Jack Tatum, the former Oakland Raiders player who earned the nickname the Assassin for his brutal hits, none of them more devastating than a blow that left New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed in 1978, died Tuesday in Oakland, Calif. He was 61.Ben Margot/Associated Press
Tatum in October 2009Ron Riesterer/Oakland Tribune, via Associated Press
New England receiver Darryl Stingley, right, was left a quadriplegic in 1978 after absorbing a hit from Oakland’s Jack Tatum.Enlarge This Image Richard Drew/Associated Press
Tatum, known as the Assassin, burnished the Raiders’ outlaw image with hits like this one on Minnesota’s Sammy White.
The Raiders announced his death on their Web site. The cause was a heart attack, Tatum’s friend and formerOhio State teammate John Hicks told The Associated Press. Tatum had suffered from diabetes in recent years, leading to the amputation of a leg.
Tatum, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, was one of the most feared hitters in football, and he came to be a symbol of a violent game. “I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault,” he wrote in a 1980 book, “They Call Me Assassin.”
His collision with Stingley, one of the most indelible in N.F.L. history, defined Tatum’s reputation. It came on Aug. 12, 1978, in a preseason game against the Patriots at Oakland Coliseum. Stingley was running a crossing pattern, and the force of the hit fractured two vertebrae in Stingley’s neck and severely damaged his spinal cord, leaving him a quadriplegic.
No penalty flags were thrown and Tatum was not disciplined — but Stingley and Tatum never reconciled. Tatum did not apologize for the hit, earning him considerable national scorn.
“It was tough on him, too,” Hicks told The A.P. “He wasn’t the same person after that. For years he was almost a recluse.”
In his 1980 book, Tatum wrote: “When the reality of Stingley’s injury hit me with its full impact, I was shattered. To think that my tackle broke another man’s neck and killed his future.”
In 1996, Tatum and Stingley were supposed to meet for a television appearance, but Stingley called it off after being told it was to publicize a book written by Tatum. Stingley died in 2007 at the age of 55.
“It’s not so much that Darryl doesn’t want to, but it’s the people around him,” Tatum told The Oakland Tribune in 2004. “So we haven’t been able to get through that. Every time we plan something, it gets messed up. Getting to him or him getting back to me, it never happens.”
Tatum was involved in a number of plays that have become enshrined in N.F.L. history. In the 1977 Super Bowl against the Minnesota Vikings, he hit Vikings wide receiver Sammy White so hard that White’s helmet flew off, a play immortalized on highlight reels.
And it was Tatum’s hit on Pittsburgh receiver Frenchy Fuqua in a 1972 playoff game that sent a Terry Bradshaw pass ricocheting into the arms of Franco Harris, who ran the ball in for the winning Steelers touchdown, a play christened the Immaculate Reception.
John David Tatum was born on Nov. 18, 1948, in Cherryville, N.C., and grew up in Passaic, N.J., where he did not start playing football until he was at Passaic High School. He was such a gifted athlete that Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes recruited him as a running back before he was moved to defensive back — partly at the behest of the assistant coach Lou Holtz — where he became a two-time all-American, won a national championship in 1968 and was named the nation’s best defensive player in 1970.
Ohio State now gives the Jack Tatum Hit of the Week award to its football players.
Tatum was drafted 19th over all by the Raiders in 1971, and his hard-hitting style was obvious from his first N.F.L. appearance. In that game, against the Baltimore Colts, Tatum knocked out two Colts tight ends.
Tatum was traded to the Houston Oilers in 1980 and played his last season with them before retiring at the end of the season. Afterward he worked in real estate, was a part-owner of a restaurant and worked to promote diabetes research.
He is survived by his wife, Denise, and their three children.
Besides “They Call Me Assassin,” Tatum wrote two other books, “They Still Call Me Assassin: Here We Go Again” (1989) and “Final Confessions of an NFL Assassin” (1996).
“I was paid to hit, the harder the better,” he wrote in the final book. He added: “I understand why Darryl is considered the victim. But I’ll never understand why some people look at me as the villain.”