Opening Wednesday, 'Assassin' tells story of Jack Tatum's hit

Opening Wednesday, 'Assassin' tells story of Jack Tatum's hit
January 23, 2013, 9:30 am
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“Assassin” is a powerful and thought-provoking play about the game of football and the men who play it. It opens Wednesday at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, and runs through Feb. 10. I attended a rehearsal last week and was blown away.
 
“Assassin” has only two characters and the entire play takes place in one room but it has enough raw emotion to fill Lincoln Financial Field. It is based on the true story of Darryl Stingley and Jack Tatum, two NFL players whose lives intersected with tragic results on Aug. 12, 1978.
 
Stingley was a wide receiver with the New England Patriots and Tatum was a Pro Bowl safety with the Oakland Raiders. In a preseason game, Stingley was running across the middle and extending for the football when Tatum hit him, head-on. Stingley fell to the turf, his spine fractured between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. He was 25 and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
 
“Assassin” deals with the aftermath of that play: the pain Stingley lived with and the conflicting emotions Tatum wrestled with over the years. It is insightfully written by David Robson who clearly has done his homework. The references to the NFL of the 1970’s -- making fun of Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, for example -- will ring true to football fans in the audience.
 
The names are changed. The Tatum character is called Frank Lucas. Stingley does not appear but is represented by an attorney named Lewis. The two men meet to discuss the terms of a TV interview, the first time they will appear together since the fateful game in Oakland. That is the framework for the one-act drama which is intense and R-rated.
 
Brian Anthony Wilson, who starred in HBO’s “The Wire,” is a convincing Frank Lucas, a man caught between the warrior mindset of pro football (he points out it was a clean hit, no penalty was called) and knowing he ruined a man’s life. Dwayne A. Thomas plays the lawyer who is all tightly-wound fury under his three-piece suit. It is riveting theater when the two square off.
 
Lucas (Wilson) has a limp, which he attributes to diabetes, another example of Robson’s research. Tatum did, indeed, suffer from diabetes and the arterial blockage resulted in him losing his left foot and the lower half of his right leg. Tatum died in 2010. Stingley died in 2007 due to heart failure and pneumonia, conditions complicated by his paralysis.
 
The title of the play is borrowed from Tatum’s nickname, “The Assassin,” which he earned as an All-America safety at Ohio State, where he was famous for his vicious tackling. In 1980, two years after the crippling hit on Stingley, Tatum wrote a book entitled “They Call Me Assassin” in which he bragged about his intimidating style of play. He expressed no real remorse for what happened to Stingley.
 
“My best hits,” Tatum wrote, “border on felonious assault.”
 
He also wrote: “My idea of a good hit is when the victim wakes up on the sideline with train whistles blowing in his head and wondering who he is and what ran over him.”
 
When the book was published, Stingley’s attorney was so outraged he wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle demanding that he suspend Tatum indefinitely. Rozelle did not suspend Tatum but he did issue a statement criticizing the book saying: “The NFL totally rejects the philosophy in those specific quotes in the book.”
 
And that is really the essence of the play: the fine line between a good, clean hit and a dirty play. Wilson, the Tatum character, rages: “That’s what they paid me to do.” Of course, he is right about that, but at what cost? And who’s to blame for the tragedy, the player or the sport? These are difficult questions the NFL still is wrestling with today.
 
“Assassin” is directed by Seth Reichgott and produced by the InterAct Theatre Company. For ticket information call 215-568-8079 or contact Interacttheatre.org. You may want to check it out before you get caught up in the hype for next week’s Super Bowl. This is the other, darker side of the game.

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