Despite many efforts, football will never be a safe sport.
It started as just an ordinary preseason game. But one play made it anything but ordinary. The Oakland Raiders were playing the New England Patriots on August 12, 1978. Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley ran a slant pattern across the middle that left him an easy mark as he reached for an overthrown pass. Waiting for him was defensive back Jack Tatum, who considered himself the hardest hitter in football, meaner than the Chicago Bears' Dick Butkus, and the greatest outlaw to wear Oakland's villainous silver and black. Tatum considered two alternatives. "I could have attempted to intercept," he recalled in his book They Call Me Assassin, "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." He once said, "My best hits border on felonious assault." Tatum's shoulders met his prey full bore, breaking the third and fourth vertebrae in Stingley's neck. "I wasn't expected to live," Stingley says today. A trainer with good intentions but poor technique yanked his helmet off while he lay on the field. His head was not immobilized as he was wheeled off the bumpy Oakland Coliseum field "like a bouncy figure on a string." After two weeks in the hospital he had developed "all the respiratory complications that are so common with these injuries. It wasn't until November, three months later, that I was out of the woods." The incident left him a quadriplegic. Stingley, then 26, was a first-round draft pick out of Purdue five years before. What would become of him? Stingley's injury was devastating, haunting, and final. But it was also the exception. Few of the 17,000 men who have played in the National Football League since 1920 have been crippled for life. But football -- and other professional sports -- is rife with serious injuries that end careers and affect the quality of players' lives.