THROUGH THE FIRE: Lessons from an Assassin’s Death

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By ALEX ISAO HERBACH

(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on August 18, 2010.)

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There are certain fragments of history which will always be associated with another fragment. Cain is linked to Abel just as any memory of Nixon will be flooded by Watergate. Recently, we’ve been reminded that this dichotomy exists in sports history as well.

A few weeks ago, former Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum, one of sports’ most divisive figures, died of a heart attack. Tatum’s statistical legacy will be legendary: a two-time All-American and national defensive player of the year at Ohio State, three Pro Bowls, a collegiate and Super Bowl champion.

But the textbooks say that the past is just as often tinged by tragedy than triumph, which is why no story about Jack Tatum, one of the most feared and misunderstood men in the history of professional football, can ever begin without the mention of Darryl Stingley. They are ebb and flow, eternally linked.

It all began on Aug. 12, 1978 during a preseason game between Tatum’s Oakland Raiders and Stingley’s New England Patriots. It was the day that Tatum hit Stingley as he reached back for a pass, severing the receiver’s fourth and fifth vertebrae and paralyzing him from the chest down.

It is at this point that history diverges, or I should say, where the voices dictating it disagree. It is true that Tatum and Stingley, who died in 2007, never reconciled. There have been numerous reports that attempts were made. Tatum has said that he tried to visit Stingley in the hospital but was turned away by the receiver’s family. Stingley told the Boston Globe he was approached by Tatum to appear with him on television, but backed out when he discovered that Tatum wanted to use the publicity to promote his new book. Regardless of what may or may not have happened between these two men, one thing is for certain. Ever since that fateful day in 1978, the voices have cried loud and clear for the head of Jack Tatum.

They have called him evil. They have called him immoral. Some have even called for his imprisonment, cursing Jack Tatum while simultaneously slandering themselves.

Just as I cannot blame God for his discretion, I cannot blame Jack Tatum for not apologizing for doing his job. He was a football player, paid to crush men and make them never want to get up. Jack Tatum never said he was a saint. I refuse to hold him to the standards of one.

He was a player who hit running backs so hard in college, that the current coach of his alma mater instituted the “Jack Tatum Hit of the Week Award.” By the time he got to the NFL, he was already called The Assassin, a nickname he did his best to live up to. He has said he would rather tackle people than make love and once told reporters, “I don’t care who gets in my way—my mother, my grandmother, my daughter—I’ll knock each and every one of them on their ass!”

Why would a man say such grotesque things? The answer is simpler than we want it to be: It was how he made his living. Because we tuned in to his games to see if he was a man of his word. Because we loved to watch him prove it.

It is beyond my humble capacities to understand why, when we see that Jack Tatum truly is what he says he is, we wave our rosaries under his nose in the hopes he will awake to our contrived sense of morality.

Have we learned nothing from Frankenstein? We cannot create the monster and then chastise him for being monstrous. Nor can we scorn a man for acts of violence while handing out awards that honor his carnality. It is the fundamental hypocrisy of football fans—to which even I am guilty—to want blood, only to squirm when it comes pouring out.

Karl Marx said that history is often repeated, once as tragedy and second as farce. The tragedy that was Tatum’s hit on Stingley has born with it the farce that is football today, where players can be fined without drawing a penalty flag and where quarterbacks can lose games for celebrating fourth-quarter comebacks. In an attempt to protect itself from the perceptions it covets, football has coddled itself beyond recognition. And as any babysitter will tell you, nobody wants to watch a spoiled child.

What happened to Stingley is a tragedy, one I hope to never see repeated again. The way Tatum opportunistically used that tragedy for financial benefit is deplorable. But in our attempts to justify the situation with cries for retribution, we have allowed our sports and our morality to mix. The result is a blend of both that does neither justice. Under pressure, the yard stick has bent. But it has not yet broken.

It all comes back to ebb and flow. To deal with the take-aways of life, how much are we willing to give up? The question isn’t if Jack Tatum has learned his lesson. The question is have we?

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Alex Isao Herbach is a freelance writer and sales director for a Southern California toy store. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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