The tear-stained date on the calendar of Darryl and Derek Stingley
It is a haunted date for the Stingley family. A date that contains
pain. A date that contains suffering. A date that, 20 years ago, saw New England Patriot
WR Darryl Stingley take his last step. Nowadays he gets around in a wheelchair. He is a
Aug. 12, 1978, was the day that Stingley ran almost head-on into
Oakland Raider DB Jack Tatum on a crossing pattern.
Distressingly, Darryl Stingley severed his fourth and fifth vertebrae,
ending his career forever, changing his life forever.
Sadly, unfairly, crushingly, 7-year-old Derek Stingley was awakened
late that Aug. 12, 1978, night by his mother, Martine, with the awful news.
Martine: "Dad is paralyzed."
Derek: "What is that?"
Martine: "He cant move his body. He cant move his arms
or legs or anything."
Amazingly, Derek did not turn his back on the sport that crippled his
father. These days Derek is playing for the Albany Firebirds in the Arena Football League.
Ironically, Derek is known in Arena Football League circles this season
for his play as a very productive defensive back, the villainous Tatums position,
rather than wide receiver, his fathers position.
How is it that Derek can unload on receivers, knowing what happened to
"Im not there to try to really kill anybody," says
Derek. "Dont get me wrong, I dont pull up, because thats the nature
of the game. (What happened to his father) is in the back of my mind. I will hit somebody,
but I will always say, Hey, are you all right? Ill either be standing
over them, asking them, or helping them up. Thats just me. Thats my
OK, fine. He can deliver a big hit, but doesnt he worry about the
big hit he might someday receive? Doesnt he fear a collision like the one that put
his father in a wheelchair?
He does not. Long ago, Derek was told by Darryl that the injury had
been a freak accident. Youll find this advice under the
lightning-never-strikes-twice rule in your encyclopedia.
"I dont think about it, because my dad told me never to
think that Im going to get hurt," says Derek.
Darryl says, "I had to give him that answer, which was the honest
answer, (and) the answer that would free him up to be the best athlete he could be on the
field without being concerned about injury."
If I were in Darryl Stingleys shoes, I am quite sure that I would
not have been honest and selfless enough to give that advice. I am quite sure I
wouldnt have wanted my son to get within a country mile of a sport that put me in a
If I were in Derek Stingleys shoes, I am quite certain that I
would not have been brave enough to play a sport that made a quadriplegic of my father.
The fact that Derek Stingley is a professional football player is as
remarkable as the son of a victim of the Titanic becoming a cruise-ship captain. It is as
eye-opening as a child having his father eaten by a lion in the jungle and then choosing
to become a lion tamer in the circus.
Heck, that is exactly what Derek is doing. He puts his head inside the
jaws of that hungry, heartless lion and doesnt see anything unusual about it, as
outsiders chew nervously on their fingernails and cringe with anticipation, waiting for
the lions jaws to snap shut, waiting for the other shoe to drop on the Stingley
That other shoe dropped last June when Derek was taken from the field
in an ambulance during a game. One second Derek was trying to pounce on a fumble; the next
he was out cold as a trainer flashed a light in his eyes and got no response. When Derek
finally came to, he found himself looking up at the trainer and being told he had been out
cold for a handful of minutes after absorbing a big hit that caused his head to bang on
the turf. He felt drowsy, confused, and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. The
trainer was saying, "Derek, can you move your shoulders? Derek, can you move your
This couldnt be happening to the Stingley family. Not again.
Remembering the days and weeks that followed that Aug. 12, 1978, night
when he learned his father had been paralyzed, Derek now says, "I just couldnt
believe that, because I always thought my father was like Superman."
To 7-year-old Derek, Superman was the guy he always saw going to the
gym to work out. Superman was the NFL wide receiver who was always watching game films on
a projector at home. Superman was the guy who was always promising to score a touchdown
for Dereks mom and older brother for their birthdays during the football season.
Superman was the guy who used to play catch, ride bikes and go for walks with Derek.
Suddenly, Superman needed help scratching an itch, putting on his
clothes, combing his hair, eating his food, getting a drink of water and a hundred other
simple tasks most of us, Jack Tatum included, take for granted every day.
Superman would fly no more. Superman would never again run gracefully
through NFL secondaries. Superman had been sentenced to life in a wheelchair.
"I always tell people it was like I had two fathers," says
Derek, Superman and the guy in the wheelchair. Twos company,
threes a crowd. Darryl looked into his sons eyes and knew who the third wheel
was, knew whom his son wanted to stay and whom his son wanted to leave, knew what his son
was wishing for.
Star light, star bright, please bring back Superman tonight.
"I remember his little heart was so pure," says Darryl of
Derek. "He just couldnt understand that his father could not move. He
couldnt understand that this was the same father who used to pick him up and toss
him around and wrestle with him on the floor and try to pitch to him and try to get him to
hit a baseball and go swimming in the swimming pool. He just couldnt understand that
for the life of him. He just couldnt, and he would come over and sit by me and say,
Daddy, can I exercise your hands and your arms? This little kid wanted me to
move that bad. He had that much love in him that he wanted to fix what was broke. He
thought that he could."
He thought wrong. Jack Tatum, probably the hardest hitter in football
at the time, put Darryl into a wheelchair. Dereks love and optimism couldnt
get Darryl out. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out Dereks opinion of
"I didnt care too much for him, because I always said to
myself, Did this man know he had a family or kids that my father had to take care
of?" says Derek. "And he never apologized. Why? Why did he want to paralyze my
dad? I always thought it was just a game. And I never cared for him. To this day I still
dont care for him."
Was the lightning-never-strikes-twice theory a fraud? Were the football
gods cruelly about to do to Derek what they had previously done to his father.
The words from the Albany trainer were still hanging ominously in the
air, like a thundercloud that hadnt decided whether or not to unleash its fury:
"Derek, can you move your shoulders? Derek, can you move your arms?"
Derek went to move his different body parts. The other shoe had dropped
on the Stingley family, but it just missed him. There was movement on Dereks part,
albeit slowly. He was told, "We have to get you to a hospital."
The game was not televised on national TV, and, as he was carried off,
Derek said, "Whatever you do, do not call my dad. Let me be the one to tell him. Do
not call my father."
The trainers didnt. Someone else did.
Darryl Stingley was at home. The phone rang. Painful memories calling.
Voice on the other end of the line: "Im Dereks
roommate. Mr. Stingley, dont worry. Derek is OK."
Darryl Stingley: "What do you mean, dont worry?"
Voice on the other end of the line: "Youre not watching the
Darryl Stingley: "No, we didnt get the telecast here."
Voice on the other end of the line: "Derek was injured."
The voice on the other end of the line said Derek had been laid out on
the field after a collision but seemed to be moving. With so little information at his
disposal, though, Darryl was left with one thought until follow-up calls provided more
information. That numb, stunned thought was, "Oh, no. Not again."
During Dereks ambulance ride to the hospital last season, he
stared up at the ceiling and thought back to his fathers paralysis-inducing injury,
"Man, is this what my dad was going through? Is this the same vision my father was
seeing? Wow, this is weird because my father had been through the same thing."
From the hospital, Derek called his father. Derek felt better and
wanted to return to the arena to finish the game.
"No, you cant play," said Darryl over the phone.
Derek did not return to action that game. Maybe common sense kicked in,
maybe it was because of the hurt he says he heard in his fathers voice. It is a hurt
that became less severe once Derek was completely OK, but it is also a hurt that has not
"To be honest with you, ever since that day, it makes me leery to
answer the phone," says Darryl. "Especially when I know its on a weekend
when he may be playing. (On) caller ID, if something pops up that youre unfamiliar
with, its like, ohhhh, hope its not the call. I worry. Im a
The son competes. The father frets.
The son competes. The father smiles.
Swelling up with pride, Darryl follows his sons career. Then the
phone rings, and the old fears return. The mixed emotions are so intertwined that they
turn Darryl into a human knot.
Yes, Aug. 12, 1998, is the 20th anniversary of Darryls horrible
injury. More significantly, though, Aug. 12 is one more day to celebrate Dereks
victory over the Stingley familys football demons.
The tear stains on this date on the calendar may never completely fade
away. But the mere fact that he puts on a uniform in a sport that forced his father into a
wheelchair makes Derek Stingley the most courageous man in football.