By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; B05
Jack Tatum, 61, a defensive back for the Oakland Raiders whose bone-jarring tackles earned him the nickname "the Assassin," died July 27 at a hospital in Oakland, Calif., after a heart attack.
Mr. Tatum, a free safety whose relatively slight size belied his ferocity on the field, was a three-time All Pro player with the Raiders during his 10-year career. An NFL Films documentary ranked him as the sixth-hardest hitter in pro football history.
His tackle of Minnesota Vikings receiver Sammy White in the 1977 Super Bowl has become famous in video features of football's most devastating tackles. White had just caught a pass in the center of the field when Mr. Tatum ran into him, colliding head-to-head. White's helmet flew off and rolled five yards up the field.
"I play a hard-hitting game," Mr. Tatum said in the NFL Films documentary. "I just like to have the receivers think about me a little bit while they're trying to catch the ball."
Mr. Tatum's most notorious tackle occurred in a preseason game in 1978, when he leveled wide receiver Darryl Stingley of the New England Patriots. Stingley was leaping to catch a pass when Mr. Tatum drilled him, breaking two vertebrae in Stingley's back. Stingley remained paralyzed until his death in 2007.
Mr. Tatum never apologized for his crushing tackle, which was legal under NFL rules, and some football historians think his lack of remorse kept him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"It was one of those things that happens that everyone regrets," Gene Upshaw, a Raiders lineman in that game who became executive director of the NFL Players Association, later said. "I know a lot of people in New England think differently, but Jack had no intention of hurting him. I saw him hit people like that a lot of times. That was the way he played."
Mr. Tatum said he attempted to visit Stingley in the hospital but was rebuffed by Stingley's family.
Within a year, the NFL changed some of its rules regarding pass defense, and many of Mr. Tatum's signature helmet-to-helmet tackles would not be allowed in today's game.
John David Tatum was born Nov. 18, 1948, in Cherryville, N.C., and grew up in Passaic, N.J. Even though he did not play football until his sophomore year of high school, he became an all-state standout and was recruited to Ohio State University as a running back.
The Buckeyes' coach, Woody Hayes, converted the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Mr. Tatum to defensive back, where he became a two-time all-American. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
With the Raiders, Mr. Tatum joined a talented secondary that included Willie Brown and George Atkinson. Known mostly for his fearsome tackles, Mr. Tatum was hardly a one-dimensional player. He intercepted 37 passes during his NFL career, including six in 1976, when the Raiders had a regular-season record of 13-1. They capped their year by defeating Minnesota, 32-14, in Super Bowl XI.
In a 1972 playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mr. Tatum had a role in the "Immaculate Reception" play that has become one of the most famous moments in NFL history. With 22 seconds left in the game, and the Raiders leading 7-6, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a fourth-down pass to running back John "Frenchy" Fuqua. Mr. Tatum crashed into Fuqua at the moment the pass arrived, sending the ball hurtling through the air.
Steelers running back Franco Harris grabbed the deflected pass just before it touched the ground and rambled into the end zone to complete a 60-yard touchdown play and give the Steelers the win.
In retirement, Mr. Tatum invested in real estate and restaurants and wrote three autobiographies, each with the word "assassin" in the title. He suffered from diabetes and, several years ago, had a leg amputated.
Survivors include his wife, Denise; and three children.