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Despite a tragic family past, LSU's Derek Stingley Jr. always had a love for football

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LSU vs. Clemson promises to be a championship for the ages (0:52)

Joe Burrow vs. Trevor Lawrence. Ed Orgeron vs. Dabo Swinney. The top-ranked team vs. the defending champ. It's LSU vs. Clemson for the championship. (0:52)

Derek Stingley Jr. has heard the story and he has watched the grainy video on YouTube. The New England Patriots receiver goes up, leaping for a pass he can't catch -- and while fully extended, suffers a devastating hit from one of the NFL's most feared players.

"My grandpa was just trying to catch the ball," says the freshman cornerback at LSU. "He saw the guy coming and tried to brace for the hit."

Raiders safety Jack Tatum -- known as "The Assassin" -- lowered his shoulder and slammed into Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley's head. Stingley fell to the turf and made one final movement, raising his right hand to touch his helmet.

That was 1978. Darryl Stingley, only 26 at the time, would never walk again. The violent collision -- during a preseason game -- crushed two vertebrae in his neck and paralyzed him from the chest down.

On Monday, Derek Stingley Jr. will start for No. 1 LSU against No. 3 Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). His grandfather's plight is part of his family's legacy and an all-too-familiar reminder of how violent football can be.

"My dad really doesn't talk about it much," Derek Jr. said. "I guess he doesn't want me thinking about it when I'm playing. If you think about it while playing, you'll go out there and play scared and that's not something you want to do."

Derek Jr. wasn't born until nearly a quarter-century after the NFL's most infamous tackle put his grandfather in a wheelchair. He was only 5 when Darryl Stingley died of pneumonia on April 5, 2007, and doesn't have many memories of him.

"I remember going up there for Christmas, but that's pretty much it," Derek Jr. said. "I know he was nice and a really good guy because everybody tells me how humble and amazing he was."

Derek Sr. was 7 years old when his father was gravely injured. He was living in Chicago with his mother, Martine, and his two younger brothers. His dad wasn't able to return to Chicago for several months. When he saw his father in a hospital room for the first time, he jumped on the bed and crawled onto his chest.

"Everyone was trying to explain to me that my dad was paralyzed and couldn't move," Derek said. "In my mind, my dad was so muscular it was like he was a comic book hero. He was Superman to me. I knew he'd be able to get up.

"When I walked into the hospital room, I grabbed his hand and said, 'Dad, get up. Get up!' He didn't move or say a word. His eyes were open but he couldn't say anything."

Once Darryl Stingley was able to return home, Derek sat next to his wheelchair or recliner and massaged his hands, feet and legs for hours each day.

"I was moving all of his extremities, thinking something would click and he'd be able to move his arms and legs," Derek said. "I was trying to will them to work."

Despite his injury, Darryl Stingley was able to live a productive life. He regained movement in his right arm and operated an electric wheelchair. He received a degree from Purdue in 1992 and worked in the Patriots' front office.

Derek said his only regret about his father's life is that Tatum never apologized to him before his death. Darryl died in 2007 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago after being found unresponsive in his home. Tatum died of a heart attack three years later. He was 61. He had battled diabetes and his right leg and the toes on his left foot were amputated.

The men never spoke after their devastating collision in 1978.

"The only thing that bothered me is that football is a fraternity, and if it is a true brotherhood or fraternity, why didn't he seek my dad out?" Derek said. "Why didn't he tell him, 'Man, I was just doing my job. I didn't think that I would change your life like this.'

"I understand that's what football players were about back then, and he was the guy they called The Assassin. But once the play is over, at least become a human being again. At least say, 'Man, I'm praying for you and your family. I hope everything goes well for you.' Do something to show that you have some form of compassion. That's the part that killed me. I can't bring myself to forgiveness because of that. He had more than one opportunity to make things right."

Tatum attempted to meet with Darryl Stingley at least once, according to Derek, but their meeting was canceled after his father learned Tatum was doing it to publicize his book.

In an interview with then-ESPN reporter Andrea Kremer before his death, Tatum said, "I apologize that Darryl got hurt, and I'm sorry that he got hurt. But I will never apologize for the way I played football."

"My father never said the words, 'I forgive him,'" Derek said. "What he said was, 'My [phone] number hasn't changed in over 20 years,' which it hadn't. But my dad said, 'In the end, Tatum's cross is more heavy to bear than mine.' That's how he would always end it."

When Derek decided to follow his father's footsteps to play baseball and football at Purdue in 1989, Darryl Stingley didn't discourage his son from playing.

"It was easy for me because my dad told me, 'Son, if you want to play football, go right ahead. You can't think about what happened to me. What happened to me was a freak accident,'" Derek said.

Derek left Purdue and transferred to Triton College in Illinois. He spent three years in the Philadelphia Phillies' minor league system before going back to football and playing nine years in the Arena Football League.

Derek Jr. wasn't discouraged from playing, either. He was only a toddler when he was given his first football. His dad was still playing in the AFL, and Derek Jr. liked to mimic what AFL players did. Derek remembers his son placing a Nerf ball on a tee, raising his arms like a kicker and kicking the ball.

"I was videotaping some of the things that Derek was doing, and I'd send them to my dad," Derek said. "He knew that Derek was going to be special."

When Derek Jr. was 4 or 5, his father introduced him to pass routes. He made a flow chart of a route tree and tacked it to his son's bedroom wall. They'd work on a specific route for a couple of weeks and move on to the next one. Then Derek turned his young son around and had him cover the routes.

"In my mind, I was working on him being an all-around athlete, but I knew I wanted him to become a cornerback," Derek said. "I knew how hard it was in the NFL to find a shutdown cornerback or a man-to-man corner. I knew they made a lot of money."

Derek started coaching in the AFL and its developmental league, af2, in 2005, and Derek Jr. followed him as soon as school was out. Whether it was in remote places like Albany, Georgia, or Bossier, Louisiana, or big cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Derek Jr. spent a couple of months with his father's arena teams each summer. He sat in team meetings, watched film and even participated in individual drills.

"Whenever we'd do individual work, he would be right there in the middle of it," Derek said. "He was doing some of it better than my own players -- when he was 8 or 9 years old. My players couldn't believe how fast he could come out of a break and get his eyes on the ball."

In 2015, Derek Jr. enrolled at The Dunham School, a private school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He played on the varsity in the eighth grade, and by the end of his freshman season, he had a scholarship offer from LSU. He finished his high school career with 27 interceptions and was named the state's Gatorade Football Player of the Year as a senior. ESPN Recruiting ranked him as the No. 1 cornerback and 18th-best player overall in the 2019 ESPN 300.

"I've never had a player ready to play like Derek Stingley Jr., and I think his father had a lot to do with it," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. "In fact, I know he did. I have a lot of respect for his father. He's an excellent coach, an excellent dad. Him and Derek have a really unique relationship. Sometimes a coach's son doesn't want his daddy to coach him. I remember when I went home, I tried to coach my boy, and he said, 'Hey, Dad, I've got a coach.'"

Derek Jr. graduated from high school early and enrolled at LSU in January 2019. He was able to join the Tigers for practice before they played UCF in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl last year.

"A couple of our cornerbacks were hurt," Orgeron said. "We put him in with the No. 1 defense in the red zone, and he had an interception against one of our top receivers. That was his first day of practice."

Besides Derek Jr.'s athleticism and instincts, Tigers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda recognized something else in the star freshman.

"His first practices at the Fiesta Bowl, he was probably our best cornerback," Aranda said. "There's an ease about him and a comfort about the bright lights and the expectations and the high standards, and he just kind of eases through all of that. I think that's the difference. He has the ability to run and jump, but it's how he does it. He doesn't expend any energy in nervousness and has a calm, collective confidence about him."

Stingley, 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, has been LSU's best cornerback as a freshman. In 14 games, he had 36 tackles. He led the SEC and ranked fifth nationally with six interceptions, and tied for second in the FBS with 21 passes defended. He had two interceptions in LSU's 37-10 rout of Georgia in the SEC championship game. He also averaged 9.7 yards on 15 punt returns.

"He's a very humble player," safety Grant Delpit said. "He's very patient, which is something you don't see a lot of freshmen have. He doesn't look like a freshman. He's going to be a big man around here for a long time."

What has made Stingley so exceptional so quickly is his aggressiveness. Despite his family name being a cautionary tale about the dangers of the sport, he said he can't think about it.

"It's football," he says of his grandfather's injury. "Things can happen like that."

But sometime this weekend, before Derek Jr. plays the biggest game of his life against Clemson at Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Monday night, his father will pull him aside for the same discussion they have before every game. Derek will remind his son to trust his technique and what he has been coached to do. He'll close with the most important words.

"Protect yourself."