The former New England receiver, who died Thursday at age 55, lived life as fully as he could while restricted to his wheelchair after being paralyzed by a hit in a preseason game in 1978.
CHICAGO – For years, Darryl Stingley was football’s most visible reminder of the danger inherent in a most violent sport.
Stingley was a 26-year-old New England Patriots receiver when a tackle by Oakland safety Jack Tatum paralyzed him in an exhibition game against the Raiders on Aug. 12, 1978. Stingley spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and died Thursday morning at age 55 after he was found unconscious by his wife, Martine, in his Chicago condominium.
An autopsy revealed bronchial pneumonia, Quadriplegia, spinal cord injury and coronary atherosclerosis as contributing factors, according to the Cook County (Ill.) medical examiner’s office.
Because he never revealed bitterness in interviews over the years, Stingley became a symbol of inspiration.
Stingley and Tatum never reconciled.
“The injury was never brought up unless someone from outside the family brought it up,” said son Derek, 35. “Other than that, it was a part of everyday life for us. He knew it wasn’t his cross to bear, but more Jack Tatum’s cross because he was the one who put my father in the situation and never apologized about it.”
Tatum’s hit was legal and he was not penalized or fined, but rules to protect players in “defenseless” positions, particularly receivers, continue to evolve. Because the pass from quarterback Steve Grogan was too high for Stingley to have a chance to reach, Tatum probably would have been penalized or fined under today’s rules.
Stingley never considered the play illegal, just unnecessary.
“My situation does not happen if we are playing good, hard football, and not being excessive with violence. And not considering there is a human being on the other side of the field, trying to make a living too,” Stingley said in a 2004 Chicago Tribune interview.
The collision damaged the fourth and fifth Vertebrae of Stingley’s spinal cord and left him a quadriplegic. He had limited movement in his right hand and arm.
Tatum exploited his reputation as a hard hitter with a book “They Call Me Assassin,” published in 1979, a year after the Stingley hit.
In the book, Tatum wrote: “It was one of those pass plays where I could have attempted to intercept, but because of what the owners expect of me when they give me my paycheck, I automatically reacted to the situation by going for an intimidating hit.”
Stingley and his attorney, Jack Sands, said Tatum never called to apologize and whenever Tatum’s representatives reached out, Stingley and Sands thought it was to capitalize on the incident. HBO tried in vain to unite the two in 2003 for the 25th anniversary of the play.
“It is still a story that everybody — including me — would like to see some closure come. But it seems like every time we get to that point, there is something on his side where he is trying to capitalize from it,” Stingley said in 2004.
Derek Stingley, now head football coach of an Arena 2 indoor team in Albany, Ga., and a former pro baseball and football player, said: “In my father’s mind, it was forgiven. … If Tatum had just called him 1-on-1, I’m quite sure they probably would have worked something out.”
In a 2003 interview with New Jersey’s Bergen County Record, Tatum said: “I’m not going to beg forgiveness. … That was football. I was sorry that he got hurt. But to go out and apologize for the way I played football? That is never going to happen.”
Tatum also wrote in his book: “When the reality of Stingley’s injury hit me with its full impact, I was shattered. To think that my tackle broke another man’s neck and killed his future … well, I know it hurts Darryl, but it hurts me too.”
Darryl Stingley’s mother, Hilda M. Stingley, 83, said: “He was a good child, he was a good, giving person. Everyone who knew Darryl loved Darryl. Twenty-eight years he struggled with this, and now he doesn’t have to anymore.”
Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots who purchased the team in 1994, said in a statement Thursday: “I was touched by his positive outlook on life. He was passionate about his faith and his family and always showed compassion . … He always spoke of the future, not the past. …”
Stingley grew up in Chicago and graduated from Marshall High School before starring at Purdue and becoming one of three first-round draft picks in his class. The first two picks were guard John Hannah, now in the Hall of Fame, and running back Sam Cunningham. Stingley was the 19th overall pick, acquired from the Bears in exchange for running back Carl Garrett.
When Stingley found out in 2003 that Tatum had a leg amputated because of diabetes, Stingley told the Boston Globe: “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.
“I feel for him in that situation. … It was like the situation between us coming full circle. I know how that will change his life forever. … Now [Tatum] has a cross to bear. I just hope maybe it will open his heart.”
Former teammate Hannah said Thursday his fondest memory of Stingley was after a loss.
“Darryl had a great singing voice which sounded just like Stevie Wonder,” Hannah said. “When we got back to Boston, everybody met at a restaurant in South Boston to eat and drown our frustrations. Darryl began to serenade the group and after a couple of songs people in the restaurant wanted ‘Stevie’s’ autograph.”
Grogan said on a Boston radio show Thursday: “Everybody enjoyed being around him and that’s why it was so devastating when he got hurt.”
Other NFL players have suffered paralyzing injuries in games — Lions guard Mike Utley in 1991 and Jets defensive end Dennis Byrd in 1992 — but it was the vicious 1-on-1 collision between star defensive back and star receiver that made Stingley’s injury so frighteningly memorable.
Chuck Fairbanks, Patriots coach at the time, reiterated what he had told the Boston Globe two days after the play.
“I saw replays of that [play] many, many times, and many times Jack Tatum was criticized, but there wasn’t anything at the time that was illegal about that play,” Fairbanks said Thursday. “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.”
Fairbanks added: “The real tragedy of that accident was that Darryl had such a love and exuberance to play the game. He was just so full of vitality. … [He was] such a physically gifted athlete and all of a sudden that was gone at such a young age.”
For 12 years after his injury, Stingley served as a consultant for the Patriots, working from his home in Chicago. In 1983, Stingley wrote a memoir of his life and of his injury titled “Happy to Be Alive.” In 1991, he returned to Purdue to complete his studies and received a bachelor of arts degree in 1992.
In 1993, he founded the Darryl Stingley Youth Foundation in Chicago, with a mission to service the needs of the city’s youth with an emphasis on assisting underprivileged at-risk children on the city’s West Side, where he grew up. Stingley is a member of the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humanities from Springfield (Mass.) College in 1985.
Stingley is survived by his wife, Martine, three sons, Darryl Jr., John Smith, and Derek, eight grandchildren, one great-grandchild, two brothers and a sister.
Visitation will be Tuesday in Forest Park, Ill., with the funeral following and burial at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Hillside.
Derek, only 7 at the time of the incident, said the injury was an issue at first.
“He was a young man and the main theme was ‘Why me? I have kids I have to take care of.’ But the longer he lived the more he understood that he was still here to mold us as young men,” Derek said.
“He was a man who never quit. … He always told how hard work would make things better. … He did all he could to try to make people in his situation feel just as good about their situations as he felt about himself.”
In five seasons (1973-77), Darryl Stingley had 110 catches for 1,883 yards (17.1 yards per catch) and 14 touchdowns in 60 games. The Patriots were essentially a running team then. Stingley, who had caught a career-high 39 passes in 1977, was trying along with Grogan to convince coaches to pass more in 1978.
“I think the combination of me coming into my prime and Grogan growing up led to him throwing that pass high and me trying to go up and catch it. I was making every effort to impress the offensive coordinator,” Stingley said in 2004.
“The best thing that resulted from that play is the game is changed in terms of what they call excessive violence. … The game is a lot safer now.”
By Don Pierson, Chicago Tribune