Oakland Raiders free safety Jack Tatum levels New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley with a helmet-to-helmet hit in a preseason game, leaving Stingley paralyzed for life. Despite the sport’s hard hits and reputation for roughness, this was the first and only time a player was permanently paralyzed as a result of an injury sustained in a National Football League game.
Stingley, a wide receiver out of Purdue, was chosen by the Patriots in the first round of the 1973 draft. He showed rapid improvement in his first few NFL seasons and was thought to be one of the league’s rising stars. In 1977, he had enjoyed the best year of his career, racking up 39 catches for 657 yards and five touchdowns. Tatum, known as a hard-hitting defensive back, had starred at Ohio State and was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the 1971 draft. Nicknamed “the assassin” at Ohio State for his vicious hits, Tatum had knocked Baltimore Colts star tight end John Mackey unconscious in his NFL debut. In Super Bowl XI, Tatum hit Minnesota Viking Sammy Knight so hard that Knight’s helmet flew off—the move is often referred to as one of the hardest hits in Super bowl history.
The hit that Tatum would be best remembered for in his 10-year, three-time Pro Bowl career, though, came on August 12, 1978, during a pre-season game at the Oakland Coliseum. Stingley ran a shallow post pattern down the right hash mark toward the middle of the field to collect a pass from Patriot quarterback Steve Grogan. Tatum met him at full speed, hitting Stingley with his helmet and forearm and sending him to the ground with alarming force. The hit did not violate any NFL rules and no flag was thrown on the play, but Stingley’s neck was broken between the fourth and fifth vertebrae, rendering the 26-year-old a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down. The tragic injury sent a shockwave through the NFL and its massive audience of fans.
Raiders head coach John Madden visited Stingley in the hospital every day after the injury, made him an honorary member of his team and instructed the Raiders to treat him as such. When Tatum went to see Stingley in the hospital, however, Stingley’s family would not allow him into the room. They weren’t alone in being angry with Tatum for what seemed like a lack of remorse about the hit. Tatum explained his position this way: “…you can’t get emotional about it. You don’t like to see any player get hurt, but football is a contact sport and that’s a real dangerous pattern. We don’t even run it in practice. But I had to do what I had to do. It was my job, and he was doing his job.”
In the aftermath of Stingley’s injury, the NFL was criticized for its violent nature. Partially in response to this event, the NFL worked to revise its rules to protect receivers on the field with tighter refereeing and stricter play calling. In addition, helmet-to-helmet hits were eventually ruled illegal anywhere on the field. Friends of Stingley also worked to secure better benefits for disabled NFL players.
Darryl Stingley died on April 5, 2007, as a result of complications from his injury. Stingley and Tatum never reconciled.