Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Exit Wounds

There is an old saw about the relationship between the passage of time and the healing of wounds. While it may very well be so, it is certainly not absolute. History teaches us that some wounds remain open. They continue to fester long after first inflicted by one upon another -irrespective of and immune to the curative power of time. Do not feel compelled to take my word for it. For fun, invite a couple of soul mates named Frazier and Ali to your Labor Day BBQ and wait for the hilarity to ensue. Be prepared to wait for a long, long time.

As a little boy I rooted hard for the Miami Dolphins. While I do not remember for certain why I did, I think the fact that they had one player whose nickname was "Zonk" and another whose nickname was "Mercury" had quite a bit to do with it. It was not until the latter went to prison for his role in a cocaine trafficking ring that I discovered Eugene Morris was not nearly as cool as his nickname suggested. In the early 1970's, the Oakland Raiders were among Miami's fiercest rivals. Even as a little kid, I found the whole concept of "Raider Nation" more than slightly terrifying. In retrospect I think part of that was their team colors. Oakland wore silver and black. Miami? A shade of blue I later learned is called "teal" and orange. Hard to look fierce in teal and orange, even when you are from Miami, unless your last name is Crockett.

What intimidated me the most about the Raiders - even from the climate-controlled safety of my living room - was Jack Tatum. Watching him play when I was a child I thought Tatum was the biggest player in the NFL. He routinely annihilated men of every size, color and shape. Tatum was an equal-opportunity punisher. As long as your jersey and his jersey were not the same, you were fair game. Tatum's nickname? "The Assassin". Conjures up a warm, fuzzy image does it not? He grew up in Passaic New Jersey and was a High-School All-American at Passaic High School. Maybe had he been known as "Jersey Jack" he would have seemed less terrifying to my prepubescent eyes. I know not.

Jack Tatum died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 61. For all of his numerous achievements on the football field, Jack Tatum is most well-known for the hit that ended the career of New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley. Stingley, who was 26 years old at the time was left paralyzed from the chest down. It occurred - unbelievably perhaps - in a pre-season game. A game played during what is sometimes referred to as the NFL's exhibition season on an August night in the summer of 1978.

Much has been written in the past thirty-odd years about the point of intersection between the lives of Messrs. Stingley and Tatum, including whether what Tatum did was legal and regardless of whether it was permitted by the NFL's rules whether it was appropriate given the setting and the circumstances. Tatum was largely vilified - perhaps less for the act (no penalty flag was thrown on the field, no fine was ever levied by the NFL and no suspension was ever handed up by Commissioner Rozelle for the hit) than his reaction to it.

Blame is a bumper crop. We always seem to have more on hand than we need to feed all of us forever. Whether the fact that Tatum never spoke directly to Stingley afterwards, including while Stingley was hospitalized, was something that was of Tatum's creation, Stingley's creation, a combination thereof or mere happenstance matters not. The facts are what they are. And the facts are that at no time after August 12, 1978 did the two men whose lives were forever changed by what happened that night ever talk to one another about it. Not once.

We each travel a distance of indeterminate length on the road to reconciliation. Irrespective of the journey's length it cannot be completed if it is never begun. When at age 55 three years ago, Darryl Stingley died, the causes of his death were determined to have been conditions that were complicated by his quadriplegia. He died without ever having reconciled with Tatum. Whether either man needed to reconcile for the sake of the other is - in my opinion - irrelevant. Reconciliation often is an elixir for the soul. Salve if you will for a long bothersome wound. Apparently neither sought it. Sadly, neither received it.

And therein lies the tragedy. Or perhaps better said, the final one involving these two men.


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