August 12, 1978, I was involved in a terrible accident with Darryl Stingley, a wide receiver who played for New England. On a typical passing play, Darryl ran a rather dangerous pattern across the middle of our zone defense. It was one of those pass plays where 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.
It was a fairly good hit, but nothing exceptional, and I got up and started back toward our huddle. But Darryl didn't get up and walk away from the collision. That particular play was the end of Darryl Stingley's career in the NFL. His neck was broken in two places and there was serious damage to his spinal cord.
Darryl Stingley will never run a pass pattern in the NFL again, and it may well be that he will never stand up and walk across a room. For weeks Darryl lay paralyzed in a hospital and there were times when, because of complications after surgery, he nearly lost his life.
I want to be tough and I work at playing the game hard, but within the structure of the rules. Still, though, there are times when I wonder about myself and the structure of NFL football. I am tough, but I'm not a brutal animal.
When the reality of Stingley's injury hit me with its full impact, I was shattered. To think that my tackle broker another man's neck and killed his future . . . well, I know it hurts Darryl, but it hurts me, too.
One week later we had an exhibition game against the Rams. The Stingley incident was still troubling me. I didn't know if I wanted to play in the game against the Rams. In fact, I didn't know if I could ever play football again.
During the week, I had spent some very trying hours talking with the doctors about Darryl's condition. That was constantly on my mind and tearing at my insides. My head was a ball of throbbing pain and my body felt like a hollow shell that no longer belonged to me.
And then, too, I couldn't help but think about negotiating for a new contract this past season and how Al Davis had handled everything.
In 1977 I had played out my option and was looking for more money with the next contract. To be perfectly honest, I did have some loyalty to the Oakland Raiders, but I couldn't pay me bills and completely establish myself for the future with that loyalty. I wanted money . . . more money.
Al Davis started our contract talks by trying to cut my pay. When it came time to explain his reasons, he had thousands, and if I had given him the time, I'm sure Al would have come up with a million reasons why he wanted to cut my pay. But the crux of the matters was that I intended to end up making more money and whichever color uniform I put on really didn't matter. To me, my future in the NFL was a matter of green and nothing else.
Al still cited incidents during games when I missed a tackle or failed to knock someone out. He started with a game several years ago when we were beating the hell out of Cincinnati, and late in the game, Archie Griffin got by me and scored. At the time, I was a little tired, and lazy, too. That touchdown had no bearing on the game but Al still thought I should have blasted Archie.
From there he verbally replayed almost every game of my career and pointed out situations in which I had not done the job the Oakland Raiders were paying me to do. The whole thrust of the contract talks with Al centered around the notion that I was not hitting like I did earlier in my career. Al Davis was telling me that I was paid to be a warhead, and anyone who came near me should get knocked into hell.
Al left me with the impression that my only marketable talents in professional football were those of an intimidator. My job with the Raiders was that of a paid assassin. Well, so be it.
Again, one expects this kind of situation whenever it comes time for a new contract. The management will point out your failures while you bargain from strong points.
It's only good business. But now, after the Stingley incident, it all began to trouble me. I started thinking that the Raiders actually did want me in their secondary for the express purpose of maiming or killing receivers, running backs, or anyone in a different-colored uniform.
I think that now I look at professional football in a more mature way, and say there must be a happy medium and a better way of controlling the game. From my own point of view, if I sit back passively, every running back in the NFL will make tracks over my fallen body, and before long the Raiders will have a just cause to ship me out. I like the game of football, and contact doesn't scare me in the least. But at the same time, I do care very much about myself and the opponents I tackle. Football is a contact game, and we must never forget that, but there should be a line drawn somewhere to separate hard contact from animal brutality. As a free safety, I must hit hard and be intimidating, but a measure of protection can be added by simply changing the rules of the game.