In the NFL’s history, no team has personified lawlessness and thuggery like the Oakland/Los Angeles/Las Vegas Raiders.
Replete with a skull and crossbones and outfitted in black and silver, the Raiders manifest the stereotyped outlaw from old Western movies.
Examining a list of past Raiders provides a bevy of athletes that fit into the team’s ethos of ‘bad behavior.’
Often times in free agency, owner Al Davis specifically targeted players that were considered washed up or too malcontent for their previous teams.
These athletes would arrive and immediately take to the culture of the franchise.
Davis also drafted players from the college ranks who he felt would contribute right away and lend a hand in enforcing the team’s mystique.
One such player was former safety Jack Tatum.
Tatum would become one of the most feared defenders in the league.
His ability to lay the wood to an offensive player led to the birth of a sobering nickname.
This is the story of “The Assassin.”
— AFL Godfather🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) July 21, 2021
John David Tatum was born on November 18, 1948 in Cherryville, North Carolina.
When he was young, the Tatum family moved north to Passaic, New Jersey.
Until he reached high school, Tatum had little interest in playing organized sports.
When he entered high school, Tatum took up football as a sophomore.
He was used all over the field including running back, fullback and defensive back.
It didn’t take long for Tatum’s natural ability to take over.
By the time he graduated from Passaic High School, Tatum was selected First-team All State.
Tatum was also selected as a high school All-American during his senior year.
In 1999, the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper named him one of New Jersey’s top ten defensive players of the century.
Tatum was recruited heavily by numerous colleges.
He eventually chose to play for coach Woody Hayes and Ohio State.
Tatum was signed to play running back, but he snuck his way over to the defense from time to time to get some work in.
Secondary coach Lou Holtz saw Tatum’s natural instinct on defense and convinced Hayes to switch him to that side of the ball.
It would prove to be the best idea of Tatum’s football life.
From 1968-1970, Tatum was used by the Buckeyes to cover their opponent’s best wide receiver.
— Ohio State Buckeyes 🌰 (@OhioStAthletics) July 29, 2014
He could also be found at linebacker where his concussive hits were more than adequate to tackle a larger tight end or running back.
In the early part of the 1968 season, Ohio State was playing against Purdue and their star All-American running back Leroy Keyes.
As the world watched on television, a young Tatum shadowed Keyes all afternoon, negating any big plays and helping the Buckeyes to a 13-0 upset.
Also during that season, Tatum and his teammates stymied their main rival, the Michigan Wolverines, 50-14.
OSU went on to win the National Championship that year
Tatum continued to prove his savvy and viciousness in the secondary during the 1969 and 1970 seasons.
College football writers, coaches and fellow players knew him by reputation, which might have led to his unanimous All-American selections both years.
In 1970, Tatum was selected as the National Defensive Player of the Year and was even considered for the Heisman Trophy.
Ohio State’s Jack Tatum. National Defensive Player of the Year in 1970. pic.twitter.com/XIBBYBOgI7
— Larry Phillips (@Ohiopreplegends) May 15, 2020
In three seasons in Columbus, Tatum was part of a squad that went an impressive 27-2.
OSU won the national title in ‘68, lost it in 1970 and also won two Big Ten titles.
In order to shore up their defensive unit, the Raiders took Tatum with the 19th overall pick of the 1971 draft.
Tatum announced his thunderous intentions during a game against the Baltimore Colts that season.
During two different plays, Tatum tackled and knocked out Colts tight ends John Mackey and Tom Mitchell.
The national media witnessed Tatum’s brutality and likened him to Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus.
During his rookie season, Tatum snagged four interceptions for 136 yards, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
The Raiders were 8-4-2 and missed the playoffs.
Random tweet, has there ever been a more intimidating safety than Jack Tatum? The man's nickname was "The Assassin" and he earned it. He would be banned from the league in today's NFL. That dude was intense. pic.twitter.com/8cf39YmpAl
— TW (@iamTCW) September 8, 2021
Tatum And “The Immaculate Reception”
In 1972, Oakland was back on top in the AFC West with a 10-3-1 record.
Tatum started every game that season and picked up four interceptions for 91 yards.
He also added two fumble recoveries.
One of his recoveries came during a Week 2 victory over the Packers.
Tatum collected the ball and proceeded to rumble for 104 yards to the house.
That would set a mark for the NFL’s longest ever fumble return for a score.
In 2000, Aeneas Williams of the Cardinals tied the record with a fumble return of his own.
The Raiders returned to the postseason after a one-year absence and faced their new nemesis, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The game at old Three Rivers Stadium two days before Christmas was a slug fest.
The two defensive minded teams locked horns and found themselves in a zero-all tie at halftime.
In the latter stages of the fourth quarter, Oakland had a slight 7-6 edge after a Ken Stabler 30 yard run.
Minutes later, the Steelers were driving and quarterback Terry Bradshaw heaved a desperate pass toward running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua.
Tatum was covering Fuqua and crashed into the running back at the same time the ball arrived.
My apologizes to Mr Fuqua as it's Frenchy, not Frenchie. Love this pic of the Immaculate Reception (or Deception if you are from Oakland). Taken right after Jack Tatum hit Fuqua (who the ball hit last, we'll never know) and Mr Harris is in the background. Magical play pic.twitter.com/PBZbtDgEsP
— Mike Malnicof (@MarvelousMike94) February 2, 2018
The pigskin ricocheted into the air and back toward the scrum of players.
Just before the ball hit the turf, Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris grabbed it at his shoe tips and proceeded to run the ball 60 yards for a touchdown.
With only five seconds remaining, there was no time for Oakland to mount a comeback.
Instead, the Raiders stood in stunned silence at what had just happened.
Certain victory was suddenly snatched away from them on one of the biggest fluke plays in league history.
Because of Harris’ catch, run and subsequent touchdown, the play was later called the “Immaculate Reception.”
For the rest of his life, Tatum would swear that the ball had actually touched Fuqua last and not him.
According to NFL rules at the time, that would have meant that Harris’ catch would have been nullified and Oakland would have been the victors.
However, even with Zapruder style examination of the moment, the play has always been inconclusive.
Tatum’s role in the biggest play of the ‘72 playoffs cemented his legacy as one of the most physical players in the league.
By that time, Tatum’s teammates, as well as Tatum himself, began to call him “Assassin” because of his fearsome style of play.
“The Assassin” Jack Tatum meets the “Tyler Rose” Earl Campbell at the goal line.
Earl got the best that day, but I’m sure he still considers the late great Tatum a formidable opponent. pic.twitter.com/PZhcWG4lFv
— Texas Sports History (@TXSportsHistory) July 27, 2018
His peers recognized his talent and, beginning in 1973, Tatum was voted to three straight Pro Bowls.
During this three-year period, Tatum accumulated nine total interceptions.
Meanwhile, Oakland continued its assault on a Super Bowl appearance.
The ‘73-‘75 seasons saw the team win 32 games against just nine losses and a tie.
Unfortunately, each year the Raiders came up short in the AFC Championship game.
In 1973, they lost to the Dolphins and then the hated Steelers in both 1974 and ‘75.
A Super Bowl In 1976
Coming up short in their quest for a world title was frustrating for the Raiders.
They had a loaded team on both sides of the ball and nothing, yet, to show for it.
On offense, quarterback Kenny “Snake” Stabler was protected by the likes of Gene Upshaw and Art Shell as he threw the ball to receivers Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch.
On defense, the secondary was filled with oversized personalities.
Tatum was only one piece of a unit that called themselves the “Soul Patrol.”
The group consisted of Tatum, Willie Brown, George Atkinson and Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas.
Together, they struck fear into any skill player who dared venture into their domain.
“My idea of a good hit is when the victim wakes up on the sidelines with train whistles blowing in his head…I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault,” Tatum once said. “I always wanted to hit someone hard, and if they got hurt, that was part of the game. But you always wanted them to be OK.”
“Some defensive backs covered wide receivers,’’ Conrad Dobler once said of Tatum. “Jack buried them.”
In 1976, facing Tatum and his crew was a tall order for any opponent.
Jack Tatum, also known as, "The Assassin" was one of the hardest hitting safeties in NFL history.⚔🏴☠️ pic.twitter.com/wIxg0nqOFs
— TOOZ#72 (@denniss9117) June 11, 2020
Everything came together for the franchise that year as Oakland finished the season 13-1.
Tatum only had two picks for the year, but he affected the way teams planned their offensive strategy.
In the playoffs, the Raiders took down the Patriots in the Divisional round.
That was a sweet measure of revenge because New England was the only team that beat Oakland during the regular season.
Even sweeter, though, was the team’s performance in the AFC Championship game.
For the fifth year in a row, the Raiders met the Steelers in the playoffs.
In the previous two postseasons, Pittsburgh was responsible for ending Oakland’s season.
This time would be different.
The Raiders got off to a great start in the game and continued to pound away at their nemesis.
The result was a 24-7 beat down and a trip to the Super Bowl.
In Super Bowl XI, Oakland was clicking on all cylinders against the Minnesota Vikings and their “Purple People Eaters” defense.
The Raiders offense put the team up 16-0 at halftime.
Tatum was his usual intimidating self.
At one point in the contest, Vikings receiver Sammy White was about to haul in a pass.
As the ball was arriving, Tatum showed up in a lather.
The result was an incompletion and White’s helmet flying off his head.
44 years ago today the Oakland Raiders defeated the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl stadium. Here safety Jack Tatum delivers a brutal hit on WR Sammy White back when going over the middle was actually dangerous. #RaiderNation #SuperWildCard #NFL pic.twitter.com/XaQ88YdfoY
— Johnstone (@JStoneTrivia86) January 9, 2021
The impact has been called one of the hardest hits in Super Bowl history.
The Raiders kept hammering away at Minnesota and pulled away with a 32-14 victory.
Tatum’s secondary mate, Brown, capped the scoring with a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown off a Fran Tarkenton pass.
The win was Oakland’s first world championship in two tries (they were defeated by the Packers in Super Bowl II).
They were on top of the world.
The Darryl Stingley Incident
In 1977, the Raiders very nearly repeated as champions.
They blew through the regular season with a 11-3 record and faced the Colts in the Divisional round.
After four quarters and two overtimes, Oakland finally prevailed 37-31.
In the AFC Championship game, the Broncos tripped up the Raiders 20-17 to advance to the Super Bowl.
Tatum had an excellent year in ‘77 with six picks for a career high 146 return yards.
Amazingly, he was not selected for the Pro Bowl.
The 1978 season began with high expectations, but things derailed quickly in the preseason.
During an August game against the Patriots, New England receiver Darryl Stingley was leaping for a pass in the middle of the field.
Tatum happened to be in the neighborhood and closed quickly on the receiver.
At the moment of impact, Stingley lowered his head and came in contact with Tatum’s shoulder pad.
Stingley slumped to the ground and didn’t get up.
42 years ago this evening…Raiders safety Jack Tatum delivered a catastrophic hit on Patriots WR Darryl Stingley during a preseason game in Oakland. Stingley would never walk again.
Without question, one of pro football's darkest hours. pic.twitter.com/RgRGufNx5n
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) August 12, 2020
On what most people viewed as a routine football play, Stingley’s spinal cord was severely damaged and he became a quadriplegic for the remainder of his life.
Tatum was not penalized for the play and the NFL did not discipline him after the game.
Both Tatum and Stingley were affected by that moment forever.
Stingley had the worst of it, of course, but Tatum was greatly troubled by his role in the incident.
“It was something that ate on him for his whole life,’’ his coach, John Madden, once said.
“It was tough on him, too,” former Ohio State teammate John Hicks said of Tatum. “He wasn’t the same person after that [hit]. For years he was almost a recluse.”
“He wasn’t the type of person who was really out trying to maim anybody or hurt anybody,” Hall of Famer and former Raiders teammate Willie Brown said. “He was just doing his job. That’s the way he played the game.”
Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks later said he reviewed the game footage of the hit and didn’t see anything illegal.
“I saw replays many, many times, and many times Jack Tatum was criticized,” Fairbanks said. “But there wasn’t anything at the time that was illegal about that play.”
For years after that fateful day, Tatum tried to connect with Stingley and see how he was doing.
They never did meet.
Tatum claims that he tried to visit the receiver in the hospital not long after the game, but was rebuffed by Stingley’s family.
“It’s not so much that Darryl doesn’t want to, but it’s the people around him,” Tatum told the Oakland Tribune in 2004. “So we haven’t been able to get through that. Every time we plan something, it gets messed up. Getting to him or him getting back to me, it never happens.”
Stingley recalled a time when the two were set to get together and reconcile.
However, he backed out of the meeting when he found out that Tatum was using the moment to promote his new autobiography.
He did tell the media some time later that he had forgiven Tatum
“It’s hard to articulate,” Stingley said. “It was a test of my faith, the entire story. In who, and how much, do you believe, Darryl? In my heart and mind, I forgave Jack Tatum a long time ago.”
In Tatum’s book (he would write three), he mentioned being hurt by how the public viewed him after the Stingley hit.
“I understand why Darryl is considered the victim. But I’ll never understand why some people look at me as the villain.”
The incident was consistently in the background during the rest of the 1978 season.
Tatum ended up hauling in three picks for 60 yards and Oakland would end the season 9-7 and miss the playoffs.
1979 And A Trade To Houston
In 1979, the Raiders would repeat their 9-7 record and miss the playoffs again.
Tatum would finish the season with two interceptions for 26 return yards.
During the early months of 1980, Tatum was traded to the Houston Oilers for the rights to running back Kenny King and two draft picks.
A heavenly birthday shoutout to former #Oilers FS Jack Tatum, botd in 1948. The Assassin played only one season in Houston, the final one of his career in '80, playing with former Raiders teammates Dave Casper and Ken Stabler, and had 7 INTs and recovered 2 fumbles #RIP 2️⃣8️⃣ pic.twitter.com/4kEkovoSzs
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) November 18, 2019
The new Oiler would play in all 16 games and grab a career high seven picks for 100 return yards along with two fumble recoveries.
Following the ‘80 season, Tatum was released by the organization and he retired.
In 10 years, he had 37 total interceptions for 736 yards.
Tatum also had one touchdown on his record fumble return.
Furthermore, he was a Super Bowl champion, three-time Pro Bowler, and a two-time Second-team All-Pro.
Retirement, Legacy And Death
Tatum stayed busy in retirement, first as a real estate agent and land developer.
He then became a part owner of a restaurant in California.
Tatum got married and had three children.
In the span of 16 years, he wrote three best selling books.
They Call Me Assassin (1980); They Still Call Me Assassin (1989); and Final Confessions of NFL Assassin Jack Tatum (1996).
Each revealed various parts of his career in the NFL and time with the Raiders.
Raider nation….Bringing back the old school hit hard jack tatum days baby pic.twitter.com/kxJECTUihm
— Gorilla Rilla (@gorillarilla) June 18, 2013
As he aged, Tatum dealt with serious health maladies.
The worst of the issues was his battle with diabetes.
At various stages, Tatum lost the toes of his left foot and then the rest of the leg below the knee because of the disease.
He later lost his right leg due to an arterial blockage.
Tatum wore a prosthetic leg after the procedure to remove the leg.
Tatum worked to raise awareness for diabetes through his Jack Tatum Fund for Youthful Diabetes.
In his later years, Tatum’s kidneys began to fail and he was on the list for a kidney transplant.
On July 27,2010, Tatum died from a heart attack.
He was 61 years old.
After his passing, the Raiders released a statement to the media.
“Jack was the standard bearer and an inspiration for the position of safety throughout college and professional football.”
Immediately, former teammates and friends reflected on their experiences with Tatum.
“He was a good athlete and a good person,” Hicks said. “He gave a lot back to the community, but he didn’t want a lot said about it.”
“Jack should be in the Hall of Fame. There’s no question, no doubt about it,” former teammate Brown said. “When you’re playing back in the middle, you have one job to do [and] that’s stop the long pass right down the middle. He did that better than anybody that I could think of.”