April 9, 2007

The Death of...

You’ll find genealogy sites linked to the Black Hills Monitor, because I’ve been afflicted with the genealogy bug for a long time. In recent years, I’ve come to the conclusion that good obituaries have been dying off more rapidly than the poor souls they recognize.

The first sign was when a few enterprising newspapers figured out they could make a buck by selling obituary space to families of the deceased. When the newspaper business hit upon hard times, more and more papers looked to cut costs and eke out dollars wherever they could. The result was fewer newspaper-generated obituaries and more family-authored pieces that, while usually a bit longer and flowerier than the paper would generate, would put a few nickels in the coffers to help pay the rising costs of newsprint. These days, the Rapid City Journal will even put you on a guilt trip for not “showing how much you care” for a deceased pet by buying a pet obituary.

But that’s another story.

Today I refer to two obituaries about the same man. Jack Tatum. Not that Jack died. He didn’t. But he’s prominently discussed in obituaries written about former New England Patriot receiver Darryl Stingley, who died April 5. Stingley had been a quadriplegic since a tragic 1978 football game in which he collided with Oakland Raider safety Tatum. His football injuries apparently contributed directly to his cause of death.

I read about this in both the New York Times, one of my favorite papers, and the weekend USA Today, which I often pick up when I’m on the road. Both obituaries gave me the essential facts, but they diverged significantly when talking about Tatum.

Although I played a lot of football as a kid, I’m not a big fan of professional football, so I knew little about Stingley and nothing about Tatum. Both obituaries left me with a great deal of respect for the way Stingley chose to live his life after this horrific incident. As for Tatum, I’m not sure.

What I am certain of is the dramatic contrast between the Times and USA Today over the kind of guy Tatum was or is. The Times reported that Tatum never contacted Stingley after the incident. It quoted Tatum in his 1980 autobiography as saying, “This is the way the game is played…I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.” The Times obituary of Darryl Stingley ended by drawing a stark contrast between a forgiving Stingley and an indifferent Tatum.

Frank Litsky of the Times ended the obituary, “Similar sentiments appeared in Stingley’s 1983 autobiography, ‘Happy to Be Alive.’ Tatum’s autobiography was titled ‘They Call Me Assassin.’”

The USA Today obituary painted a different picture of Tatum. It noted that although there was debate about the intensity of the hit, there was no flag thrown, and Patriot’s coach Chuck Fairbanks said nothing illegal happened. Unlike the Times story, USA Today carried a quote from Tatum that read, “I am deeply saddened by the death of Darryl Stingley…Darryl will be forever remembered for his strength and courage. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”

Same guys. Same-day obituaries. Different papers. And certainly a different portrayal of Tatum, depending on which paper you read.

It reminds me of the blind men who each touched a different part of an elephant and then described the elephant, resulting in huge disagreements about what an elephant is. How many other newspapers need to be read before we have an accurate assessment of Jack Tatum?

Please hand me my white cane.

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