Jack Tatum: 'The Assassin'

Jack Tatum’s playing style was true to his nickname. He was “The Assassin.’’

I was lucky enough to cut my teeth covering the NFL during the 1970s in Pittsburgh. Back then, no matchup was more anticipated than Pittsburgh Steelers-Oakland Raiders. Part of the reason was Tatum, who made sure receivers venturing into the middle of the field did so at their own risk.

What is forgotten is how physical the game was in the 1970s. That was the age of great defense, hard running and harder hits. Situation substitution wasn’t part of 1970s football. Cornerbacks were allowed to mug receivers at the line of scrimmage or downfield.

And safeties? Well, the words safety and receiver simply didn’t match up in those days. Tatum, who died Tuesday at 61, played the position like a linebacker. He hit like no other safety in football.

It was probably fitting that one of his notable hits came against the Steelers. I remember sitting in the auxiliary press box at Three Rivers Stadium during the 1972 playoffs. The Raiders were about to squeak out a come-from-behind victory over an upstart Steelers team. In the final seconds, Terry Bradshaw fired a prayer of a pass toward Frenchy Fuqua.

Tatum saw the ball and Fuqua, so naturally you knew a collision was coming. Tatum’s hit caused the ball to fly backward into the hands of running back Franco Harris. The "Ultimate Hit" led to the "Immaculate Reception" as Harris caught the ball just before it hit the ground and scored the winning touchdown.

After Tatum’s career was over, I saw him at a celebrity flag football game during a Super Bowl. He led a chorus of former Raiders players who blasted eventual Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann of the Steelers for not being tough enough. Tatum and the Raiders made Swann a target back in those days.

What’s a shame is the Darryl Stingley incident during a preseason game in 1978. Tatum delivered his usual "Assassin-style" hit, but Stingley never walked again. Tatum didn’t show compassion for Stingley, opening the door for plenty of criticism.

Tatum’s style might have been outlawed in this new age of football. Research continues into the long-term damage the game inflicts on players. Had he played in the 21st century, Tatum might have had to donate his salary to charity because the league office would be fining him every week.

Is Tatum a Hall of Famer? Well, I am surprised he has not received more attention from voters. The Stingley incident is a huge factor there, so don't count on him making it.