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The amazing courage of Derek Stingley

By RON POLLACK, Editor-in-chief

The tear-stained date on the calendar of Darryl and Derek Stingley draws near.

Aug. 12.

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 quadriplegic.

Unhappy anniversary.

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 can’t move his body. He can’t 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 Tatum’s position, rather than wide receiver, his father’s position.

How is it that Derek can unload on receivers, knowing what happened to his father?

"I’m not there to try to really kill anybody," says Derek. "Don’t get me wrong, I don’t pull up, because that’s 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?’ I’ll either be standing over them, asking them, or helping them up. That’s just me. That’s my nature."

OK, fine. He can deliver a big hit, but doesn’t he worry about the big hit he might someday receive? Doesn’t 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. You’ll find this advice under the lightning-never-strikes-twice rule in your encyclopedia.

"I don’t think about it, because my dad told me never to think that I’m 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 Stingley’s shoes, I am quite sure that I would not have been honest and selfless enough to give that advice. I am quite sure I wouldn’t have wanted my son to get within a country mile of a sport that put me in a wheelchair.

If I were in Derek Stingley’s 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 doesn’t see anything unusual about it, as outsiders chew nervously on their fingernails and cringe with anticipation, waiting for the lion’s jaws to snap shut, waiting for the other shoe to drop on the Stingley family.

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 arms?"

This couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 Derek’s 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.

Derek, Superman and the guy in the wheelchair. Two’s company, three’s a crowd. Darryl looked into his son’s 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 couldn’t understand that his father could not move. He couldn’t 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 couldn’t understand that for the life of him. He just couldn’t, 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. Derek’s love and optimism couldn’t get Darryl out. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out Derek’s opinion of Jack Tatum.

"I didn’t 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 don’t 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 hadn’t 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 Derek’s 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 didn’t. Someone else did.

Darryl Stingley was at home. The phone rang. Painful memories calling.

Voice on the other end of the line: "I’m Derek’s roommate. Mr. Stingley, don’t worry. Derek is OK."

Darryl Stingley: "What do you mean, don’t worry?"

Voice on the other end of the line: "You’re not watching the game?"

Darryl Stingley: "No, we didn’t 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 Derek’s ambulance ride to the hospital last season, he stared up at the ceiling and thought back to his father’s 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 can’t 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 father’s voice. It is a hurt that became less severe once Derek was completely OK, but it is also a hurt that has not completely vanished.

"To be honest with you, ever since that day, it makes me leery to answer the phone," says Darryl. "Especially when I know it’s on a weekend when he may be playing. (On) caller ID, if something pops up that you’re unfamiliar with, it’s like, ohhhh, hope it’s not the call. I worry. I’m a parent."

The son competes. The father frets.

The son competes. The father smiles.

Swelling up with pride, Darryl follows his son’s 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 Darryl’s horrible injury. More significantly, though, Aug. 12 is one more day to celebrate Derek’s victory over the Stingley family’s 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.

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