Darryl Stingley spent more than half his life in a wheelchair, a symbol of the violence of the NFL, where large bodies collide at high speeds on every play.
He was only 26 when he clashed head-on with the Raiders’ Jack Tatum during an exhibition at the Oakland Coliseum as they leaped for a pass.
That play has haunted the NFL for nearly three decades.
On Thursday, the aftereffects of Stingley’s grievous injury finally took his life at age 55.
He was pronounced dead at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after he was found unresponsive in his Chicago home, according to Tony Brucci, an investigator with the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
An autopsy revealed contributing factors were bronchial pneumonia, quadriplegia, spinal cord injury and coronary atherosclerosis, the medical examiner’s office said.
Stingley was a star receiver with the New England Patriots when he collided with Tatum on Aug. 12, 1978. With one jolt, his life was forever changed. His neck was broken; he was left a quadriplegic. In time, he regained limited movement in his right arm and was able to operate his electric wheelchair on his own.
“I have relived that moment over and over again,” he said in a 1988 interview with The Associated Press. “I was 26 years old at the time and I remember thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to me? If I live, what am I going to be like?’ And then there were all those whys, whys, whys?
“It was only after I stopped asking why, that I was able to regroup and go on with my life,” he said.
His death instantly rekindled the debate over the circumstances of the accident.
“I’ve thought about that throw over and over the years. Could I have changed anything or done anything differently?” Steve Grogan, the Patriots quarterback who threw the pass, said Thursday. “That hit probably was not necessary in a game with no meaning.”
But Chuck Fairbanks, the Patriots’ coach at the time, said he couldn’t find anything illegal or dirty about it. Nor did the officials; no flag was thrown on Tatum.
“I saw replays many, many times, and many times Jack Tatum was criticized,” Fairbanks said. “But there wasn’t anything at the time that was illegal about that play. I do think probably that play was a forerunner for some of the changes in rules that exist today that are more protective of receivers, especially if there is head-to-head-type contact. I think that probably pre-empted some of the things that happened today.”
Gene Upshaw, who played for the Raiders in that game, got to know Stingley well after the injury. Now executive director of the NFL Players Association, he helped push owners to provide benefits for disabled players: $48,000 in Stingley’s time; $225,000 now.
“It was one of those things that happens that everyone regrets,” Upshaw said. “I know a lot of people in New England think differently, but Jack had no intention of hurting him. I saw him hit people like that a lot of times. That was the way he played.”
That style made Tatum a symbol of a violent game and he never was able to shed that reputation. He eventually wrote a book titled: “Final Confessions of NFL Assassin Jack Tatum.”
“I am deeply saddened by the death of Darryl Stingley,” Tatum said in a statement released by the Raiders. “Darryl will be forever remembered for his strength and courage. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Stingley, who worked as a consultant for the Patriots, often visited paralyzed patients in hospitals and lived a full life despite his disability. He wrote a book about his experiences entitled “Happy to Be Alive,” in 1983, and 10 years later started a nonprofit foundation to help inner-city youth in Chicago, where he grew up and attended Marshall High School.
Tatum and Stingley never reconciled. In 1996, they were supposed to meet for a TV appearance, but Stingley called it off after being told it was to publicize Tatum’s book.
But when he learned that Tatum needed to have part of a leg amputated because of diabetes, he empathized.
“You can’t, as a human being, feel happy about something like that happening to another human being,” Stingley told the Boston Globe in 2003. “Maybe the natural reaction is to think he got what was coming to him, but I don’t accept human nature as our real nature. Human nature teaches us to hate. God teaches us to love.”
Broadcaster John Madden, the Raiders’ coach at the time, remained close to Stingley, visiting him in the hospital daily after the injury.
“After the game, when we found out that Darryl was paralyzed, John told him that from now on he was a Raider and we should treat him as one,” Upshaw said.
During his induction last summer to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Madden’s thoughts weren’t far from Stingley when he said, “We all like to see hard, aggressive play, but you always want the guy to get up.”
Ten years ago, there was another scare for Stingley and his family when his son, Derek, was hit in the chest during an Arena Football game in Albany, N.Y. He sustained a concussion, but was not seriously hurt.
Stingley was raised in Chicago and went to Purdue after starring at John Marshall High School. In 1973, the Patriots made him a first-round draft pick.
Just when he got hurt, he seemed ready to become one of the NFL’s top receivers.
In 1977, he had 39 catches with a 16.8 average and five touchdowns. Those were very good figures in an era when defensive backs were allowed to hit receivers all over the field and linemen couldn’t use their hands to block.
In 1978, when he was injured, the NFL changed rules to open up the game and enacted new ones that are still in effect – making a chuck illegal 5 yards past the line of scrimmage and giving linemen more leeway in their blocks.
Stingley is survived by his wife, Martine, and three sons, Hank, John and Derek. Funeral services are pending.
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