Monday Night’s serious injury to Damir Hamlin brings back memories of Darryl Stingley and Jack Tatum

The first thing that came to my mind on Monday night, with the severe injury to the Buffalo Bills wide receiver Damir Hamlin, in the game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals, was the injury suffered by Darryl Stingley in the New England Patriots-Oakland Raiders game, way back in August of 1978…Let’s look back, at how that game, and one single play in particular, changed Darryl Stingley’s life forever…

Remembering Darryl Stingley: The Player, The Hit, The Man
from Terry Robinson, with The Bleacher Report, and

It has been called the most violent hit in NFL history.

It also has been called simply a case of bad luck in the extreme, a fluke.

It was almost certainly among the most unnecessary hits ever put on a player.

Many fans have forgotten it; others are too young to remember it.

Anyone who saw it would not, could not, forget it. I saw it, and I think about it often.

I think about it during every preseason game I watch.

I think about it every time I see a player for any team being carried off the field on a stretcher.

I think about it every time someone complains that the NFL has become “pansied down.”

I will never forget it.

Darryl Stingley was a five-year wide receiver for the New England Patriots, a member of the Class of 1973, one of the most productive drafts in Patriots history.

He was the 19th pick overall, the Patriots’ third first rounder, behind John Hannah and Sam Cunningham.

He had starred at Purdue, where he initially had played in the backfield. It was not until his last year there that he switched to wide receiver.

Known for his soft hands and deep-threat potential, he had set a Boilermakers record of 18.2 yards per catch. At 6’0” and 194 pounds, he seemed to have all the tools he needed for a successful NFL career.

In New England, his work ethic and drive to excel quickly made him a fan favorite. He became known affectionately as “The Stinger.”

He was popular among his teammates, who dubbed him the unofficial team barber because he was pretty good with the scissors. He had a voice too, and loved singing Stevie Wonder songs.

In his rookie year, he played in every game and became the Patriots’ fourth-leading receiver on a team helmed by the great, if somewhat unfortunate, Jim Plunkett.

The Patriots’ quarterback was sacked 37 times that season and threw three more interceptions than touchdowns. The team finished with a 5-9 record.

The 1974 season looked good as the team started out at 5-0. Plunkett continued to struggle, however, and Stingley went down for the season with a broken arm in game five. The Patriots played to a lukewarm 7-7 finish.

Stingley returned the following year, fully recovered and bringing his blistering speed back to the attack. But Plunkett’s completion percentage was worse than ever, and his sack percentage skyrocketed through the first five games.

With his team at 2-3, coach Chuck Fairbanks made a decision to bench Plunkett and bring in a promising rookie out of Kansas State, a kid by the name of Steve Grogan.

But the Patriots continued their losing ways, winding up at 3-11 by the end of a season almost too painful to watch. These Patriots were Murphy’s Law in pads and cleats.

Plunkett was shipped off to San Francisco in 1976, where things weren’t much better for him.

Steve Grogan was now the Patriots’ quarterback, and Darryl Stingley was the team’s top receiver, ranking third in the NFL.

New England won the AFC East that year with a record of 11-3, the best in its brief history and a dramatic turnaround from the dismal 1975 season.

Much to the disappointment of anyone who cared, the Patriots lost to Oakland in the first round of the playoffs. The Raiders went on to win the Super Bowl.

Tennessee wideout Stanley Morgan was drafted by the Patriots in 1977, adding yet another deep threat to a team that seemed poised for success.

Stingley was the top receiver on the team again that year, but New England finished with a disappointing 9-5 record, missing the playoffs entirely.

Looking to secure the future of their often explosive passing game, in 1978 the Patriots offered Stingley a contract extension that would have made him one of the highest paid receivers in the game. He planned to sign it after the preseason.

He never got to sign that contract.

His career came to a tragic end in Oakland Coliseum on August 12, 1978, the result of a brutal hit by Raiders safety Jack Tatum, a man who was well known for playing seriously vicious football.

There is nothing wrong with playing vicious football. It is, after all, a pretty vicious game. But this hit changed a man’s life forever.

Stingley was running a slant as Grogan dropped back to fire the ball over the middle. Tatum lowered his shoulder and laid a forearm and helmet to Stingley’s face mask as the receiver lunged for a pass that would sail over his head, out of reach.

Stingley dropped to the ground, unconscious, at the Raiders’ 10-yard line. His roommate, Pro Bowl tight end Russ Francis was the first Patriot to reach Stingley’s motionless body, and it was clear to anyone watching that Francis knew right away that something was terribly wrong,

Training staff for both teams rushed onto the field to assess the situation and quickly came to the same conclusion.

The stretcher was brought out, and Stingley was carefully strapped onto it, his head secured in a stabilizing brace as he was rolled off the field.

There was an ambulance, there was tension, there was chaos.

There was no flag, however, no penalty assessed. The Hit was entirely legal at the time. Defensive backs were free to initiate this kind of contact with a receiver anywhere on the field, whether or not he had the ball.

It took some time for things to calm down on the field, but eventually the game resumed.

Darryl Stingley’s life as he had known it did not.

The Stinger never walked again. The hit had crushed and dislocated two vertebrae in his neck, severely damaging his spinal cord. He was rendered quadriplegic and would spend his remaining years in a wheelchair.

During Stingley’s three months in a California hospital, Oakland coach John Madden was an almost daily visitor. Madden was reportedly devastated by what had occurred, and he and Stingley remained close for years.

The late Gene Upshaw, who was playing for the Raiders in that game, also came to know Stingley well. In his eventual role as executive director of the NFLPA, Upshaw pushed for owners to provide compensation for players who were disabled as a result of the occupational hazards of professional football.

Thanks to Upshaw’s efforts, Stingley eventually was awarded $48,000 a year.

For their part, the Patriots’ organization unsuccessfully tried to cancel Stingley’s health insurance, typical of the Sullivans. In the end. however, they paid his medical bills and kept him on the payroll.

Tatum apparently was not inclined to be apologetic or otherwise helpful. From his perspective, it was a clean hit, requiring no apology.

Technically, he was right.

But given that the injury took place in a completely irrelevant preseason game, many Patriots fans felt that there was no justification for the kind of hit he had put on Stingley.

Does the importance of a game make a difference in how it is approached by players?

It is safe to say that it does now, as players are more aware of the consequences of a tough hit in an inconsequential game.

CLICK HERE to read more from Terry Robinson, and there is much more to read on…Jack Tatum never apologized to Darryl Stingley for the hit that changed Stingley’s life forever…Tatum felt there was no need for an apology….