death and Butch.
And then there was Tatum a.k.a. The Assassin.
He had an amazing football pedigree. He played for Woody Hayes at
Ohio State and John Madden in Oakland. He made the Pro Bowl three times and was once named the NFL’s defensive back of the year.
He was a member of the team of
heartbreak: The Raiders owned the 1970s, with the best winning percentage from
1969 to 1976. Still, they could never break through. In the playoffs, they
consistently lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champions, usually Miami or
Instead of being known for those things, the Raider players
were known as a dirty team of cast offs and felons, an image codified by their
maverick owner Al Davis and their colors of silver and black.
He wasn’t a felon, but Tatum was a killer to say the least.
In his first NFL game, he knocked not one but two of the
Baltimore Colt tight ends out of the game.He drilled Sammy White so hard in
Super Bowl XI that White’s helmet came flying off.
In a day and age of guys who hit first and asked questions
later, Tatum separated himself from the pack.
In a time in which the Oakland Raiders were viewed as
outlaws, The Assassin spread fear in receivers more than any other man.
Unfortunately, the lasting image of Tatum isn’t of his Super Bowl hit or
even his hit on Frenchy Fuqua that triggered the “Immaculate Reception.” It is
the hit that didn’t even count on the stat sheets.
In a pre-season game against the New England Patriots, he
hit a leaping Darryl Stingley and crushed Stingley’s spine. Stingley was
paralyzed from his chest down for the rest of his life.
The two men never spoke from that day until the day Stingley
died in 2007. Tatum refused to play up the incident to enhance his image, nor
did he play it down when people asked why he never apologized. Over the years
he explained that there was a difference between sadness and guilt.
He felt sad
about what happened to Stingley. Guilt would imply he had done something wrong on a play that didn’t even draw a penalty flag.
Later in life, Tatum’s health began to fail.He fought
diabetes, losing all the toes on his left foot after a staph infection set in.
He also lost his right leg to an arterial blockage and was fitted with a
prosthetic limb. It was as if God were claiming him one piece at a time.
When I met him in that casino, it was before he started
going down hill.
He had a reputation of being a killer on the field and did
little to disabuse people of that notion. He wrote three books: They Call Me
Assassin, They Still Call Me Assassin and Final Confessions of NFL Assassin
I knew about Stingley and I’d met more than my share of
athletes. Most of the ones who people REALLY knew about tended to fall into the
Tired Legend or Bitter Legend category. They’d answered the same question
87,354,253 times and didn’t want to answer it anymore. They were here for a
paycheck and that was about it.
Tatum was one of those rare exceptions: a kind man who was
signing for almost no money. The line was fairly decent, but he never seemed
When I talked with him a bit, I got the sense he was
comfortable in his own skin. He was working with various diabetes foundations
at the time and still loved his fans.
He signed an autograph that was longer than about half the
essays I get from my students. He personalized it to me, added a personal
message, his name, his nickname and his number. He then posed for a couple
pictures. When Dad’s turn came up, he did the same thing. He probably would
have spent the rest of the day with us had his handler not pushed the line
As we put our stuff away and packed up for home, I looked
back at him. He was chatting with a lady who’d brought a book for him to sign
and the woman’s male companion who had a Raiders helmet. The helmet was covered
in autographs from the Super Bowl team and Tatum was talking about each guy who
had signed. They all laughed and smiled as he reveled in sharing their moment
In thinking about this today after I heard he died, I
realized I was happy I didn’t get what I had expected that day.
I expected the legend.
Instead, I was grateful to have met the man.