Hard hit can alter a life

Posted: Friday, November 01, 2002

A few minutes on the phone might be enough. An hour conversation would be better, and an afternoon spent listening to Darryl Stingley as he navigates the downtown streets in his wheelchair would be best of all.

If the NFL wants to prove it is serious about stopping all of the headhunting this season, fines and suspensions are a good start. But the most effective way to get the message across is to have it delivered by the man whose life changed forever with a single hit.

''No one calls, but every time a guy is laid out, my name is the one people think of. And you know what I think of? I think, 'He has to be as afraid as I was,''' Stingley said Thursday.

''I relive the emotion each and every time. Later, when I hear they're up and around, it's almost a personal victory. It's like I need to know those guys won't have to go through what I did.''

The NFL has never been more popular nor, by some accounts, in greater danger of losing its conscience.

Check out the highlight reels on Sunday night sports shows. Watch how the best hits get replayed in slow motion, then again at full speed with the volume cranked. Pick up an NFL-licensed video game: body parts twist and break as breathless announcers scream to be heard above the buzz of a bloodthirsty crowd.

Violence never goes out of fashion. But for the first time in a while, the league is having to tote up the costs.

After handing out just one suspension the previous two seasons, commissioner Paul Tagliabue's disciplinarians have already suspended two players midway through this one: Denver's Kenoy Kennedy and San Diego's Rodney Harrison. Two others have received heavy fines.

Philadelphia's Brian Dawkins was fined $50,000 for a late hit that sidelined Giants receiver Ike Hilliard for the rest of the season with a separated shoulder.

Dallas' Darren Woodson hit Seattle's Darrell Jackson with an even more devastating blow. Jackson had a seizure in the locker room after Sunday's game and spent the night in the hospital, and Woodson was fined $75,000, avoiding suspension only because he hadn't been in trouble before.

But here's the really scary part: None of the principals seems to have learned anything.

Despite being cited repeatedly for questionable hits, Harrison said he won't change the way he plays.

Kennedy's teammates took up a collection to cover the salary he lost to suspension.

Even Jackson, who returned to the Seattle locker room Wednesday, said: ''This is the game of football and things like this happen. I put myself in a place out there for things like this to happen. You take it all in stride.''

The league, thankfully, isn't doing that. It's spoken forcefully and fined players heavily.

But behind closed doors, the rash of vicious hits so close together are being described as an ''aberration,'' a ''cluster,'' ''bad timing'' -- nothing more.

Around this time two years ago, someone asked commissioner Paul Tagliabue to explain the runaway success of his product.

''Strategy, action, reaction,'' he said. ''In some ways, it's the thinking man's game.

"It's contact ballet.''

It's also a dance, we are being reminded again, that uses up lots of bodies. People get hurt all the time -- and sometimes, worse.

On Aug. 12, 1978, Stingley was a promising receiver with the New England Patriots, running a pass pattern across the middle in an exhibition game. Jack Tatum was a cornerback with the Oakland Raiders who played with so little remorse he titled his autobiography, ''They Call Me Assassin.''

Their fateful collision made Stingley a quadriplegic.

It wasn't until he read ''Assassin'' years later that Stingley learned the hit was Tatum's sick way of trying to show his Raiders bosses he deserved more than they were paying.

''But he was the exception, and I believe, always will be,'' said the 51-year-old Stingley, who runs the Darryl Stingley Youth Foundation in this city where he grew up.

''Look, debating the role of violence in football is like arguing over religion. But I played at the highest level, I watch it all the time ... My son plays in the Arena League, and I still love the game.

''And I know what happens between the lines -- the talking, the intimidation and so on. And even knowing all that, you're still not expecting the guy on other side wants to destroy you to elevate himself.

''So if you're asking me what do I think has changed, it's this: We came from a generation with no 'SportsCenter' or video games. Today, the NFL is becoming more like a video game every week.

''Guys think, 'This hit will get me on TV.' Or they're so used to the blood and gore of those games that they've forgotten, there are flesh-and-blood consequences,'' Stingley said. ''I'm just praying it won't take another guy shoved into a wheelchair for them to remember.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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