Stingley Remains an Inspiration
Compassion and Conviction Defined a Remarkable Individual
Football is a physically violent game. Players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. Advances in equipment technology and rules changes has made the sport generally safer. Pro football's development into a business has given most players a different perspective on injuries to themselves and their opponents. There are increasingly severe penalties for excessively or intentionally harmful acts. And, with the exception of ESPN's "Jacked Up," there is a greatly decreased glorification of ultra violence.
Thirty years ago, players relied on their natural talents and desire. Equipment was spartan by current standards. "Taking out" an opponent for at least the rest of the game was generally accepted and often encouraged. Guys like Rodney Harrison, comparatively, would have been called a sissy.
Nearing the dawn of the 1978 season, the New England Patriots were coming off a 9-5 season missing the playoffs, and that just a year after finishing 11-3 and losing a controversial AFC Divisional playoff, 24-21, to the Oakland Raiders.
Wide receiver Darryl Stingley was coming off a career year. In 1977, he led the Patriots in receiving yards (657), was three behind running back Sam Cunningham in receptions (Stingley had 39), and led the team in touchdowns (6). The future was bright and promising for both Stingley and his team.
The Patriots, already in California after playing the Los Angeles Rams a week before, met the infamous Raiders in a meaningless exhibition game on Aug. 12.
In the second quarter, Stingley ran a post pattern down the right sideline and started to come to the middle inside the 15. The pass hurled by quarterback Steve Grogan sailed high. Stingley was still in the air when Jack Tatum came from inside the 10 in the opposite direction and launched himself at Stingley, driving his forearm across Stingley's helmet.
There was no penalty on the play. The hit, technically, was legal. That it was utterly unnecessary, even in a meaningful game, was irrelevant.
Stingley never walked again.
Tatum, who nicknamed himself "The Assassin" (try doing that these days), whose goal in life was to maim people (legally, on the football field, of course), was remorseless.
Stingley died Friday at the age of 55. By all accounts, he had greater compassion and more honor in his lifeless little toe than Tatum has had in the totality of his life.
As a very young Patriots fan, I was stunned and very angry. I still boil to think of Tatum. In that respect, Stingley was a far greater man than I. Someone who plays football for the pure enjoyment of injuring others is a coward, if you ask me. But Stingley forgave the unrepentant Assassin, even as Tatum tried to capitalize financially with his own (third) memoir round about the 25th anniversary of the act. He actually invited Stingley to join him for a TV interview, but did not disclose that it was to promote the new book.
A little more than four years after laying motionless on the field, Stingley, with writer Mark Mulvoy, published "Darryl Stingley: Happy to be Alive". Nearly 25 years later, I can say honestly that few books ever had the impact that book had on me.
It was within Stingley's memoir that I first encountered the poem, generally accepted as being anonymously penned, called "Don't Quit." Stingley recounts his "recovery" process in excruciating detail -- not that the detail is excessive, but the experience between the lines is hardly bearable.
While Stingley lay there on the verge of craving life's end just to escape his personal hell, someone brought him a copy of the poem, and it changed everything for him. Reading the rest of the book in the context of the poem changed me. To this day, I carry an abridged copy of "Don't Quit" in my wallet.
(The is ubiquitous on the Internet, but there are several versions, the most prevalent being an 18-line version and a longer 24-line version. I remember (probably incorrectly) that the version in Stingley's book was even longer, but I have not seen the book in some years. If anyone has a copy and can confirm, I'd greatly appreciate it.)
Stingley, persevering in a wheelchair for nearly 30 years, his book (odd that I've never purchased a copy) and "Don't Quit" have remained an inspiration to me and have seen me through many trying times. They will again, for sure. But for now, Stingley's passing is like pounding a bruise that never healed..
Stingley's memoir was readily available from several sources late last week. There are far fewer now and the prices have largely increased. I'd check Half.com or your local library before I shell out to a price-gouger. Still, I highly recommend tracking down a copy.
Stingley obituary by the Associated Press as published in the Boston Herald.
Stingley's obituary by The Boston Globe's Mike Reiss.
The Boston Globe's Bob Ryan remembers Stingley.
Compiled reaction/remembrance comments in Reiss's blog.
The Boston Herald's Joe Fitzgerald remember Stingley.
The Boston Herald's John Tomase remember Stingley.