Darryl Stingley, whose career with the New England Patriots ended when he was paralyzed after taking a vicious hit in an exhibition game in 1978, died early yesterday morning. He was 55.
An autopsy revealed that bronchial pneumonia, quadriplegia, spinal cord injury, and coronary atherosclerosis contributed to Mr. Stingley's death.
Mr. Stingley was found unresponsive in his Chicago-area home and pronounced dead at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, according to Tony Brucci, an investigator with the Cook County (Ill.) medical examiner's office.
Former teammates and friends remembered Mr. Stingley yesterday as a talented wide receiver with an upbeat personality who devoted the later years of his life to helping others through his Chicago-based Darryl Stingley Youth Foundation. Mr. Stingley also took a great interest in education.
"He was very proud that he received his degree from Purdue from his bed, through taking courses over the television," said Jack Sands, Mr. Stingley's sports agent and longtime friend. "I think that was probably one of his proudest moments, completing his degree as a quadriplegic. He was very much at peace with himself and was looking forward to seeing his grandchildren in college."
A native of Chicago, Mr. Stingley was the 19th overall selection in the 1973 NFL draft, and was the third of three first-round choices for the Patriots that year, joining John Hannah and Sam Cunningham to form what was arguably the greatest first-round draft class in franchise history. He played five seasons for the Patriots, appearing in 60 games and totaling 110 receptions for 1,883 yards and 14 touchdowns.
On Aug. 12, 1978, with the Patriots playing an exhibition game against the Oakland Raiders, Mr. Stingley absorbed a vicious hit from Raiders safety Jack Tatum, which broke his neck. Mr. Stingley spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
"We had a slant pattern called to Darryl, someone flashed early, I double-pumped, and threw the ball by him, high and over his head," recalled Steve Grogan, a longtime Patriots quarterback. "He and Jack Tatum collided. I had seen so many collisions like that when both people got up and shook it off and came back to the huddle. Darryl didn't get up. To have the injury be so serious, it was devastating to all of us."
Mr. Stingley and Tatum never spoke about the hit. They had arranged to speak in 1996, but Mr. Stingley declined at the last moment when a close friend told him that Tatum's intentions weren't genuine.
"He would shake when we would talk about Tatum," Sands recalled. "I think he had sympathy for him, but he absolutely could not accept him trying to use the injury for his own financial gain, whether it was a book or something else."
In 1983, Mr. Stingley wrote a memoir of his life and of his injury, titled "Happy to Be Alive." In a Boston Globe story in 2003, Stingley said he learned to forgive Tatum, even though he was hurt to read words in Tatum's book -- ''They Call Me Assassin" -- about his intentions to injure players.
"For me to go on and adapt to a new way of life, I had to forgive him," Mr. Stingley said. "I couldn't be productive if my mind was clouded by revenge or animosity. Early on there were a lot of questions in my mind. Questions about life in general. Questions if I would even live. But I have such a strong faith in God."
Teammates recalled Mr. Stingley's sense of humor and his knack for singing Stevie Wonder songs.
"My fondest memory of Darryl was after we lost a key game -- I believe in 1977," said Pro Football Hall of Famer John Hannah. "Darryl had a great singing voice, which sounded just like Stevie Wonder. When we got back to Boston, everybody met at a restaurant in South Boston to eat and drown our frustrations. Darryl began to serenade the group and after a couple of songs, people in the restaurant wanted 'Stevie's' autograph."
Former Patriots tight end Russ Francis said Mr. Stingley had a remarkable work ethic.
"It was legendary," said Francis, who was Mr. Stingley's roommate upon joining the Patriots in 1975. "I later played with Jerry Rice and Roger Craig with the 49ers in that championship era [of the 1980s] -- and many talked about their work ethic -- but Darryl was years ahead of them."
Off the field, Francis said Mr. Stingley taught him about "inequalities of race and how to bring peace to a situation." They served as chairmen of the National Spinal Cord Injury Foundation, and Francis said Mr. Stingley fought for the rights of wheelchair athletes in the Boston Marathon.
Mr. Stingley remained a devoted fan of the Patriots, and Sands said one of his disappointments was not having the chance to see Gillette Stadium, which opened in 2002, or the team's three Super Bowl trophies. Mr. Stingley had received multiple invitations to visit, but traveling was difficult.
Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft said he was touched by Mr. Stingley's positive outlook on life after meeting him.
"He was passionate about his faith and his family and always showed compassion for others. In my conversations with Darryl, he always spoke of the future, not the past," Kraft said. "I don't think he ever held grudges and I know that he was uncomfortable accepting anyone's sympathy. He wanted to find ways to positively impact the lives of those around him and did so throughout his life."
Sands said Mr. Stingley was "really excited a year ago when Purdue honored him at halftime of a football game and he reconnected with some fraternity brothers that he hadn't seen in 25 years." Sands believed Stingley "became a much stronger individual because of his injuries" and noted that "one of the things he expressed to me from his hospital bed was that he was never bitter toward the game of football."
Stingley is survived by his wife, Martine, his three sons -- Hank, John, and Derek -- and several grandchildren.