Jack Tatum

Posted: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 by Travis Cody in

Jack Tatum, who played safety for the Oakland Raiders from 1970 to 1979, died yesterday from a heart attack.  He was 61.

Tatum was known as one of the hardest hitting defensive backs in the NFL.  Most of the hi-lights you see of Tatum show him leading with his helmet, or clubbing a receiver across the face mask, or even ripping an offensive player's helmet off.

He sure did those things.  It was a different era.  I won't look at football as played more than 30 years ago through today's prism.

This is what I remember.  When I was a kid learning how to play safety, I watched the way Jack Tatum lined up and moved at the snap of the ball.  I watched how he maintained his balance.  How he didn't cross his feet.  How he moved laterally and kept his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage.

And how he exploded forward when he knew where the ball was.  His tackling technique on running plays was balanced and efficient.  He hit hard because it was his job to get the ball carrier on the ground.  For all the "vicious" hits you'll see in hi-light reels, he made some of the finest standard tackles I saw growing up.

That's what I studied.  When he swept a ball carrier's legs out from under him, the guy went down.  There was no jumping over Jack Tatum.  Try that, and the next hit is in your ear hole.  He cut angles down and trapped runners against the sideline, then shouldered them out of bounds.  He was an early pioneer of getting his hand in on the ball and trying to strip it.  He was masterful at discarding fullbacks and tight ends that tried to block him. 

Tatum played with two outstanding cover corners in Willie Brown and Skip Thomas, as well as another outstanding safety in George Atkinson.  Together, they made up one of the most fearsome secondaries in the NFL during the 70s.  And while they were indeed ferocious hitters, they also understood technique.  I learned so much about how to play the defensive backfield from watching this group.

Yes, they played an intimidating style.  Yes, they pushed the boundaries.  I don't apologize for that, I don't make excuses for it, and I don't shy away from the reality.  But if you watch old hi-light reels from the 60s and 70s, you'll see it wasn't only the Raiders playing that way.  That was the game.  You didn't play to hurt the other guy.  But you did go hard and hit hard.

I was at Oakland Alameda County Coliseum on 12 August 1978.  On a routine play in a pre-season game, New England wide receiver Darryl Stingley ran a crossing route.  Tatum made a legal hit.  Stingley never got up, and was ultimately paralyzed from the mid-chest.  Tatum has been vilified ever since.  

Stingley's horrible injury was an unfortunate result on a football play.  It could have happened to anyone...any offensive player and any defender.  And it forced the league to begin honestly looking at what had always been a violent game.  Don't think for a moment that Jack Tatum was the only hard hitting player out there.  He just happens to be the one people remember because someone was paralyzed.

Darryl Stingley died in 2007, from complications due to pneumonia.  Jack Tatum died yesterday from a heart attack.  The two men are inextricably linked because of one moment in time on a football field.

John David "Jack" Tatum, 18 Nov 1948 - 27 July 2010
Committed to Excellence 


  1. Debra says:


    This was a great read as I was not aquainted with this piece of football history.

    So sorry to hear about the death of this football player. Sixty-one looks very young to this fifty-seven year old!

    Football IS a rough sport and accidents do happen. It's the nature of the game. Too bad Tatum got a bad rap for this. It could happen to any player at any time.

    Thanks for sharing this us,

  1. Akelamalu says:

    Accidents happen in sport, unfortunately :(

  1. Committing to Excellance is becoming rare. Thanks for sharing this Travis.

  1. I well remember tatum and Atkinson, the whole Oakland secondary at that time. LIke you, I played safety and cornerback in high school so I sure wished I could play as well as these guys. SOrry to hear of his death. He was still quite young.

  1. Did not know you were in the stadium that fateful day.

    Yes, Tatum was vilified for the hit, but anyone watching could see it was just his way of playing and was in no way trying to hurt Mr. Stingley.

    His death at such a young age is sad.

  1. Anonymous says:

    I tried to comment on this post and couldn't get in. I hadn't heard that Jack died. Thanks for the notice. You're right!! I think 61 is young, but hey there, I thought you were younger than 57. I have NO IDEA where I got that notion. Go Figure. Sorry to be anonymous, but it's getting my comments right through! GGG

  1. Sorry news, indeed...R.I.P.