Thursday, April 05, 2007

R.I.P. Darryl Stingley

The former Patriots star receiver had his career and now his life cut short by paralyzing 1978 hit.

I am fighting back tears as I write this post because a man I hardly knew and barely remember saw his star-crossed life come to an early end yesterday as former Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley passed away at age 55.

Why am so broken up over the death of someone I didn't know and barely remember? Because the unfortunate accident that made Stingley a household name and object for nationwide sympathy in 1978 left an indelible impression on my sports-saturated youth.

I was only a naive 10-year-old living in Boston when Stingley's accident occurred. I remember he was one of the most exciting players to watch on a New England team that boasted stars like Stanley Morgan, Sam "Bam" Cunningham, Russ Francis, Steve Grogan and John "Hog" Hannah. He was fast, had great hands, and was one of those guys you wanted to watch just for the "what will he do next" factor, a-la contemporaries T.O. and Randy Moss. He was well-liked and one of those guys New Englanders rooted for because of his personality, attitude and obvious talent.

It was during an exhibition game (!) against the Oakland Raiders at the Oakland/Alameda Coliseum in August of 1978, going into Stingley's sixth NFL season, that tragedy struck. Grogan sailed what appeared to be a harmless pass over Stingley's outstretched hands and it appeared the play was over; little did anyone know that Stingley's career, and for all intents & purposes his life, would be over as well.

Hard-hitting Raiders safety Jack Tatum chased the play, came across the field and leveled Stingley with a devastating hit after the ball was out of reach that while legal was typical of the rough, take-no-prisoners style the Raiders played with back then. Stingley lay motionless on the turf for quite a while, and soon it became apparent that something awful had happened to one of the brightest young talents in the league. Stingley would not rise from the turf and gingerly walk off the field, shaking out the cobwebs and hoping to get back in the game.

Not only would Stingley never play again, the 26-year-old would never walk again, either. He was rendered quadriplegic, and he and Tatum never reconciled what happened on the field that night. The play was deemed legal and while Tatum admitted he was unhappy with what happened to Stingley he showed no remorse for making a legal hit. In fact in his book, appropriately titled "They Call Me an Assasin", Tatum admitted he hit players not just to knock them down but to hurt them.

In Stingley's case mission accomplished. But not only did Tatum hurt Stingley, he wounded the hearts of a region that was unprepared to deal with this kind of athletic tragedy. The play was run countless times on New England newscasts, and even as a 10-year-old I vividly remember that morbid scene of Stingley being wheeled off the Coliseum field and being told over & over that he would never walk, never mind play, again. It was a chilling wake up call to the realities of the dangers involved in playing professional sports, something I realize was unequipped to deal with at that age.

Jack Tatum took some of my athletic-related innocence on that August day of my youth, but more tragically he took the hopes, dreams and talents away from a potential superstar who had a potential Hall of Fame career & rewarding life ahead of him. Ironically Tatum would later go on to lose both his legs due to complication from diabetes. Perhaps it took him losing his ability to walk that made him realize what he took away from Stingley & the Patriot Nation that night.

The death is the latest in a disturbing 2007 trend of Boston athletic icons passing away suddenly; first Red, then DJ and now Darryl. Following the untimely passings of Len Bias, and Reggie Lewis, Bostonians are beginning to wonder if there is a new kind of curse over the Commonwealth.

R.I.P. Darryl; you will always be loved & remembered with fondness in New England.

(More pieces on the Stingley tragedy here, here, and here.)

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