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35 Years Ago Today

I read an article recently about how the human brain works.  And it said that when something traumatic happens, your brain basically slows everything down, so it can record the details with hyper-accuracy. Which is why you can memorize everything that happens in a car crash, say.  Or how everyone in their generations remembers where they were on 9/11, JFK’s assassination or Pearl Harbor.

Well for a guy who can’t remember the names of 90% of the people I get introduced to, I recall with remarkable accuracy what happened on August 12, 1978. When all the normal, well-rounded kids on on my street in Weymouth were outside playing street hockey, I was inside with my brothers watching an utterly meaningless NFL preseason game, the Patriots playing in Oakland. Meaningless that is, until it turned into the worst moment in Patriots history and changed the life of one terrific young wide receiver, Darryl Stingley.

I don’t even need to click the video, I can see the replay in my head, frame by frame.  It’s the Zapruder film for Pats fans of the Brady Bunch Generation.  The sight of Jack Tatum coming across, lowering his shoulder into the crown of a defensless Stingley’s helmet and basically shattering his spine is something I’ll never be able to unsee.  Then Stingley laying there in that awkward, twisted heap, non-responsive to Russ Francis standing over him. Those of us in our mom’s living room knew right away this wasn’t some garden variety stinger or separated shoulder.  This was bad.  Record bad.  Darryl Stingley never took another step in his life. Paralyzed from the neck down, he spent the remainder of his days confined to an electric wheelchair.

There was no flag on the play, and a case has been made that there was no penalty. That by the rules of 1978, the hit was legal. And I can accept that. What I can’t accept and never will is how Jack Tatum handled the aftermath. He didn’t have to say he was sorry. Breaking a man in two on a technically legal hit doesn’t require an apology necessarily. But it does call for some compassion. For some amount of remorse. Maybe just a small trace of human sympathy.

Stingley got none of that from Jack Tatum. Instead he got insult added to the injury.  Tatum beat his chest about it. He wrote a book called “They Call Me Assassin.” He wore it like a badge of honor. He did everything except put a sticker of Stingley on his helmet like a fighter pilot marking his kills. While his own coach John Madden kept a vigil at Stingley’s beside, he didn’t visit Darryl even once. At least not until decades later when he publicly offered to meet with Stingley, but on the condition that the news media be there to cover it. And oh, yeah… the timing just happened to coincide with the release of another of his stupid books. Stingley (God bless him) told Tatum to go shove his book up his ass sideways.

Darryl died in 2007 of heart failure at the too young age of 55. Tatum, in a case of pure karma, also lost the use of his legs to diabetes before he died in 2010 at the age of 61. I still like to think that where Stingley is, he’s running a 4.3 40 and catching touchdown passes from Jesus while Tatum is in Hell, deep throating Hitler for all eternity.

Even after 35 years, the memory hasn’t faded and the saddness hasn’t abated at all.  Godspeed, Darryl Stingley.  And RIP. @JerryThornton1

PS. I own two Patriots jerseys, a Tedy Bruschi and this.  Easily one of my five favorite possessions.