A great philosopher once said, “Life is like a box of choco-lates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”
A truer statement about the uncertainty of life has never been made.
We never know what awaits us each day as we rise from our beds. We may have a schedule planned, an agenda to keep, appointments to make, responsibilities to fulfill but we never really know if we are going to be able to see them through to their fruition.
Life keeps putting obstacles and unforeseen events in our way that make each day somewhat of a mystery. One day we might have to deal with a flat tire; the next time it might be a sick child; and, who knows, another day someone totally unexpected could walk into our lives changing it so much that we are never the same. Little did I know that when I awoke that morning, the decision later on that evening to ask that pretty blonde woman to dance with me would be a decision that would change my life forever. That dance has turned into twenty-two wonderful years of marriage but, you see my point- that morning I had no way of knowing that.
Jack Tatum had several days like that. For those of you who may not recognize the name, let me give you some background information on Jack Tatum.
Tatum was a professional football player, primarily for the Oakland Raiders, who was given the nickname “The Assassin”, a nickname that Tatum himself relished, because of his ferocious hitting style on the gridiron. He played safety and many opponents called him a dirty player. Teammates called him the best safety in the game.
He played college ball for Ohio State University from 1968-1970 where he was originally recruited to be a running back for Coach Woody Hayes. A young assistant coach by the name of Lou Holtz convinced Tatum to switch to defensive back during his freshman season and the rest, as they say, is history. That just may be the best coaching advice Holtz ever gave anybody.
Tatum was a first-team All-Big Ten player all three years he played and in 1970 he was selected the National Defensive Player of the Year and finished in the top five of voting for the Heisman Trophy. Tatum helped lead the Buckeyes to a 27-2 record during his playing days with two national championship appearances and one national championship in 1968.
After his college career, the Raiders selected Tatum in the first round, where he played for ten years before finishing his career with the Houston Oilers. Tatum was a five-time All-Pro selection and was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1973.
Tatum was involved in two of the biggest hits in NFL history and they both had a major impact on his life. The first occurred in 1972 and is one of the most famous plays in all NFL history.
The play is now known as “The Immaculate Reception” and it happened all because Tatum didn’t know how to play except all out.
You’ve seen the play many times but what goes unseen many times is the hit Tatum laid on the intended receiver, “Frenchy” Fuqua of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tatum hit Fuqua so hard that the ball sailed back down the field some twenty yards into the waiting hands of Franco Harris who took it in for a winning touchdown with less than 20 seconds to go in the game.
If Tatum had eased off just a bit or if he had gone for the ball and not the receiver, football history and his life would have been different because the ball would have flopped harmlessly to the ground. Instead, the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl and the Raiders went home.
The second hit affected not only Tatum but another player who suffered a serious injury due to the contact given him by Tatum. In a 1978 preseason game (let me repeat that — a preseason game) against the New England Patriots, Tatum hit Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley as Stingley was running a crossing pattern leaping for a pass over the middle of the field. The middle of the field was Tatum’s territory and nobody entered his territory without strong repercussions, even in a preseason game.
Tatum’s hit left Stingley paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of his life. Stingley, even after months of rehabilitation and several operations, was never able to walk again. Darryl Stingley died in 2007.
Tatum was criticized the rest of his life for the hit by many who called it dirty and more so because he never made any effort to apologize or attempt to contact Stingley after the hit. Tatum said on many occasions that he tried to see Stingley in the hospital but was not allowed to by members of Stingley’s family. Tatum was once quoted as saying, “People are always saying that I didn’t apologize. I don’t think I did anything wrong that I need to apologize for. It was a clean hit.”
Tatum suffered physical disabilities of his own after football. In 2003 he had all five toes on his left foot amputated due to a staph infection caused by diabetes and later he had his right leg amputated because of arterial blockages. He used a prosthetic limb thereafter.
On both those mornings Tatum did not know what the day would bring but I think in both cases if he had known, he would have asked that the script be written another way. Tatum was never a dirty football player, just a hard-nosed one. Could he have been a little more remorseful? Sure, but that was not his nature and because of that attitude, Tatum has never been strongly considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite his credentials.
Tatum awoke the morning of July 27, 2010 not knowing what to expect from that day either. Two hours later he was dead from a heart attack. There is no deep message here other than to say we should cherish our days because we never know what they may bring. May ours bring more happiness than some of the days of Jack Tatum.
Randy Blalock is a columnist for the Barrow Journal. You can reach him at email@example.com.