Jack Tatum’s playing style was true to his nickname: The Assassin.
A bone-jarring tackler, the 5’10”, 200-pound Tatum was a safety who hit like a linebacker. He played ten NFL seasons, including nine with the Oakland Raiders, where he was a brooding presence at the rear of their secondary. Tatum played in three straight Pro Bowls between 1973 and 1975. He appeared in five AFC Championship Games and was a key component of the Raiders team that won Super Bowl XI.
Tatum played in the 1970s, a different time in professional football. Defenders mauled receivers, bumping them unmercifully at the line of scrimmage then grabbing and holding them all over the field. And the Raiders embodied the rough-and-tumble NFL of that era. For the Silver and Black, intimidation was as much a part of the game plan as X’s and O’s.
A symbol of a violent game, Tatum terrorized receivers foolhardy enough to run across the middle. He was the leader of the Soul Patrol, the Raiders’ punishing secondary that included Willie Brown, George Atkinson and Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas. Their style of play was the epitome of aggression, and no player was more aggressive than Jack Tatum.
I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.
One of the most feared tacklers in history, Tatum drew comparisons to Dick Butkus for his savage treatment of the ball carrier. NFL Films ranked him the sixth-hardest hitter in NFL history, two spots behind Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, who said he patterned his game after Tatum. The Assassin was at the center of some of pro football’s most memorable plays.
In Tatum’s second season, the Raiders led the Pittsburgh Steelers 7-6 with 22 seconds remaining in a 1972 AFC divisional playoff game. Facing fourth-and-10 on their own 40-yard line, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw scrambled out of the pocket and threw the ball toward Frenchy Fuqua. Tatum unloaded on Fuqua just as the ball arrived, knocking Fuqua to the ground and sending the ball sailing backwards, end over end. Steelers fullback Franco Harris was trailing on the play and scooped up the ball just before it hit the ground. In what may be the most famous play in NFL history – the Immaculate Reception — Harris rambled 45 yards for the game-winning touchdown. The play and the game set the tone for pro football’s fiercest rivalry, as the two teams would combine to win five Super Bowls during the decade.
In Super Bowl XI, Minnesota Vikings wideout Sammy White caught a crossing-route dart from Fran Tarkenton on a third-and-long at midfield. Tatum barreled into White, sending the rookie receiver’s helmet eight yards backward. Miraculously, White held onto the ball but was forced to leave the game. The hit typified the Raiders dominance that day, as they routed the Vikings 32-14.
While everyone agrees that Tatum’s tactics were vicious and violent, some considered them dirty. His most controversial tackle – and one that came to define his career – occurred in a meaningless exhibition game against New England in August 1978. Tatum and Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley collided as Stingley was leaping for a pass on an inside slant route. The ball sailed incomplete, but Tatum blasted him head-on anyway. Tatum’s trademark forearm and shoulder crashed into the 26-year-old Stingley’s head, which he had lowered to protect himself. The impact broke Stingley’s neck, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Darryl Stingley would never walk again and Jack Tatum would pay the price for the rest of his life.
My idea of a good hit is when the victim wakes up on the sidelines with train whistles blowing in his head.
Tatum never spoke to Stingley after the incident and appeared to show no remorse. Friends say Tatum became somewhat of a recluse. According to former Raiders coach John Madden, “it was something that ate at him for his whole life.” Darryl Stingley, who two decades later told the Boston Globe that he had forgiven Tatum, died of complications from the injury in 2007. He was 55, and had spent more than half his life in a wheelchair.
Born in Cherryville, North Carolina, November 11, 1948, Jack David Tatum grew up in Passaic, New Jersey. He attended Passaic High School, alma mater of former NFL running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward as well as 1960s soul/doo-wop group The Shirelles. Tatum had little interest in sports as a youngster and did not play football until his sophomore year. A running back and defensive back, he was named high school All-American as a senior.
After considering several scholarship offers, Tatum decided on Ohio State, where he became part of the 1967 “Super Sophomore” class. The legendary Woody Hayes lured 11 consensus high school All-Americans to Columbus. Six of them, including Tatum and Lombardi and Outland trophy winner Jim Stillwagon, went on the become consensus college All-Americans. Five members of the Buckeyes’ Class of ’67 were selected among the first 29 picks of the 1971 NFL draft.
Hayes recruited Tatum as a running back, but assistant coach Lou Holtz convinced his boss to switch Tatum to defensive back as a freshman. A multidimensional force at roverback [a corner/safety/linebacker hybrid] Tatum was a three-time First Team All-Big Ten performer. He led the Buckeyes to a 27-2 record, the 1968 national championship, and at least a share of three conference titles.
Tatum teamed with Mike Sensibaugh at Ohio State, where the two safeties were elected to the Buckeye’s All-Century Team in 2000. Tatum was made honorary defensive captain.
A two-time unanimous All-American, Tatum finished 10th in Heisman Trophy voting in his junior season and seventh as a senior. After being named 1970 College Defensive Player of the Year, the Oakland Raiders selected the hard-hitting defender with the 19th overall pick of the 1971 NFL draft.
Tatum battled health woes after retirement. He suffered from diabetes that led to the amputation of all five toes on his left foot, and he later lost his left leg below the knee. An arterial blockage cost him his right leg. He used a prosthetic limb thereafter. Later in life, Tatum’s kidneys began to fail and he became a candidate for a transplant. He died in Oakland July 27, 2010, after a heart attack.
Jack Tatum’s style of play would not be tolerated in today’s NFL. Clotheslines, forearm shivers, de-cleating defenseless receivers and leading with the crown of his helmet were his calling cards. In the modern game, Tatum’s antics would draw penalties, fines and likely result in a lifetime ban. In nine seasons in Oakland, Tatum twice led the Raiders in interceptions. He played his final season with the Houston Oilers before retiring in 1980. Tatum, who holds the NFL record for longest fumble return [104 yards], finished his career with 37 interceptions. Although he was drafted ahead of Hall of Famers Jack Youngblood, Jack Ham and Dan Dierdorf, the Darryl Stingley incident will likely keep Jack Tatum out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1999, the Newark Star-Ledger named Jack Tatum one of the top ten New Jersey prep defensive players of the 20th century. He was inducted into the Ohio State Hall of Fame in 1981 and College Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Passaic High School held “Jack Tatum Day” on the final day of its 2008 season, where the school officially retired his number 32 during a halftime ceremony.