"Football is not a nice game, we've got to get a little meaner." -- Vince Lombardi
Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders, who had the jacket blurb says is the hardest hitting free safety in football, puts it simply at the outset: "Good defensive football amounts to mass times velocity. The faster I can move toward impact, and the more violently I can drive my body through a target, the more effective my hit will be. This way the offensive player is absorbing the punishment. . . ."
Tatum operates at the margin of the rules with a penchant for the hook (his arm) and the head (the other guy's), and his success is assured because he invariably has the advantage on his opponent. The runner or receiver is seldom running full speed. They're either dodging tacklers, cutting, or concentrating on the ball and -- but let Tatum take it: "So once I figure out where the man is trying to go, it just becomes a matter of building up a full head of speed and driving through him."
He says the system makes him do it and tries to give chapter and verse as proof. Other players also go for the head. Redskin linebacker emeritus Chris Hanburger did say once: "You get in a good lick around the head area, it rattles the man. You can beat a dazed man easier than an alert one." But Hanburger hasn't written a book flaunting his machismo and at the same time blaming the system for his excesses.
Nor do other hard types have Tatum's sadistic delight in the work: "It was the best hit of my career. I heard Riley [Odoms] scream on impact and felt his body go limp." Square this pulpish description with the lad who early on found he hurt people when he tackled them: "It got to a point where I was becoming afraid of football. The contact had no effect on me, but I worried about what I might do to others. I just never really wanted to hurt anyone." Of the guy who loves his folks and dotes on kids everywhere. When Johnny Sample, the ex-basher of the Redskins, wrote "Confessions of a Dirty Ballplayer" (1970) he at least admitted to extralegal tactics. Tatum claims he is only being aggressive.
Tatum utterly fails to rationalize his brutal play. There are, after all, better safeties in football who don't have to resort to his methods. Cliff Harris (Dallas), Kenny Houston (Washington) and Mike Reinfeldt (Houston) spring readily to mind. If little Pat Fisher could do an effective job short of the cheap-shot on the big 'uns, why can't Tatum, blessed as he is with a better physique? Co-author Bill Kushner should have kept him on a shorter leash, particularly when Tatum says there are times when he forgoes an interception in favor of hitting a receiver -- that's what he's paid for. This is dead wrong: No coach in football would sanction it.
If all Tatum is guilty of is overly aggressive play, he's even a complainer at that. It's okay when he blind-sides someone, but it's dirty pool when done to him. When his shots result in injuries he invokes metaphysics and calls them "accidents." Invariably the referees penalize him not for his actions, he says, but for his robust reputation. Whether sandlot or pro, this is whining.
The book is uneven and episodic. The writing is at the level of the average 11-year-old. And Tatum's opinions on other aspects of the game are nearly as bad as his rationalizing his own deviant play. He doesn't regard former All-Pro Dick Butkus as much of a hitter, and Franco Harris, who has gained more playoff yardage than any man in history, he puts down repeatedly as chicken! He even tries to defend the indefensible antics of Woody Hayes, his coach at Ohio State, that egregious old man who epitomizes Gene McCarthy's words, "A football coach has to be smart enough to know the game and dumb enough to think it's important." In his ideas for rule changes, Tatum gives us goulash. His proposal to ban the zone defense which permits him his deadly shots is good, but he also wants to bar a quarterback from falling down to avoid punishment ("Let him pay the price").
In August 1978, Tatum's notoriety soared when he was "involved in a terrible accident" (his words) with Darryl Stingley of New England. Again, he says, he could have attempted an interception but, paid to hit, he bashed Stingley and broke his neck. Stingley is still confined to a wheelchair and may never walk again. Tatum says he has gone through a hell of remorse since then and now has begun a fund-raising campaign to help with Stingley's medical bills. As Tatum puts it in the books's final line: "At heart I'm a friendly assassin who honestly cares about people and the world."
Stingley's lawyer, Jack Sands, however, is not taken with Tatum's situational compassion and reportedly has written Commissioner Pete Rozelle demanding that, on the basis of this book, Tatum be booted from the league.