Along with his personnel staff, then-Head Coach Chuck Fairbanks, hired just four days earlier, selected John Hannah with the fourth overall pick. Hannah joined the Patriots from the University of Alabama, where he was coached by the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant and named a consensus All-American on two occasions. However, he was a bit disappointed to find that the fan base in New England was small compared to that of Alabama.
"When I came here, the 1776 club was a big fan club at that time," remembered Hannah in a recent interview. "They had this big introduction thing and myself and Sam Cunningham and Darryl Stingley came up. So they were asking us all these questions. The newspaper guy came to me and he says, 'John, what's it going to be like to play on national TV and in front of 55 thousand fans.' I looked at him and said, 'Well it won't be too disappointing.' I had been playing in front of 80 thousand people in Alabama. We were on national TV a lot…"
Joining Hannah seven selections later was Cunningham, who earned his nickname at the University of Southern California for his risky dives over end-zone pileups; something new to a game not far removed from the days of leather helmets and pads. Also an All-American, Cunningham was fresh off a four-touchdown win in which his team earned a National Championship, USC's 42-17 Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State. (The draft was held in January back then.)
Fairbanks and his staff chose Stingley, an all-Big Ten player, with the 19th overall pick. The 6-foot-1-inch receiver set a club record at Purdue with a career average of 18.2 yards per catch, and he was excited to become part of the Patriots passing game. A reputed dangerous deep-threat, Stingley was known for his soft hands, downfield speed and ability to fight for the ball vertically.
Before joining the Patriots, his work experience consisted entirely of manual labor. His employment record, submitted to the Patriots in March of '73, lists jobs like "stock boy, painter, laborer, janitor" and "home builder." His jobs always ended for the same reason: "School (and thus football) began." Teammates report he carried his work ethic onto the field.
After being courted by over 150 colleges, the Chicago boy chose Purdue, where he recorded three varsity years, including two at flanker and one (his senior year) at running back. He led the Boilermakers in receiving during his sophomore and junior years, before an ankle injury left him sidelined for four games as a senior.
Apparently, Fairbanks was impressed enough with Stingley's junior year stats to recognize his potential as a downfield threat. Stingley caught touchdown passes of 66, 70, 76, and 80 yards as a junior, accounting for 734 of the 796-total receiving yards Purdue recorded in '71.
"I feel if you have an idol, they should be the best in whatever their profession is. Paul Warfield is the best wide receiver in Pro Football," wrote Stingley in his NFL personnel survey as a rookie. "I'd like to study him, and learn from him. Perhaps someday I can be his equal."
From the moment Stingley became a Patriot, he hoped to be the best. He hoped to be recognized for his talent, for his hard work. And he was. At New England, he was reunited with then-Patriots receivers coach Jerry Stoltz, whom he worked with at Purdue, and excelled along with his fellow first-rounders, Hannah and Cunningham. He played in all 14 games during his rookie year, starting in 10 of them, and quickly became the Patriots third-leading receiver with 23 catches for 339 yards. He suffered a broken arm in 1975, but returned with vigor during his third season, starting all 14 games and becoming the team's top punt returner. By 1976, he was the Patriots leading receiver, and his 21.8 yards-per-catch average ranked third in the AFC.
Then, in perhaps the most tragic and heart-stopping accident in NFL history, Stingley was cut down while leaping for a preseason pass in August of 1978. Hannah went on to enjoy nine Pro-Bowls, eventually earning himself a spot in Canton's Pro Football Hall of Fame. Cunningham remains the Patriots leading rusher with 5,453 total yards. Stingley never walked again, enduring excruciating physical therapy to regain limited use of his right arm. There was no penalty on the hit, and Tatum, notoriously, never apologized to Stingley.
As a rookie, Stingley had a poem posted in his locker, titled Don't Quit. The first stanza reads as follows:
When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And when you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must – but don't quit.
By all accounts, Stingley lived true to the poem – never quitting – until his death on April 5. He was 55 years old.