Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Jack Tatum: NFL hero dies

When I was a kid in the early 70s, the Oakland Raiders were a dominating, winning team that seemed to relish the darker side of football. They were the Bad Guys in Black, but somehow they became my team. I'm not sure what attracted me to the Raiders seeing as I was not from the Bay area, but I loved them and hated the Pittsburgh Steelers. I had two idols - my number one guy was Kenny Stabler. "The Snake" as he was called, was one the NFL's best ever clutch performers at quarterback. I taught myself to throw a football left-handed because of the Snake. (Born a natural righty, I never could do much else left-handed, but I could throw a football 50 yards left handed - and won a couple of bets, too. Thanks Kenny.)

My other hero was Jack Tatum.

"The Assassin", as Tatum was called, was simply a brutal force of nature in the Raiders defensive secondary. The tackles he delivered from strong safety to receivers and running backs were not really tackles, but rather were crushing, near-criminal blows. Watching a Jack Tatum collision was like watching a car wreck. Hits so hard you were awestruck that a man could do that to another man. Leading with a shoulder pad, helmet, and powerfully swift legs, Tatum made receivers unwilling to catch balls over the middle and gave the Raiders defense a fearsome reputation that led them to a Super Bowl win in the 1976-77 season.

Tatum was an All-American high school star out of Passaic, NJ and was recruited by the Ohio State Buckeyes and legendary coach Woody Hayes as a running back. Then-secondary coach Lou Holtz convinced Hayes to convert Tatum to safety and the legend was born. He started as a sophomore on the 1968 national championship team, was a two-time All-American and the national defensive player of the year as a senior in 1970. Drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders in 1971 he was a three-time Pro Bowl selection from 1974-76. He was traded by Oakland to the Houston Oilers in 1979 and finished his playing career with the Oilers following the 1980 season.

"In the Rose Bowl, he ran down O.J. from behind and made a hell of a tackle on him," said former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, an assistant coach on the 1968 team. "But he also made hits that were unbelievable. He had one on a Michigan quarterback that knocked him out."

White said Tatum was "as fast as he needed to be. Nobody could outrun him. He had a blazing speed and an uncanny ability that only a few people had. He could run full speed in the open field and hit a guy square-on. He never had to slow down or break down. When he tackled somebody, he literally ran through them. That's why he was so devastating. There may have been other guys who had that ability, but nobody had it with the speed and strength and size that he brought to the table."

After becoming Ohio State coach in 2001, Jim Tressel instituted the "Jack Tatum Hit of the Week" award for that week's best block or tackle.

If you were an opposing receiver and caught a ball over the deep middle of the field against the Raiders and you were merely tackled and not hit, you considered yourself lucky. If you did it again, you were carried out on a stretcher.

That was Jack Tatum the Enforcer doing his job. And he was my guy. In his prime he was like an Achilles - that big #32 galloping about, eyeing, threatening, fearsome. His hits were famous: his first game as an NFL rookie knocking out both Colts tight ends in the same game; the awesome Earl Campbell goal line hit that spun the burly Campbell around in the end zone and left him clutching his chest in pain on the bench; the belting hit on Frenchy Fuqua that catapulted the ball in a low line drive backwards nearly 30 feet fatefully into the hands of Franco Harris for the Immaculate Reception; the powerful, crushing hit on Sammy White in Super Bowl XI over the middle which separated White from both his helmet and chinstrap; and sadly, the brutal, but legal, hit on Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley that broke two vertebrae leaving Stingley paralyzed for life.

Nobody hit harder than Jack Tatum - ever - and perhaps thanks to modern NFL rules against unecessary roughness, nobody ever will.

The Enforcer died yesterday of a heart attack brought about by complications from diabetes. He was 61. R.I.P. Jack.


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