Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Assassin, Dead. The Immaculate Reception, Immortal.

Jack Tatum was an integral player in two of professional football's most well-known plays. I saw the first live, the second on television. Both plays epitomized exactly the type of player Tatum was, though neither had the outcome he desired.

The Immaculate Reception is arguably football's most famous single play. It occurred in 1972 as I was closing in on the age of eight. Back then my family* shared four season tickets to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but for this game my father was invited to sit in a corporate box to entertain clients for work.  Lucky for me that work function was sans spouse. As far as I could tell two tickets were up for allocation. My begging and pleading carried the day, and my mother and I went down to Three Rivers Stadium for my first playoff game. This wasn't just my first playoff game, it was everybody's first playoff game--coaches, players and fans. The Steelers were a notoriously bad franchise, think Pirates of today, and they hadn't sniffed the playoffs since 1947.

*When I say family, I mean my father. He was one of four guys who shared four tickets to the seven home games.  Occasionally they would all go together, but more often they would split the tickets up so each guy got two to a certain number of games.  Like the other guys, my dad would usually take his wife, my mother, with his second ticket. Then I came along and became interested in sports. I was the first child in the group to impinge upon the setup, but fortunately my mother didn't want to go all the time so I got to go on occasion. I figured I cared more than the other three guys, so I should be going anyway.

Defense carried the day in the '70s and the Steelers had one of the best. They led 6-0 with less than two minutes left and I was certain they were going to win. I was certain they were going to win every game back then. Then Kenny Stabler, who had come into replace Daryle Lamonica (intercepted twice and sacked four times), did the unthinkable. On a busted play Stabler broke around left end and ran 30 yards for a touchdown. From where I was sitting, in section 647 near the top of the stadium, I could see it all unfold like it was in slow-motion. I could tell when he broke contain he might score. I think my eyes were wet by the time he got to the ten. When he was celebrating with his teammates amongst the dead silence of 55,000 tears were streaming down my face. The Steelers were down 7-6.

Pittsburgh got the ball back on their own forty yard line, but all was lost as three incompletions made it 4th and 10 with only :22 seconds left. On fourth down Steeler QB Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass, looking for Barry Pearson. Nothing there. He scrambled and threw down field to John "Frenchy" Fuqua. Jack Tatum and the ball arrived at Fuqua with the firmness and precision of a good handshake, assuming Tatum's hand was that of an 800 pound gorilla. All three objects separated and the ball fell harmlessly......into the outstretched fingertips of an on-rushing Franco Harris. Harris scrambled down the sidelines and into immortality.

Did Harris catch it before it touched the ground? It appears so, but film of the play is not conclusive. Did the ball hit Fuqua or Tatum before Harris caught it? Uncler, but according to the rules of the day, if it was Fuqua, the catch should have been disallowed. Were the refs more concerned about their safety after the touchdown then getting the call right? They should have been. The call stood. The Steelers won. And I can honestly say I was there......crying like a seven year old and then as happy as I could ever remember.


The other play involving Jack Tatum didn't have a happy ending for anyone. In a 1978 preseason game Tatum, know as the Assassin for his crushing blows, laid out Darryl Stingley as he was leaping for a pass. Tatum hit Stingley with his forearm in the head-on collision and knocked him unconscious.  The hit severed Stingley's fourth and fifth vertebrae and left him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. (Stingley died in 2007.) Although controversial, the hit was not a violation of NFL rules at the time and no penalty was called on the play.

The two men never spoke before Stingley's death, with Tatum saying he was continually rebuffed by members of Stingley's family. The Assassin never apologized for the hit. As Jason Cole reported in a 2007 article, Jack always said "I don't think I did anything wrong that I need to apologize for. It was a clean hit."

Jack Tatum was a two-time unanimous All American at Ohio St. University.  He was selected as the National Defensive Player of the Year in 1970 and was among the leading vote-getters for the Heisman Trophy. He was a first round draft pick in the 1971 NFL Draft and was voted to the Pro Bowl three times. He won the Super Bowl as a member of the 1976 Oakland Raiders.  He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

Jack Tatum died yesterday of a massive heart attack at the age of 61. (NY Times obituary)


backtofoulke said...

He may not have been flagged or suspended for the Stingley hit but given his very early death, the football gods surely gave him ten years for being a hatchet man. Along this precedent, John Lynch and Rodney Harrison could drop dead tomorrow.

(Just a sidenote .... ascribing any "value" to secondary guys who take shots at exposed receivers is the stuff of 8th graders. Lionizing the "hard hitting safety" is Tom Jackson stuff and who wants to be grouped in with that clown? )

The Hammer said...

Not sure if your sidenote is suggesting that I subscribed "value" to Tatum or that I am "Lionizing" him. I wasn't. My intent was to write about a guy who played a pivotal role in the most famous play I've ever seen who had a dramatic impact on the rules of the game due to his style of play.

Today, I'm not sure how to evaluate guys like Tatum, Blount, even Butkus, who were playing under a completely different set of rules and were encouraged to take guys out.

Paul said...

David: Good story. I was not as fortunate as you to attend but I do remember listening to the game on the radio. As you probably recall with the blackout rule home games were not televised locally. It certainly was alot easier to watch the replay of the game the next day knowing how it ended.