As we had occasion to note over the last couple weeks following the deaths of George Steinbrenner and Ralph Houk, one hates to speak ill of the recently deceased. However, there is that danger that the last word on someone’s life is the one that’s going to define his legacy, and that’s particularly important in the case of Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum, who died yesterday (July 27).
As Judy Battista points out in her obit in today’s New York Times, Tatum was involved “in a number of plays that have become enshrined in NFL history. In the 1977 Super Bowl against the Minnesota Vikings, he hit Vikings wide receiver Sammy White so hard that White’s helmet flew off, a play immortalized on highlight reels. And it was Tatum’s hit on Pittsburgh receiver Frenchy Fuqua in a 1972 playoff game that sent a Terry Bradshaw pass ricocheting into the arms of Franco Harris, who ran the ball in for the winning Steelers touchdown, a play christened The Immaculate Reception.”
Both those plays, it should be noted, not only highlighted what Tatum was best known for — smashing into receivers when they were most vulnerable, going for the ball — but also his primary weakness as a defender, namely that he always went for the hit rather than for the ball. In the case of the Sammy White hit, it’s arguable that Tatum helped his team, though that is questionable: it isn’t clear that White would have caught the ball anyway. In any event, it backfired big time in the Immaculate Reception, when Tatum might have had a chance to simply knock the ball down and instead helped set-up the winning TD for the other team.
There’s already a great deal of revisionism going on now regarding Tatum’s reputation. For years he was reviled as the man who crippled New England wide receiver Darryl Stingley in 1978. To some, Tatum was simply doing his job. For instance, Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky in “Jack Tatum Killed Darryl Stingley, and We Made Him Do It.”
“Don’t blame Jack Tatum for doing what we wanted him to do. Blame him for doing it too well. We need players like Tatum so that when it all goes wrong on some fluke tackle, we can point to them instead of acknowledging that horrific injury is the only logical outcome of the game as we know it.”
Slow down, Barry. First of all, we didn’t ask Tatum to cripple anybody, nor did we ask him to brag about it like he did in his last of three books, Final Confessions of an NFL Assassin (1998): “I was paid to hit, the harder the better. I understand why Darryl is considered the victim, but I’ll never understand why some people look at me as the villain.”
It’s too late for me to tell him this in person (though I did play against him in one high school football game when I was a sophomore at Madison township High, New Jersey, and he was a senior at Passaic), but if I had a chance, I’d say it like this: “Darryl Stingley was playing football, and you were playing Hit Darryl Stingley. You had an equal chance to go for the ball, but that’s not what you were doing. You were playing the way as you described it to me in an interview once: ‘If you have a chance to go for the interception or the hit, you always take the hit because the receiver will always remember it more.'”
The “horrific injury” that Petchesky writes of is not the “logical” outcome of the game as we know, it but the logical outcome of the game as people like Jack Tatum played it. There are 21 safeties and cornerbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, players like Emlen Tunnell, who starred on the Giants 1950s teams; Dick “Night Train” Lane, anchor of the great Lions defenses of the late 1950s and early 1960s; Willie Wood and Herb Adderly of Lombardi’s great Packers champions in the 1960s; Mel Blount, one of the stars of the Steelers’ Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s; and my own personal favorite, Ronnie Lott, who was arguably as important to four Forty-Niners’ Super Bowl winners as Joe Montana. And while we’re at it, let’s mention Willie Brown, who played on some of the same Raiders teams as Tatum. No one ever said these guys weren’t great hitters, but none of them ever said their primary function on the football field was to hit the receiver, not to stop the advance of the football.
Which may be why they’re all in the Hall of Fame and Jack Tatum is not.