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Vicious Game

A brutal--and legal--hit on the field left Darryl Stingley in a wheelchair. Now he's doing what he can to keep the football field from becoming a slaughterhouse.

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"If I watch a game on Sunday and there's a serious injury, I know the phone's going to ring," says Darryl Stingley, at home in his downtown condo. It rang this year when Seattle receiver Darrell Jackson suffered seizures after an on-field collision. It rang again when Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox was temporarily paralyzed by a hit he can't remember. "Reporters say, 'Let's ask somebody who's been over the middle,'" says Stingley. "A lot of guys have played football, but not many have been through what I have."

Stingley's five-year career as an NFL wide receiver was ended by an unpenalized hit in a 1978 preseason game. He hasn't walked since. Today he dedicates time to the Darryl Stingley Youth Foundation and obliges reporters who call him by speaking out against excessive violence in football.

"Actually," he says, "I'm pleasantly surprised that people still want to talk to me."

Saturday, August 12, 1978. It's late in the second quarter of a game between the Oakland Raiders and the New England Patriots in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The Raiders lead by three but the Patriots are driving. It's third and eight at the Oakland 24. Patriot quarterback Steve Grogan calls "94 Slant," a quick throw from a three-step drop. Wide receivers Stanley Morgan and Darryl Stingley will run slant-in patterns from opposite sides of the field, and Stingley is the primary option. He sprints eight yards downfield then cuts diagonally. The route is designed to leave him open for an instant between the linebackers and cornerback. The ball needs to arrive just after Stingley makes his break. But Grogan's pass is late, and high, and off target. Stingley leaps for the ball with arms outstretched, but it wobbles past him. Cornerback Lester Hayes closes hard on the errant throw, reaching with his right hand, but can't make the interception.

Raider free safety Jack Tatum watches the play develop from the five-yard line. Reading Grogan, he begins moving toward Stingley before the ball is thrown. When Stingley goes airborne, Tatum is bearing down at an opposing diagonal. Tatum dips his head and buries his helmet in Stingley as the receiver descends, cracking Stingley across the head and neck with a forearm. Tatum straightens after the hit, looking down at the Patriot receiver lying on the ten yard line, as the ball skids through the end zone.

Later, Stingley will remember trying to breathe, the crowd's ovation as he leaves on a stretcher, and a hospital nurse cutting away his shoes.

Stingley wakes the next day unable to move. He's staring at the white ceiling tiles of his room in Castro Valley's Eden Hospital, his head immobilized by a steel halo. The first medical bulletin reads, "Darryl Stingley last evening suffered a fractured dislocation injury of his cervical spine." Ten days later he undergoes surgery to fuse his fourth and fifth vertebrae, stabilizing his neck. A respirator controls his breathing. In early September, the combined effects of pneumonia and a collapsed lung nearly kill him. Family surrounds him in the hospital and his longtime girlfriend Tina is beside him, though their sons, Derek and Darryl Jr., are left at home in Chicago. Raiders head coach John Madden visits almost every day, driving straight to the hospital from the Oakland airport after road games. "He was a tower of strength for my family during that time," Stingley will say.

Heavily sedated, Stingley comes home in mid-October to begin a lengthy stay at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. There, he first hears medical staff refer to him as a "quad." By December he's regained enough control of his right hand to operate a battery-powered wheelchair. Occupational therapists devise an intricate brace that allows him to hold a pen, and after months of rehabilitation and repetition he can write his name. He returns home on April 7, 1979, during Derek's eighth birthday party.

Today, Stingley is wary of a rising backlash against the NFL's efforts to reduce needlessly violent play. As penalties and fines for helmet-to-helmet collisions mount, "you hear people say 'Let 'em play.' Everybody in football wants to be macho," Stingley says. "Whenever somebody takes a stance for increased safety, you hear the word 'wussification.' Nine times out of ten you hear it from a defensive player. Let one of their loved ones be on the end of one of those hits. The NFL is doing as much as they can to keep it safe and still competitive and intense. Things have changed, everything changes in time, and changes for the safety of the game, I endorse."

He maintains that many present-day NFL players are primarily self-promoters. "We didn't have players becoming instant stars in my day. More ego is involved now than ever. It's about getting your highlights. Good, bad--either way it's publicity and it will equate to dollars. We went through 'I am not a role model,' but they should be more compassionate. The violence in the game is just a result of what we see in society. It always reflects society. Look at video-game football and you see guys explode. You've got a generation of athletes who grew up playing these games. They launch themselves into ballcarriers and people say 'Oooooohh yeah!'

"A hit like that almost killed me."

The man responsible for that hit, Jack Tatum, published a best-seller in 1980, They Call Me Assassin. It was a series of football reminiscences in which he wrote, "I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault." He followed that with 1989's They Still Call Me Assassin, and with 1996's Final Confessions of NFL Assassin Jack Tatum. In 1997 Tatum applied to the NFL Players Association for a $156,000-per-year permanent disability pension; he cited the mental anguish he suffered after hitting Stingley. NFLPA executives expressed outrage over the application, noting that a $156,000 pension is provided only for catastrophic injury and is the same pension received by Stingley. Since their 1978 collision, Tatum and Stingley have not spoken.

"There was an attempt to get us together in the last few years," says Stingley. "Fox television got involved. [Studio host] Jim Brown was going to mediate, and Fox was going to make a large donation to my foundation. Then my lawyer called at the 11th hour and told me that it was all publicity for Tatum, that he was releasing his book. I couldn't do it. We canceled, lost the donation.

"I was able to forgive him," says Stingley, "but he hasn't shown class enough to approach me. At one point it would've done so much for my family, my kids. Derek was always apprehensive about playing football."

Derek Stingley inherited the rare speed and athleticism that made his father a star at Marshall High School in the late 60s, yet Derek didn't play football at Orr Academy until his senior year. He pursued a baseball career after being selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1993 amateur draft, but after three difficult minor league seasons he asked the Phillies for his release. He was soon pursued by a Louisiana semipro football team, and Darryl encouraged him to play. Derek recently signed with the Grand Rapids Rampage of the Arena Football League and is preparing for his eighth AFL season with his fourth team. For Darryl, the highlight of Derek's AFL career was last season's ArenaBowl, in which Stingley's Arizona Rattlers lost 52-14 to the San Jose SaberCats.

"Just before the game, we learned that Tatum was an announcer for San Jose. I thought, 'He'll have to sit up there and call my son's number all night.'"

In the fall and winter, Darryl Stingley spends quiet days in his condo with Tina, trying to avoid the respiratory infections to which he's susceptible. He monitors Derek's football team, dotes on his seven grandchildren, listens to a vast jazz collection ("Just bought some Miles, some Phyllis Hyman," he says. "That music calls me"), and operates his charitable foundation. Stingley routinely lends his name and support to paralysis research, but he established his foundation to address a different, deeply personal cause: providing educational assistance to west-side schools near his old Lawndale neighborhood.

"The foundation was created in the winter of '93," he explains. "I had completed my degree at Purdue University and come to terms with my injury, exorcised all those demons. I was researching different communities and encountered Cabrini Connection. They had a chart on a wall indicating where most programs were functioning in the city, and Lawndale, East and West Garfield--that area was very sparse. My children grew up in that neighborhood, went to Orr. My sister Andrea [Stewart] has taught there over 30 years now."

Stingley is a self-described "product of the YMCA system," a beneficiary of youth programs that kept him focused on his education in spite of the distractions of a tough neighborhood and difficult time. Stingley's foundation works with schools to counsel west-side students, but it's struggled to recruit donors and volunteers and survives largely on a grant from the Chicago Public Schools. "We want to be an outreach agency. You help save one kid in these neighborhoods, and it's like, thank God.

"It used to be so devastating for me to ride through the west side," he says. "It started looking like a battlefield, largely because of what we did, rioting and looting."

"Few organizations come into our area," says Donald Schmitt, principal of Ryerson Elementary on Lawndale Avenue. "Ninety-nine percent of the kids are below the poverty line. We have been blessed by Darryl. His organization is doing a magnificent job." From January through May, Stingley's foundation will operate a Saturday mentoring program for seventh- and eighth-grade Ryerson students. "It's a rite of passage for our kids," says Schmitt.

"A lot of people told me I'd be wasting my time starting this foundation. Mentors of mine said this," Stingley says. "But you see kids out there learning to set goals. You tell them, 'You don't have to be consumed by the environment, don't have to be a product of the environment. You just have to want to be better.'

"I've had things taken away but I've gained a lot. I have an opportunity to be a motivator, to give something back. Man, that's a cliche. But I'm 51 years old, and this is everything I prayed for when I was lying in the hospital thinking I might die."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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