Darryl Stingley** was as graceful an athlete as we've had the pleasure to enjoy here in New England. He possessed a rare combination of speed, agility and surprising toughness for such a slightly built man. During his five seasons as a wide receiver with the Patriots, Stingley appeared to be on course to being one of the franchise's best ever at the position.
But things suddenly changed during an otherwise meaningless exhibition affair on an August evening in Oakland. Stingley raced across the middle and leaped in vain for Steve Grogan's pass that wound up sailing harmlessly over his outstretched hands. But Oakland safety Jack Tatum's resulting hit was anything but harmless, and it left Stingley prone in a heap on the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum turf.
Stingley would never walk again, but that didn't stop him from leading a productive life despite the hardships that came with being a quadriplegic. He wrote a book, formed a non-profit foundation and remained a fixture in the West Side Chicago neighborhood he grew up in, continuing to help youngsters by providing guidance.
Stingley died at the age of 55 early Thursday morning at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, he was found unconscious in his apartment around 2:30 a.m. His caretaker called police, and he was taken to Northwestern, said Chicago Police Lt. James Sazama. Stingley was pronounced dead at 3:28 a.m. The cause of death was not immediately available and an autopsy is scheduled for later today.
"He was a good child, he was a good, giving person," his mother, Hilda Stingley, 83, told the Tribune. "Everyone who knew Darryl loved Darryl. Twenty-eight years he struggled with this, and now he doesn't have to [struggle] anymore."
After enjoying a standout career at Purdue, Stingley joined John Hannah andSam Cunningham as the Patriots third first-round choice in 1973. He caught 23 passes for 339 yards and two touchdowns, showing the promise despite operating in a ground-heavy attack that featured very little passing.
By 1977 he teamed with rookie Stanley Morgan to form a lethal tandem. He finished that season with 39 catches for 657 and five touchdowns, leading all Patriots wideouts in each category. That production might sound modest in comparison to today's leaders, but consider that as a team the 9-5 Patriots threw the ball just 305 times that season. Despite his shortened career, Stingley is tied for 35th on the team's all-time receptions list with 110 catches for 1,883 yards and 14 touchdowns.
But just as it seemed Stingley was about to hit his prime, Tatum delivered the blow that Patriots fans will never forget, and one that most will never forgive. Tatum made no secret of his desire to not just hit people but to hurt them. He said so in his book, "They Call Me Assassin." So when Stingley was paralyzed, many felt Tatum's act was deliberate. Stingley never felt that way.
"One person deliberately hurt another person. That's the way the story was written by some," he said in a* Boston Globe* piece in 2003. "I respect anybody's point of view on it. I'm not in denial about it. There was an incident between us and he did write a book and in it he said he went out there to hurt and maim people. He said that and it hurt to read it.
"But for me to go on and adapt to a new way of life, I had to forgive him. I couldn't be productive if my mind was clouded by revenge or animosity. Early on there were a lot of questions in my mind. Questions about life in general. Questions if I would even live. But I have such a strong faith in God.
"It's hard to articulate. It was a test of my faith. The entire story. In who, and how much, do you believe, Darryl? In my heart and in my mind I forgave Jack Tatum a long time ago. I take no pleasure in what has happened to him now. How could anyone feel pleasure in another man's pain?"
That hit, combined with the controversial playoff defeat on the same field two years earlier, led to decades of ill will between the organizations, which was only festered in 1985 when then-general manager Pat Sullivan engaged in a verbal and physical tiff with Raiders linebacker Matt Millen following the Patriots in the 1985 divisional playoffs.
Stingley's legacy in New England remained strong over the years. Given the team's current run of success and all the exciting games that have come with it, most would find it hard to believe that many longtime observers of the Patriots believe the loudest ovation Foxborough has ever seen came on Opening Night in 1979 when the Pittsburgh Steelers visited Schaefer Stadium for a Monday Night affair. With Stingley on the field in his wheelchair as the guest of honor, the cheers of love and support rained down on the field so long the game was significantly delayed.