The NFL remembers Jack Tatum

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:10 AM ET

Jack Tatum died this week. The National Football League finally woke up.

In a curious juxtaposition, the man involved in one of the league’s most catastrophic accidents died within 24 hours of a league initiative to prevent head and neck injuries.

After years of dithering and obfuscation, the league is finally taking steps to help players avoid and treat head injuries. It has a new chairmen on a committee dealing with head trauma, it has begun a poster campaign to educate players about the dangers of concussion — while at the same time mourning the death of the man once dubbed “The Assassin.”

Tatum, 61, died of a heart attack. A Pro Bowl safety, he was one of the NFL’s hardest tacklers and on Aug. 12, 1978, he left New England receiver Darryl Stingley on the Oakland Coliseum turf paralyzed from the neck down.

Even mouthy louts in chains and masks reacted with stunned silence. Tatum wasn’t penalized. It wasn’t an illegal hit. Stingley cut inside lunging for a pass which fell incomplete. Tatum, coming from the opposite direction, hit Stingley full speed while the receiver was off balance and leaning forward. Stingley crumpled to the ground, his fourth and fifth vertebrae severed. “I understand why Darryl is considered the victim,” Tatum would write in his book. “But I’ll never understand why some people look at me as the villain.”

Often there are no villains, just victims. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 300,000 sports-related concussions are suffered each year in the U.S. Brain injuries have contributed to the death of several former NFL stars. Stingley spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, dying in 2007.

Tatum never showed any remorse and the two men never spoke after the hit. But according to friends the incident did haunt Tatum who for a time became a virtual recluse.

“He wasn’t the type of person who was really out trying to maim anybody or hurt anybody,” Hall of Famer and former Raiders teammate Willie Brown said. “He was just doing his job. That’s the way he played the game.”

And, it’s still the way the game is often played. The average elite athlete will die by age 67, considerably lower than the 76-year life expectancy of the average American, and according to the NFL Players’ Association, the average life expectancy of an NFL player is 58 years. Many insurance companies won’t provide coverage past age 51.

The NFL, until now, has maintained there is no relation between football and head injuries. But a poster from the revamped committee on head and neck injuries, now hanging in locker rooms reads: “Work smart. Use your head, don’t lead with it.”

But in San Francisco, fiery coach Mike Singletary refuses to give up his infamous “Nutcracker” drills, which he believes toughens players.

The drill consisted of seven stations at which one offensive player went up against one defensive player in an effort to see who could push the other man back.

“He doesn’t understand the issues ... he needs to be enlightened,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, senior advisor to the NFL’s new committee on head, neck and spine trauma.

In fairness, the 49ers had one of the shortest injury lists of any team after training camps closed last year. And, Tatum would’ve loved those drills. But Singletary admits that’s not a unanimous view: “If you were to go around and take a poll, I’m sure our players would say coach is trying to kill us,” he told the San Jose Mercury. “Then after that, I think they would come back and say coach takes care of us. He looks out for us.”

Maybe. But chances are Darryl Stingley thought someone was looking out for him. And, he was wrong, too.

Say cheese

It took three attempts and two days but Ravens’ No. 1 pick Terrence Cody finally passed his physical yesterday. Basically anyone who can breath and walk avoids the Unable to Perform list — in this case, it involved the 350-pound defensive tackle running six 25-yard sprints , with 70 second breaks.

Maybe someone should’ve marked the finish line with a Happy Meal — Super Sized.

In any case, veteran Haloti Ngata has dubbed him “Cheeseburger.” Should stick like mustard on a Sunday-best tie.

Bad news

Rookie Dez Bryant, after getting Roy Williams in a flap when he refused to carry the veteran’s pads after’ practice, is blaming the media.

So, while the first-rounder may not have played a game and actually be a pro yet, it’s nice to see he has already learned to talk like one.

Quick Hits

Raiders coach Tom Cable confirmed yesterday that Jason Campbell will be the starting quarterback ... Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw (foot and ankle surgery) is limping ... The Vikings signed sixth-round pick Joe Webb. Now they have to figure out what to do with him. A quarterback at Alabama-Birmingham, they drafted him as a receiver, then had him throw the ball at mini-camp. Now he’s a receiver again. Of course, he’s still a late draft pick. So let’s be honest. If he turns out like most sixth-round picks, his best position may still end up being a Walmart greeter.


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