Professional football player, charity director
Darryl Stingley was a professional football player widely admired for the grace and courage with which he endured a terrible, career-ending injury. In a preseason game on August 12, 1978, between Stingley's team, the New England Patriots, and the Oakland Raiders, a brutal—but legal—tackle by Raider Jack Tatum left Stingley a quadriplegic. In the years following his injury, Stingley returned to school, started a foundation for at-risk youth in Chicago, and publicly forgave the man who had brought his career to such a sudden and painful end.
Born on September 18, 1951, in Chicago, Darryl Floyd Stingley grew up in the city's struggling Lawndale neighborhood. While his parents, Harold and Hilda Stingley, had little money to spare, they instilled in their youngest son a work ethic later described by Russ Francis, a Patriot teammate, as "legendary." After a stellar football career at John Marshall High School, Stingley entered Purdue University on an athletic scholarship in 1969. Four years later, only a few credits short of graduation, he was selected by the Patriots in the first round of the 1973 National Football League draft. Over the next five seasons, Stingley would emerge as one of the league's finest wide receivers, with thirty-nine catches and five touchdowns in 1977 alone. In recognition of his value, the Patriots offered him a contract extension in the summer of 1978 that would have made him, according to his longtime agent Jack Sands, speaking with Ron Borges in 2003 in the Boston Globe, "one of the highest-paid receivers in the league." Negotiations were over, but the contract had not been yet been signed when the Patriots embarked on a preseason tour of California.
Pat Toomay, an Oakland defensive end, later described the August 12, 1978, game at the Oakland Coliseum as "one of those sloppy exhibitions early in the preseason," as quoted by Bob Ryan in the Boston Globe. On a play in the second quarter, Stingley jumped to catch a ball that had been thrown over his head. While he was still aloft, Jack Tatum, a safety nicknamed the "Assassin" for the force and speed of his tackles, slammed into him. The collision broke two vertebrae in Stingley's spine, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. After years of intensive therapy, Stingley eventually regained some use of his right arm, but he never walked or played football again.
Tatum's tackle of Stingley may well be the most controversial moment in the history of professional football. According to the rules in place at the time, Tatum had done nothing illegal, and he was not penalized on or off the field. Many people were angered, however, by his failure to visit Stingley in the hospital in the days and weeks following. This anger only intensified with the publication of Tatum's 1980 autobiography, They Call Me Assassin, in which he wrote, "I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault." While Stingley repeatedly expressed a desire to meet or correspond with Tatum, the two never did so. Sporadic attempts by intermediaries to bring them together failed, usually because Stingley suspected Tatum's motives. As Sands told Borges in the Boston Globe in 2003, "Each time we've been contacted by people representing Jack, there always turned out to be another agenda…. If Tatum contacted Darryl or me to talk, Darryl would be more than willing to do it. But not for the media. Not for money." That Stingley had forgiven Tatum, however, was clear even without a face-to-face meeting. Asked, for example, for his reaction to the news that Tatum had suffered a grievous injury himself, losing part of a leg to diabetes in 2003, Stingley told Borges, "You can't, as a human being, feel happy about something like that happening to another human being…. Maybe the natural reaction is to think he got what was coming to him but I don't accept human nature as our real nature. Human nature teaches us to hate. God teaches us to love."
The months immediately following his injury were difficult for Stingley, as he struggled with depression and anger. A turning point came in 1979, when he returned to the Patriots' home field in Foxborough, Massachusetts, for a nationally televised game. When his name was announced, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation that lasted for seven minutes. Stingley would later describe the experience to Bob Hohler in The Boston Globe: "I spent a lot of time before then dealing with the demons—the whys and what-fors…. But the people were so overwhelming in their support that night, it was truly the launching pad that sent me back out into the world."
As Stingley grew accustomed to life in a wheelchair, he began working as a scouting consultant for the Patriots, a position he held until about 1990. He also began work on an autobiography. Written with Mark Mulvoy, Happy to be Alive was published in 1983. In it, Stingley expressed his joy in friends and family, his religious faith, his forgiveness of Jack Tatum, and his determination to improve himself and his community. In keeping with the last of these, he resolved to finish his education. After several years of taking correspondence classes from Citywide College of Chicago via cable television, Stingley contacted Purdue University, his old school, and worked out a plan to complete the credits he needed. On May 10, 1992, he sat on stage with his mother at the school's graduation ceremonies and received a standing ovation from his fellow graduates.
Once his education was complete, Stingley turned toward his next objective: the creation of programs to help at-risk youth in Chicago. Founded in 1993 and run by Stingley until his death, the Darryl Stingley Youth Foundation supports tutoring, mentoring, and other outreach programs in low-income neighborhoods throughout the city. As he told Catalyst Chicago, a school reform organization, in 1998, "I want to teach children the pitfalls of drugs and alcohol and at the same time teach them responsibility." Stingley also worked to increase awareness of spinal cord injuries and to improve wheelchair access to public facilities.
Darryl Stingley died on April 5, 2007, at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital after being found unconscious in his home. According to the county medical examiner's office, the cause of death was a combination of pneumonia, atherosclerosis, quadriplegia, and spinal-cord damage. Surviving him were his wife, Martine, three sons, and several grandchildren.
At a Glance …
Born Darryl Floyd Stingley on September 18, 1951, in Chicago, IL; died on April 5, 2007, in Chicago; son of Harold Stingley (a laborer) and Hilda Stingley (an educator); married Martine Stingley; children: Hank, John, Derek. Education: Purdue University, BA, physical education, 1992.
Career: New England Patriots, wide receiver, 1973-78, scouting consultant, 1978-90(?); Darryl Stingley Youth Foundation, founder and director, 1993-2007.
Memberships: National Spinal Cord Injury Association.
(With Mark Mulvoy) Darryl Stingley: Happy to Be Alive, Beaufort Books, 1983.
Boston Globe, August 12, 2003; December 26, 2005; April 5, 2007; April 6, 2007.
New York Times, April 6, 2007; December 30, 2007.
Sporting News, September 1, 2003.
"Darryl Stingley, Paralyzed by Tatum Hit, Dies at 55," ESPN, April 5, 2007, http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=2826562 (accessed May 27, 2008).
Williams, Debra, "Board Goes to Market for 10,000 Tutors," Catalyst Chicago, May 1998, http://www.catalyst-chicago.org/news/index.php?item=467&cat=23 (accessed May 27, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler
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