Darryl Floyd Stingley (September 18, 1951 – April 5, 2007) was an American professional football player…. who played wide receiver his entire five year career for the New England Patriots of the NFL….until his career was tragically ended at age 26 by an on-field spinal cord injury…..which led to an early death from heart disease and pneumonia……that was complicated by his quadriplegia.
In a 1978 preseason game against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland Coliseum on August 12….Stingley was hit by Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum as Stingley stretched for an errant pass….when he and Tatum collided….as Stingley’s helmet made contact with Tatum’s shoulder pad….thus compressing his spinal cord and breaking his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. He eventually regained limited movement in his right arm….but spent the rest of his life as a quadriplegic. The injury came just after Stingley had finished negotiating a contract extension that would have made him one of the highest paid receivers in the NFL. The new contract was to be announced when the Patriots returned from the West Coast. Instead, it was never signed.
Although Tatum’s hit was controversial….it was not against NFL rules at the time….since it was not helmet-to-helmet contact….and no penalty was called on the play. Today, however, the NFL has banned all blows to the head or neck of a defenseless player, and has disallowed players to launch themselves in tackling defenseless players. The incident became a symbol of violence in football….albeit Stingley reportedly described it as a “freak accident.”…but because Stingley was a young player at the height of his career…..his horrific injuries attracted significant public attention….so, partly in response to Stingley’s injuries….the NFL changed its rules and conventions to curtail aggressive plays. Stingley told the Chicago Tribune that he approved of more restrictive officiating, saying “It has opened the game up to allow receivers to get downfield. And it has made the game more exciting.”
Tatum’s coach, John Madden, and many of his teammates extended their sympathies to Stingley….as Madden made a post-game rush to the hospital….which was the beginning of a close friendship. In fact, during his visit Madden found himself the lone visitor in the hospital….while no one from the Patriots was there….that is until Madden called their team and the team’s charter plane….which was in takeoff mode….but finally decided to return to the gate. Raiders offensive guard Gene Upshaw also befriended Stingley…as he later was instrumental in securing benefits for disabled players through the NFL Players’ Association as head of the Players Union. A settlement was reached with the NFL, under which the Patriots agreed to pay for all of Stingley’s medical expenses for the rest of his life as well as his and his children’s education.