Jack Tatum did not begin playing football until he entered his sophomore year at Passaic High School, where he played as a running back, fullback and defensive back and was selected first-team All-State. He was selected a high school All-American as a senior. In 1999, the Newark Star-Ledger named Tatum as one of New Jersey’s top ten defensive players of the century.
Jack Tatum played his college football with the Ohio State University Buckeyes. Head coach Woody Hayes recruited Tatum as a running back. However, assistant coach Lou Holtz convinced Hayes to switch Tatum to defensive back during Tatum’s freshman season. Tatum was used by the Buckeyes to cover the opposing team’s best wide receiver, but he also was used occasionally as a linebacker due to the nature of his hits and his innate ability to bring down even the biggest fullback or tight end. He first became known to college football observers as a sophomore when he helped limit All-American Leroy Keyes during a 13-0 upset against the Purdue Boilermakers during the early part of the 1968 season.
Tatum was an first-team All-Big Ten in 1968, 1969 and 1970. In his final two seasons he was a unanimous All-American. In 1970 he was selected as the National Defensive Player of the Year and was among the top vote getters for the Heisman Trophy, which is awarded to the athlete considered to have been the nation’s best college football player that year. Tatum helped lead the Buckeyes to a 27-2 record in his three seasons as a starter, with two national championship appearances, two Big Ten titles and one national championship win in 1968, Tatum’s first season with the team. In the storied rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan, Tatum and his fellow Buckeyes won in 1968 by the score of 50-14, lost in 1969 by 24-12, and won again in 1970 by 20-9.
Tatum was drafted by the Oakland Raiders as the 19th pick in the first round of the 1971 NFL Draft to replace former Oakland safety Dave Grayson, who retired after the 1970 season, and for “defensive stability”. A few weeks later, Tatum signed a three-year, six-figure contract with a $50,000 signing bonus. Tatum was nicknamed “The Assassin”, a name he embraced and relished. However, according to his former head coach John Madden, Tatum was never called by that nickname during his playing career. Tatum played his first professional game against the Baltimore Colts, in which he tackled and knocked out Colts tight ends John Mackey and Tom Mitchell. Soon after the game, sportswriters started to compare him to Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus because of his hard-hitting skills, and he became the starting free safety in his rookie year.
In 1974, Tatum had six interceptions and in Super Bowl XI on January 9, 1977, Tatum knocked the helmet off Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Sammy White. This is often regarded as one of the biggest hits in Super Bowl history. The Raiders went on to win, crushing the Vikings 32-14 in the Super Bowl.
Tatum during his career was involved in some of the most infamous plays in National Football League history, the Immaculate Reception, during the AFC divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 23, 1972. With 22 seconds left in the game, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a pass to running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua. Tatum collided with Fuqua, knocking the ball into the air. The ball fell into the hands of Steelers running back Franco Harris, who ran it 42 yards for the game-winning touchdown.The play is famous because NFL rules at the time prohibited a receiver from batting the ball to another player of the same team. The referees ruled that Tatum had touched the ball and therefore Harris’s touchdown was permitted, allowing the Steelers to win the game.
His most infamous tackle came in an exhibition game against the New England Patriots on August 12, 1978, a play that Tatum later stated he did “thousands of times” in practice and in regular game coverage. Tatum and Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley collided as Stingley was leaping for a pass on an inside slant route, a play the Patriots had run earlier in the game with some success that put him in the path of Tatum. There was an awkward collision as Stingley lowered his helmet to protect himself and hit Tatum’s shoulder pad. The impact badly damaged Stingley’s spinal cord and left him with incomplete quadriplegia for the rest of his life. The National Football League took no disciplinary action for the tackle; however, many of those violent tackles were later outlawed.
The incident affected Tatum personally and for several years, according to close friend John Hicks, made him “somewhat of a recluse”. According to Madden, “It was something that ate on him for his whole life.” According to Stingley in his 1983 autobiography,Happy To Be Alive, Tatum never made any effort to apologize or to see him after the incident. Gene Upshaw a teammate and future NFL executive, described the hit as “one of those things that happens that everyone regrets”. Tatum had said he attempted to visit Stingley in the hospital, but was rebuffed by Stingley’s family. They were supposed to meet once in a television interview, but Stingley backed out when he found out Tatum was promoting his new autobiography during the interview. The two did not speak from that day until Stingley’s death on April 5, 2007, although Stingley related in a 2003 Boston Globe interview that he had forgiven Tatum. “It’s hard to articulate,” he said. “It was a test of my faith, the entire story. In who, and how much, do you believe, Darryl? In my heart and mind, I forgave Jack Tatum a long time ago.”Tatum never apologized for the hit, nor the style he played, stating that, “It’s unrealistic. If you want to play football for a living, you’re going to get injured”.
Tatum was traded to the Houston Oilers for running back Kenny King and two seventh round draft choices in the 1980 NFL Draft and 1981 NFL Draft. He finished his pro career with them, playing all sixteen games that year, and recorded a career-high seven interceptions to finish with a career total of 37 interceptions with 736 return yards. He also recovered nine fumbles in his career, returning them for 164 yards.
Tatum eventually faced his own disability challenges, as all five toes on his left foot were amputated in 2003 due to a staph infection caused by diabetes. He soon lost the entire leg below the knee because of the illness. He also suffered from an arterial blockage that cost him his right leg; he used a prosthetic limb thereafter. Tatum worked on increasing awareness of diabetes. To facilitate this goal, he created the Ohio-based Jack Tatum Fund for Youthful Diabetes, which finances diabetes research. His kidney started to fail in his final years, and he was awaiting a kidney transplant at the time of his death.
Tatum died in Oakland on July 27, 2010 after a heart attack. The Oakland Raiders released a statement that: “Jack was the standard bearer and an inspiration for the position of safety throughout college and professional football”, while Ronnie Lott stated that Tatum was one of his “football heroes”. Sportswriters John Clayton and Peter Richmond both wrote on Tatum’s NFL legacy. Clayton wrote that Tatum was part of the reason why the Steelers-Raiders matchup was his most anticipated game of the season while starting his sports-writing career in Pittsburgh, and that Tatum hit like “no other safety in football”. Richmond, an Oakland journalist and insider, wrote about Tatum’s quiet demeanor off the field, which was contrary to most journalistic reports about Tatum. However Steve Grogan, Stingley’s teammate, when asked about making a comment about Tatum’s death, stated: “I have a hard time trying to find something nice to say…. I just can’t do it”.
In the end it is a shame that Jack Tatum is remembered mainly for the hit on Darryl Stingley and for being a dirty player. Jack Lambert was the same kind of physical player and he was celebrated for it, maybe it was because Tatum was an african-american man with an afro playing for the Raiders. Tatum was a great player and should be remembered that way.