Jack Tatum's legacy serves as chilling reminder of how far NFL has come in terms of player safety

Jack Tatum
Jack Tatum's legacy serves as chilling reminder of how far NFL has come in terms of player safety

Jack Tatum is a former Oakland Raiders free safety who earned the nickname “The Assassin” for his vicious hits on opposing players. Tatum wrote in the 1980 book, They Call Me Assassin, that he liked to believe that his "best hits border on felonious assault.”

No hit from Tatum was more devastating than the helmet to chest tackle that left New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed in 1978. Over the past few decades, this single play has come to not only define Tatum’s career but an entire era of the NFL. No penalty flags were thrown and Tatum was not disciplined.

Chuck Fairbanks, Patriots’ head coach at the time, said he couldn’t find anything illegal or dirty about it. This was an era from which the league has moved past and as a result, players of Tatum’s ilk have become a rarity.


It's not hard to see why the NFL moved past this kind of era. Football is a physical sport today, but nowhere near as dangerous as it used to be. It seems crazy when you see clips from an age when these kind of tackles were legal. These hits ended careers and ruined lives. Though some may say the league's gone soft, it's definitely a good thing.

Some defensive backs covered wide receivers, Jack Tatum buried them

Jack Tatum played 10 seasons in the NFL and won a Super Bowl ring in 1977 with the Oakland Raiders. In the 1977 Super Bowl against the Minnesota Vikings, Tatum hit Vikings wide receiver Sammy White so vicious that White’s helmet flew off, an all-time Super Bowl defensive highlight.

Warning: viewer discretion is advised.

Here’s Jack Tatum almost decapitating Sammy White in Super Bowl XI. If this hit happened today, Tatum would have his children taken away from him prior to being sentenced to life in prison.

These days, playmaking seems to boil down to nice footwork, safe hands or a cannon arm. In the 1970’s Tatum’s hard hits as much as any other skill, helped decide games for the Raiders. The Oakland Raiders were known as one of the more resilient teams of the 1970s and Tatum's enforcer-like play was a major contributor. Tatum was a player from a different time in professional football, a time when intimidation was as much a part of a team’s game plan as Xs and Os.

Jack Tatum's playstyle is that of a modern Free Safety. He was capable of covering the pass as a defensive back while also being used as a linebacker due to the nature of his hits. Not to mention his uncanny ability to bring down even the biggest fullback or tight end.

Tatum played an enforcer role for the Raiders. Over the last 40 years, NFL rule changes concerning player health and safety have caused this role to disappear. Many of Tatum’s past legal hits would get him thrown out of the game today. The modern NFL discourages the very plays that made Tatum infamous.

In many ways, a player like Tatum can’t exist in today's NFL. Many players are labeled ahead of their time or as a throwback because their play never quite fits. Jack Tatum was completely of his time, as his playstyle could only belong to that period of the NFL. Upon his death in 2010, a New York Times obituary called Jack Tatum “a symbol of a violent game.”

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Edited by John Maxwell
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