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BOB RYAN

Hit never led Stingley to hate

From his wheelchair, Darryl Stingley worked tirelessly for the youth of Chicago through his foundation. (1992 FILE/CHICAGO SUN-TIMES)

Let it be known that Darryl Stingley was a man at peace with himself.

He did not hate Jack Tatum. He actually felt sorry for him. When apprised almost four years ago that the man whose hit had put him in a wheelchair for life had himself lost a leg because of diabetes, Stingley said, "I'd never wish that on anyone after I saw it with my own father."

Darryl Stingley, who died yesterday at 55, was not a hater. He was a healer.

Who among us could possibly imagine what it would be like to be Darryl Stingley, to be a superb athlete just reaching the peak of your career and then find your life changed irrevocably by one incomplete pass and one questionable hit? One minute you're going out for a pass and the next instant you're in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. I cannot imagine.

Who among the able-bodied can imagine what it took for him to get beyond the anger, to get beyond the frustration, to get beyond the "Why mes?" and come to a state of acceptance? I cannot imagine.

The legacy of Darryl Stingley is that he did not simply sit in that wheelchair and watch television while feeling sorry for himself. No, no, no. Darryl Stingley lived a life of service.

Steve Freyer worked with Stingley and author Mark Mulvoy on Stingley's autobiography. "The fact of the matter is," Freyer says, "that under very, very difficult circumstances, Darryl chose to live, and live with dignity. He had a relationship with his children. He had a relationship with his grandchildren. He had a relationship with the community of Chicago. He didn't retreat. He was always engaged."

The Darryl Stingley Foundation has done great things for the youth of Chicago, with funding for youth programs, mentoring, and college scholarship aid for students from John Marshall High School, his alma mater. Locally, Darryl Williams, who was shot by that stray bullet on that practice field at Charlestown High so many years ago, will tell you of the great importance Stingley had in his life. But perhaps Stingley's biggest role was the one he played closest to home.

"He was really the rock of his family," reports Jack Sands, whose first client as a young sports agent was a rookie wide receiver out of Purdue named Darryl Stingley, and who was one of Stingley's closest friends. "He may have been a quadriplegic, but he was the real anchor for the extended family of 30 or 40 Stingleys."

The date was Aug. 12, 1978.

The Patriots were spending two weeks in California. They had played the Rams in Los Angeles before hitting the Bay Area to play the Raiders. It was the second quarter when Stingley ran a pattern that took him across the middle of the field. The ball was overthrown a bit by Steve Grogan. The play should have been over. Stingley had not caught the ball, and now he was vulnerable. Stingley's body was in the air and parallel to the ground, his arms outstretched, when he was hit by Oakland defensive back Jack Tatum, just as he'd been hit countless times before. The difference was this time he didn't get up.

Oakland defensive end Pat Toomay, a successful author in his post-NFL life, played in that game and he put his thoughts on paper in a New York Times Magazine article a number of years ago. "It was one of those sloppy exhibitions early in the preseason when everyone's legs are dead and when everyone's minds are numb," he observed. "It was one of those games in which everything is out of synch, out of kilter, a comedy of missed passes or overthrown balls, dropped punts, fumbled snaps, unnecessary penalties."

Toomay also maintained that after watching the Patriots complete a number of passes over the middle, Oakland coach John Madden had said only a play or two before, "They'd better stop doing that or somebody's going to get hurt."

And then there was Tatum, whose reputation preceded him. Tatum had but one gear, one way to play. He was, according to Toomay, "a linebacker roaming the secondary whose ferocious hits, then, were not due to any innate ferociousness, but rather to the law of physics."

Toomay said that after watching the tape over and over he arrived at this conclusion: "There was no vicious hit. No transgression, as the demand for an apology would imply. Tatum was merely the immovable object to Stingley's irresistible force."

But Tatum has been forever demonized in the eyes of Patriots fans, and he did himself no favors by failing to reach out to Stingley in the immediate aftermath of the unfortunate play. It was a decision that took on a life of its own, and though there were periodic attempts by various parties to broker a clear-the-air meeting (the most recent being this past January), it never took place, usually because, Stingley felt, there always seemed to be an agenda, either on behalf of Tatum or a third party. It was always about a book or a TV show. It was never, in Stingley's mind, pure. But Darryl Stingley did indeed forgive Jack Tatum, although never to his face.

In a 2003 Globe interview with Ron Borges, Stingley explained his feelings about Tatum, and why he was able to forgive. "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."

Darryl Stingley never gave in to self-pity. He carried out his foundation work, he cared for his family, and he maintained great interest in sports. Through the generosity of oft-maligned owner Jerry Reinsdorf, he attended many a Bulls and White Sox game. And he never turned on football, the game that had taken away his mobility. "I still very much love the game of football," he told Borges. "I love everything about it, except for what's sometimes inevitable."

All that said, it was a hard life. He needed around-the-clock assistance. It took him approximately two hours daily from the time he awoke to when he would be ready to face the world. There was much he couldn't do.

"He loved the Patriots," says Sands. "He rooted for the White Sox and Bulls, but never for one second did he root for the Bears. He was all about silver and blue. He wanted very much to come to Foxborough to see the stadium and the trophies, but he just wasn't able to work it out."

It was a noble life. It was an exemplary life. I cannot imagine.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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