FOREST PARK – Darryl Stingley, paralyzed by one of the most widely known hits in the history of professional football, was remembered Tuesday for the grace with which he accepted his life-changing injury.
“For almost 30 years, people wanted to hear Darryl curse God or at least curse the man who took his dreams away,” said the Rev. Edward C. Brown, Stingley’s cousin.
“Darryl was a good man. He didn’t stop serving God just because he had a life of suffering and pain. … He lived a life focused on the future and not on the past.”
Stingley, a star receiver with the New England Patriots, was left a quadriplegic after a hit by the Oakland Raiders’ Jack Tatum while trying to catch a pass in an exhibition game on Aug. 12, 1978. Stingley’s neck was broken, and he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
He died last Thursday at age 55.
An autopsy found that bronchial pneumonia, Quadriplegia, spinal cord injury and coronary atherosclerosis contributed to his death.
Tuesday’s 90-minute funeral service was attended by Stingley’s family and friends from his Chicago boyhood, as well as his college and professional football careers.
Before the service, former New England coach Chuck Fairbanks and teammate Mike Haynes praised Stingley as someone who refused to be defined by his injury, and was determined to have a life, be a good father and do things for the community.
“He made up his mind that he was going to try to live a new life and to give things to other young kids, particularly the inner city kids, that maybe he could help somebody and show them that you could overcome adversity,” Fairbanks said.
Haynes, a former Patriots defensive who now is in charge of player/employee development at the NFL, remembered how Stingley was willing to work with him when Haynes was younger.
He said Stingley treated him with respect and “had a lot of honor.”
Fairbanks and Haynes said Stingley’s injury caused the NFL to impose rule changes that made the game safer.
The hit on Stingley “impacted the whole league,” Haynes said. Before, he said, “in the back of your mind, you were trying to hurt people. That has now changed. The league has changed.”
The hit was debated for years, replayed on television whenever the violence of football was discussed. Tatum was not penalized on the play and many in football, including Stingley’s coach, defended the hit as legal. Gene Upshaw, a former teammate of Tatum and now the executive director of the NFL Players Association, said Tatum did not intend to hurt Stingley, but simply was a physical player.
Tatum and Stingley never discussed the play. They were scheduled to meet in 1996 but Stingley called it off after he was told the meeting was to publicize Tatum’s book, “Final Confessions of NFL Assassin Jack Tatum.”
Stingley was, however, gracious in 2003 when he learned that Tatum had diabetes and needed part of a leg amputated.
“You can’t, as a human being, feel happy about something like that happening to another human being,” Stingley told The Boston Globe.
Stingley was raised in Chicago, where he starred at John Marshall High School before attending Purdue. In 1973 he was drafted by the Patriots in the first round.
At the time of his injury he appeared poised to take his place among the game’s elite receivers, finishing the 1977 season with 39 catches with a 16.8 yard average and five touchdowns – impressive numbers at the time.
After his injury, Stingley worked as consultant with the Patriots. He also visited paralyzed patients regularly, and in 1983 wrote a book titled “Happy to Be Alive.” A decade later he established a nonprofit foundation in Chicago to help inner-city youth.
By Don Babwin Associated Press