On the one hand today, we have a report to the American Football Coaches Association that 1979 saw the fewest players (three) die as a direct result of on-field football contact, college and high school, since 1931. All right.

On the other hand, we have this from one of the NFL's best-known defensive backs. Ugh:

"It was a perfectly timed hit and I used my hook. I heard Riley scream on impact and felt his body go limp . . . (his) eyes rolled back in his head and he wasn't breathing: I had another knockout."

That's a passage from "They Call Me Assassin," the new book by free safety Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders.

The KO victim was Denver receiver Riley Odoms, and Tatum was describing a contest he had with then-teammate George Atkinson in which they competed for "knockouts" and "limpoffs."

Knockouts, Tatum explains, were hits that required the hittee to be helped off the field and earned the hitter two points. Limpoffs, in which victims were able to leave the field unassisted, were worth only one point.

Tatum said Atkinson taught him how to use the "hook," catching an oppenent's head in the crook of a bent arm at full speed to "strip the receiver of the ball, his helmet, his head and his courage."

Atkinson is remembered for the smack to the back of Pittsburgh receiver Lynn Swann's head that precipitated suits and counter-suits over action and reaction. Tatum, of course, is the fellow who laid the hit on New England receiver Darryl Stingley -- in a no-count preseason 1978 game -- that paralyzed Stingley, apparently for life.

Tatum doesn't devote much of the book to Stingley, but says of the fateful play: "I could have attempted to intercept, but because of what the owners expect of me when they give me my paycheck, I automatically reacted to the situation by going for an intimidating hit.

"Do I let the receiver have the edge and give him the chance to make catches around me because I'm a senstitive guy, or do I do what I'm paid to do?"

Having had a look at "They Call Me Assassin," Stingley's attorney, Jack Sands, has written Commissioner Pete Rozelle, demanding that Tatum be suspended from the league.

Rozelle: If the quotes are accurate, "that's asking for it" . . .