A lot of people had it wrong about Jack Tatum. They saw him only in the light cast by a single play, rather than for his complete body of work.
Yes, Tatum did deliver the hit in a 1978 preseason game that left Darryl Stingley a quadriplegic. Yes, he delivered plenty of crushing blows while patrolling the secondary as a safety for the Oakland Raiders.
But that wasn't the extent of Tatum's 10 seasons in the NFL. His passing on Tuesday, at age 61, brings forth many more memories than those that come from a seemingly endless highlight reel of his bone-jarring mayhem.
The man was a legitimately talented football player. He earned All-Pro status for covering receivers, not just leveling them, while also providing tremendous support against the run.
It wasn't always easy to notice while focusing on Tatum's ability to make contact. He was tough. He was fearless, taking on much larger and stronger opponents such as behemoth Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell. Tatum separated players from the ball. He separated them from their helmets. And, at times, he even separated them from their will to do their job.
Critics had an easy time labeling Tatum's style of play as "dirty," equating him to a football version of a hockey goon. He helped them in that regard by writing an autobiography entitled, "They Call Me Assassin." And by offering quotes such as this to the media: "I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault."
The Tatum haters liked to think of him as a Neanderthal with absolutely no thought behind his actions. That's where they are wrong. There was plenty of thought behind what Tatum did on the field. He knew exactly what he was doing when he blasted anyone who dared to try to make a catch in his territory. The idea was to make that receiver -- but especially the ones that were watching at the time or later on film -- think twice about doing so again.
Tatum used the art of intimidation to his full advantage. A receiver or ball carrier who was thinking about the consequences of an encounter with Tatum wasn't concentrating on getting his hands on the ball or doing whatever else was necessary to make a positive gain.
Tatum's legacy is alive and well at Ohio State, where he performed well enough to enter the College Football Hall of Fame. The Buckeye player who upholds his collision tradition during a game receives the "Jack Tatum Hit of the Week" award.
Perhaps no one understood how Tatum played better than former NFL guard Conrad Dobler. In the 1970s, Dobler was considered the dirtiest player in the league, a characterization that took on a life of its own after he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He, too, wrote an autobiography (co-authored by yours truly), and even borrowed from the title of Tatum's book. Dobler's was called, "They Call Me Dirty."
This is what he had to say about Tatum:
"Some defensive backs covered wide receivers; Jack buried them. There were even times, in the course of hitting a receiver, when he'd knock out some of his own teammates who were in on the coverage. And, no, he shouldn't be viewed as a cold, ruthless villain for his crippling hit on New England's Darryl Stingley in 1978. What happened to Stingley was very unfortunate and I'm sure he'll never be able to forgive Tatum for putting him into a wheelchair. But there was absolutely nothing illegal about the play. Stingley slanted inside and jumped to make the catch, and Jack gave him a good, clean shot -- very hard, but clean.
"There isn't a coach around who wouldn't want his free safety to be as hard-hitting as Tatum, although he was a rare find. As I've said over and over, it's a violent game. Accidents happen."
They do, even on legal hits. And Tatum did play by the rules as they were written and enforced during the time he played.
Since then, the NFL has placed much greater emphasis on player safety, and continues to do so with rules adjustments designed to help minimize a player's exposure to injury. Receivers, in particular, are getting even greater protection from hits that come when they're in a "defenseless" position.
The NFL still has room for hard-hitting defenders, but it's safe to assume that Tatum wouldn't have been able to do all of the things in today's game that he did in the '70s. He still would have made an impact. He just would have had to go about it differently.
But Tatum had no reason to regret the career he had -- a career that was about a whole lot more than a single play.