State Your Case: Jack Tatum


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(Photo courtesy of Oakland Raiders)

By Ron Borges

Talk of Fame Network

Upon his death in 2010, a New York Times obituary called Jack Tatum “a symbol of a violent game. “ Indeed he was. It is the reason so many believe he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the reason he likely will never get there.

Tatum was a man from a different time in professional football, a violent time when intimidation was as much a part of a team’s game plan as Xs and Os. Even in that world, for a decade Jack Tatum was the most feared tackler in the NFL, a brooding presence at the rear of an Oakland Raiders’ secondary that terrorized receivers foolhardy enough to run across the middle.

Tatum made that clear game after game, but perhaps never moreso than in Super Bowl XI when he unloaded on Minnesota Vikings’ wide receiver Sammy White, knocking White unconscious, his helmet flying five yards backwards. It was a hit that set the tone for the day, which would turn into a Raiders’ rout.

Thirty years after Tatum’s retirement, NFL Films ranked the Top Ten Most Feared Tacklers of all-time. Tatum finished sixth, trailing only Dick Butkus, Dick “Night Train’’ Lane, Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott and Hardy Brown. All but Brown are in the Hall of Fame.

Lott, for one, has said he patterned his own concussive game after Tatum, who was a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro selection, one of those All-Pro years (1977) being a season when he inexplicably was not named to the Pro Bowl.

Between 1971, when he arrived in Oakland after an All-America career at Ohio State, until leaving in 1980 for a final season in Houston, Tatum was the leader of the “Soul Patrol’’ — the Raiders’ violence-prone secondary that included Hall-of-Fame cornerback Willie Brown, George Atkinson and aptly named fellow safety Skip “Dr. Death’’ Thomas. Their style of play was the epitome of aggression, and none was more aggressive than Tatum, who was a force in run support and a heat-seeking missile who extracted a high price for running pass routes in his space.

“My idea of a good hit is when the victim wakes up on the sidelines with train whistles blowing in his head…I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault,” Tatum once said.

But he also said, “I always wanted to hit someone hard, and if they got hurt, that was part of the game. But you always wanted them to be OK.”

Sometimes they were not, and one of the most tragic such occurrences came on Aug. 12, 1978 when, in an innocuous exhibition game, Tatum leveled Patriots’ wide receiver Darryl Stingley. Tatum’s trademark forearm and shoulder crashed into Stingley’s head, breaking his neck. Darryl Stingley would never walk again. Jack Tatum would pay the price for the rest of his life.

Yet the hit itself, if one is honest about it, was like thousands delivered by defensive backs around the NFL then. There was no flag thrown because there was no penalty. It was a commonplace occurrence in an uncommonly violent time in pro football. Even Chuck Fairbanks, Patriots’ head coach at the time, said he couldn’t find anything illegal or dirty about it.

“I saw replays many, many times, and many times Jack Tatum was criticized,” Fairbanks said. “But there wasn’t anything at the time that was illegal about that play.”

Perhaps not, but the narrative became that the man who called himself “The Assassin’’ not only violently assaulted a defenseless receiver (which Tatum would say was his job) but was then callous about it. Stingley always believed Tatum made no effort to visit him in the hospital in Oakland. Tatum claimed he did but was rebuffed by Stingley’s family.

Whatever the truth, he appeared to try to capitalize on Stingley’s misery when he authored an unapologetic book titled, “They Call Me Assassin.’’ In it he made clear his belief was that football is a dangerous game and his job was to make it more dangerous.

He would later write in one of the three books he penned with the name “Assassin’’ in the title that “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 … I was paid to hit, the harder the better,” he wrote in the final book. He added: “I understand why Darryl is considered the victim. But I’ll never understand why some people look at me as the villain.”

Although the hit itself was not unlike many delivered every Sunday throughout the NFL in those days, the tragic result made it seem different, in part because of Tatum’s well-established reputation for mayhem. But what compounded the problem was the belief many shared that Tatum felt no remorse.

On one level he did not, because he believed everyone faced the same risk on a football field. But a week later he was run over by Rams’ running back Wendell Tyler as he came up to unload on him, clearly stopping at the last moment rather than running through Tyler. Witnesses were stunned.

“It was something that ate on him for his whole life,’’ his coach, John Madden, once said. Madden also supported Tatum’s claim that he had tried to visit Stingley in the hospital but was rebuffed.

Perhaps. But years later the two were finally set to meet for a joint television interview when Stingley learned at the last moment that it would be part of an effort to promote Tatum’s latest autobiography. They never spoke again, although Stingley did tell me in 2003 he had found a way to forgive Tatum in his heart.

“It’s hard to articulate,” he told me. “It was a test of my faith, the entire story. ‘In who, and how much, do you believe, Darryl?’ In my heart and mind, I forgave Jack Tatum a long time ago.’’

Much of the football world never did. With 37 career interceptions — including four seasons with four, one with six and his final one in Houston with seven — plus nine fumble recoveries (including a record 104-yard return against the Packers in 1972) and a feared reputation that daunted many a receiver, there is no disputing Jack Tatum was one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL throughout the 1970s.

Yet he has never been discussed by the Hall-of-Fame selection committee, and it seems unlikely he ever will. The last pure safety elected to the Hall was Paul Krause 17 years ago. He hasn’t played in 36 years. The last pure safety elected to the Hall to play was Ken Houston. His last game was 35 years ago.

So the safety position has long been one ignored by Hall-of-Fame voters. That being the case, it’s been easy to overlook Jack Tatum, whose football life was always on the edge of mayhem.

“Some defensive backs covered wide receivers,’’ Conrad Dobler once said of Tatum. “Jack buried them.”

Indeed he did. And, it seems he buried his Hall-of-Fame chances with them.

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10 Comments

  1. Harrison A Fitch
    November 24, 2015
    Reply

    Tatum belongs in the HOF.

  2. bachslunch
    March 6, 2016
    Reply

    No, Jack Tatum does not belong in the HoF. He’s not even the most deserving Raider Senior DB snub — both Dave Grayson and Lester Hayes have better arguments (assuming you give the latter a pass on stickum use). Zero 1st team all pro selections, zero all decade team memberships, and 3 pro bowls doesn’t cut it, especially ahead of Senior eligible safeties such as Bobby Dillon, Jimmy Patton, Johnny Robinson, Eddie Meador, Cliff Harris, Donnie Shell, Dick Anderson, Jake Scott, Nolan Cromwell, Kenny Easley, Deron Cherry, and (as of next year) Joey Browner.

  3. SBerry
    March 14, 2016
    Reply

    AS hard as it was for Ken Stabler to get in the H O F , I doubt Jack Tatum will get in ever. ..Raider hate lingers on….But Mr Tom Flores is the man we should be focusing on ,he belongs in the H O F

  4. bachslunch
    March 20, 2016
    Reply

    Can’t speak for others, but my comment above about Jack Tatum isn’t motivated by “Raider hate.” It’s HoF worth compared to his competition. Besides, I’m all for Dave Grayson and Cliff Branch for the HoF and won’t complain unduly if Todd Christensen or Lester Hayes get in.

  5. maxspriggs
    April 16, 2016
    Reply

    Jack Tatum, belongs in the HOF period… Immaculate reception, Darryl Stingley, and he set the standard for hard tackling/ hitting as evidenced by Lot and others enshrinement speeches… People wanted a hitter then and “he is being punished for being the hitter he was.” John Madden.

    Its time… Raiders have players and coaches that repeatedly have been snubbed for whatever reason.

  6. bachslunch
    May 1, 2016
    Reply

    Jack Tatum may have been a hard hitting DB, but he was hardly the first; Night Train Lane belongs on any such list, and he predates Tatum. Besides, if hard hits alone made a player HoF worthy, Hardy Brown would be in — but he isn’t and he has no business in. And it’s not clear how the Immaculate Reception helps Tatum’s HoF case, not to mention paralyzing Darryl Stingley. Sure, there are a few ex-Raiders who belong in (and every team has several, so it’s not like this team is being singled out), but Tatum isn’t one of them.

    • Steve
      August 8, 2016
      Reply

      Don’t care much about NFL today, but grew up watching it from 1968. I can tell you, without a doubt, in his era there was no more feared player than Tatum. Receivers actually refused to run over the middle due to the hits they would take from the “Soul Patrol”. It was the way of the game at the time. Go check out Ryan Clark’s hit on Wes Welker
      “Okay, you catch it. I am going to hit you so hard you will wish you never had.” Tatum delivered that hundreds of times and also to people larger than him, like the great Earl Campbell.

      I do admit to a slight Raider bias.

    • Joseph Wright
      April 5, 2017
      Reply

      People, let me introduce you to Bachslunch. This ill-advised, money-stealing, football “talent scout” shows his inability to stay focused or power for deceptive manipulation (I’ll let you all out there decide) by saying that Tatum was hardly the first hard-hitting DB. That’s the only way he can justify bringing up Night Train Lane as Tatum’s predecessor. Don’t allow B-lunch’s deception to fool you. We are talking about SAFETIES, not CORNERBACKS. I showed him that Tatum was a revolutionary safety and B-lunch turned the whole thing around and shifted the focus (as he always cowardly has done from my experience), morphing the conversation into DBs rather than focusing on safeties. Tatum was used in the secondary to discourage any passing/receiving activity over the middle just as a middle linebacker is used to eliminate inside running. Tatum was a revolutionary who set the standard for countless later generations of safeties (Tim Fox, Doug Plank, Ronnie Lott, Ken Easley, Todd Bell, Vann McElroy, Steve Atwater, Troy Poulomalu, John Lynch, Lawyer Malloy, Rodney Harrison, etc., etc., etc.). If any of the last few say they were inspired by Lott, just remember, Lott (and Easley) were inspired by Tatum. When you have a hard-hitting safety, he is often compared to Tatum. You rarely (never?) hear someone say, “he’s the next Cliff Harris.”

      It gets better. B-Lunch constantly cites Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman like he is God and also blindly believes seemingly all the AP all-pro honors bestowed (many of which over the decades have honored unworthy recipients). B-Lunch will say that Cliff Harris was better than Tatum because he got more “1st team honors from AP” and that Z recognized Harris as the greatest “combo hitting/coverage safety ever.” We know this is bogus.
      What B-Lunch, a regular season stat freak (quantity is always better than quality with this guy) will never courageously explain is why, if Cliff Harris was the “best free safety of the ’70s,” Tatum–who was clearly the superior tackler, intimidator, and hitter–had more interceptions than Harris in one less year of the decade and 21 less games? Tatum had more INTs than any safety of the ’70s except Ken Houston and yet was passed over in the Team of the ’70s for people like Larry Wilson (only played three years of the decade; his best days were in the ’60s), Dick Anderson, and Harris (secondaries anchored by him in the playoffs gave up five 100-yd receiving games, five Super Bowl passing/receiving records, and multiple TD catches to receivers, creating a Hall of Fame career in at least one case; In 12 playoff games, Tatum-led secondaries gave up only ONE 100-yd receiving game and only one receiver caught more than one TD pass during that same time). Tatum’s 10-year INT total vs. Cliff Harris’ 10-year INT total is 37-29. The running pass-receiving litmus test is none other than the Hall of Fame duo of Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Compare their stats in six games vs Tatum-led secondaries in the ’70s as opposed to going up against the Harris-anchored secondary of Dallas. It is clearly in Tatum’s favor as Swann and Stallworth undressed Harris and the Cowboys secondary relentlessly.

      Need more info on Bachslunch’s cowardice? Zimmerman and the HOF Committee screwed up the ’70s secondary by naming its cornerbacks as follows: Willie Brown, Jimmy Johnson (the player, not the coach), Roger Werli, and Louis Wright. Outrageous snub of Pittsburgh’s Mel Blount. B-Lunch said the odd man out in that equation should be Louis Wright. So I posed two simple questions:

      1) If your life depended on one football game in the ’70s and the main opposing receiver was Paul Warfield who would B-lunch have cover him for the whole game, Roger Werli or Louis Wright?

      2) If you were assigned the task of putting together a football team and you could only carry four cornerbacks and Willie Brown, Jimmy Johnson (the 49er player, not the coach), Roger Werli, Louis Wright and Mel Blount all applied, who would be the odd man out?

      To this day, the cowardly Bachslunch has not responded. That means one of two things:
      A) He is too cowardly to admit to me, and you the readers, that I am correct, that Roger Werli on Warfield is a death wish as opposed to Louis Wright.
      B) Because AP named Werli “1st Team All-Pro” several consecutive times, Bachslunch would ridiculously take Werli over Wright but is too cowardly to admit his stupidity.

      That’s what you’re dealing with with B-lunch, folks. Of course Jack Tatum should be in the Hall of Fame.

  7. 6/8 legend
    December 12, 2016
    Reply

    Who ever says that tatum doesn’t belong in the hall of fame, never played a volunteer sport an probably is a raider hater, Ronnie lot said he model his game after him, he is in the hall of fame, Jim Brown said tatum could have played in his time this all against al Davis, cliff branch is not in the hof, look at his career against some who are, Yea look.

  8. Duppalawed isacaruth
    December 14, 2016
    Reply

    It may surprise you that I am one of Jack Tatum’s loyal and appreciative fans. Tatum played NFL football. If an athelete wants to play in the NFL, the warning of Tatum playing in a game, will haunt them the entire game. Tatum played HS football in his junior year, in NJ. The facts and statements about Tatum are mentioned in his 3 books “They call me “The Assasin”. Read his books and you will see what I am saying. Tatum was a quiet man when he was not playing in the NFL. If you want to get the whole story of Jack Tatum, read his three books. They will explain all of Jack Tatum.
    Information on a man, when playing football was a total, aggressive player. Tatum said that on the field, he was a wrecking machine, and showed it when he played. (Earl Cambell’s hit by Tatem sent him back 3 yards, team was the KC Chiefs. To do what Tatem did to Cambell, was incredible. Cambell did not score the touchdown. Tatem gave him the intimidating look. Campbell sat on the bench, head down and had to sit. Watch the hit. (Cambell was 265 pounds, with tree trunks for legs.
    Last statement , when Tatum was ready to zero in on a player. Tom Matte,was the running back for the colts . Tatem was a rookie and didn’t tackle Matte, with all of his force. Matte got up, and told Tatem “You call yourself an NFL Player. Matte was laughing inside after the hit and made fun of Tatem. Tatem got back in the game, and focused totally on Matte. This hit really woke Matte up. Matte did not get up right away, and left the field. Tatem yelled at Matte and said to Matte, when tackled, Mattee looks like a bird flapping his wings., grasping for airI. I am sure that Matte, remembered the hit by Tatem.
    just 2 words, Jack Tatum is a MUSCLE KNOT. 100% muscle.
    Jack Tatum died with a big problem with diabetes. One of the biggest dreams I had, was to meet Tatem in California, before he died. It didn’t happen, but I have researched a lot of Tatem’s life, and read his books. Jack Tatem was greatly affected with the Darryl Stingley Tackle. Other NFL players have gotten seriously hurt. Tatem was sympathetic and tried to visit Stingley. It didn’t happen! Tatum deserves to be in the Football Hall Of Fame. If he is not selected ,
    into the Hall of Fame, look at his football carreer, not hurting Stingley by a tackle.
    REMEMBER – FIND OUT ABOUT JACK TATEM’S FOOTBALL DAYS. PLEASE READ THE BOOKS, IT EXPLAINS EVERYTHING!!
    I will always like reading about Jack Tatum. Tatem the intense, intimidating Football player that he was.

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