If Jack Tatum were operating in today's NFL, I have a feeling we wouldn't remember him 30 years from now. They'd flag him to death out there. Unnecessary-roughness charges — personal foul, blow to the head, leading with the helmet, etc. Followed by the fines, and maybe a summons or two to the commissioner's office, where they'd try to make him see it their way.
No, Jack Tatum 2010 would have danced on the fringe, and the league eyes would have hounded him and chipped away at his instincts until he finally said to hell with it and slipped into the faceless throng of pro safetymen. And, in the long run, nobody remembers a conformist.
But Tatum, who died of a heart attack July 27 at the age of 61, played in an era that suited his vicious, attacking nature just fine. This was the 1970s, when nobody was hand-wringing about concussions or dementia or post-football wellness, and if you sent a guy out cold on a stretcher, brother, you were giving the gate its money's worth.
"Our defensive backs played with the philosophy of instilling fear," says former Raiders LB Phil Villapiano, "that if receivers were afraid to catch the ball or come across the middle because they thought they'd get killed, it would make the secondary's day a whole lot easier. A lot of times, yeah, they'd mark the receivers and try to take them out. I don't think they wanted to hurt anybody, or do what happened to Darryl Stingley, but they considered receivers their enemy.
"I remember a hit Jack Tatum once put on (Broncos TE) Riley Odoms. Tatum caught him under the chin, and Odoms landed on his back, and then his eyeballs rolled back into his head. I thought he died! Jack could have hit him low, but noooo, he sticks his helmet right under Odoms' chin. That's the knockout blow, and Jack was excellent at doing it."
But in talking to some other pass catchers from that time, you get the feeling they didn't consider Tatum, a three-time Pro Bowler in 10 NFL seasons, or George Atkinson or Skip Thomas strictly as sucker punchers and cheap-shot dealers. Some questionable tactics did occasionally arise (Atkinson vs. Lynn Swann), but as a rule that Oakland secondary simply seemed to prioritize physical aggression and bullying over man-to-man blanketry and tipped-ball drills.
"It was good, tough football they played in Oakland," says former Dolphins RB Jim Kiick. "I mean, it wasn't like we sat watching Raider films and our coaches were saying, 'Watch your back. Look out for the clothesline; be ready for the cheap shot.' What the Raiders did was pretty typical of how football was played back then. They just did it rougher and better than most."
"You always wanted to know where Tatum was at, because if he had the opportunity, he'd take your head off," says Isaac Curtis, a Bengals wideout whose job was to stretch Oakland's zone deep. "Tatum's key was timing, arriving on the play and uncoiling at the exact moment you were vulnerable.
"We were playing the Raiders in the '75 playoffs and fell way behind. Now we're making a comeback, and I ran a route that took me into the back corner of the endzone. Ken Anderson threw a high pass that made me go straight up to get it. I'm in the air, fully extended. And then I see Tatum. I thought, 'Oh, God, here he comes.'
"He hit me right in the chest and just drilled me into the ground. To this day I have no idea how I held on to the ball. I'll never forget it."
Jack Tatum, arriving on the right team, in the right era. We won't forget him.
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