As His Second Season Out of Action Ends, Darryl Stingley Fights Back from Paralysis

updated 01/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/07/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's been 16 months since that exhibition game in Oakland, but the moment is, of course, agonizingly vivid in Darryl Stingley's memory. New England Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan had thrown a pass to Stingley, who was forced to lunge for it. As he did, he was hit head on by the Oakland Raiders' Jack Tatum. Stingley crumpled and lay motionless. "I knew it was serious," he recalls. "I had a feeling I'd never experienced before. Usually, when that happened I'd just get up and shake it off. I couldn't this time."

Two of Stingley's vertebrae were broken, leaving him almost totally paralyzed. After three months in a California hospital, where he lost 47 pounds and nearly died from a collapsed lung, Stingley was moved to the Rehabilitation Institute in Chicago, his hometown. Today Darryl at 28 is learning to make his damaged body work again. "The doctor said I wouldn't make it," he declares, "but my prayers and those of a lot of others worked." Stingley was first offered a wheelchair operated by its occupant breathing through a strawlike device. "I said to myself, I'm not gonna use a sip-and-puff chair," Stingley recalls. "I'm gonna learn to use my limbs." Now he can move his head and neck, and his right hand is getting stronger. "I like to exercise until I feel pain," Stingley says. "That means there's feeling there."

"If I became a quadriplegic," says Dr. Henry Betts, the Rehabilitation Institute's medical director, "I'd be content to stay in bed and have someone read to me. But for Darryl, whose life and self-image centered entirely on physicality, the way he's adjusted is remarkable."

Still, there are difficult moments. Says brother Harold, 38, a Chicago transit worker: "He has off days—up-and-down days—but I look at him and wonder how I'd wear that shoe." Unhappily, Darryl and wife Tina, his high school sweetheart, have separated. "It's more traumatic than the injury itself," he says sadly. "Most of my family adjusted. But some people couldn't face up to it." (He lives alone, cared for by relatives and a nurse; the couple's two sons, Darryl Jr., 11, and Derek, 9, attend a private school.)

Stingley is still bitter toward Tatum. "The coaches say it was a clean hit," Darryl says. "I think differently." Has Tatum visited or telephoned him? "If a dog bit you," Stingley replies evenly, "would you expect a dog to say he's sorry?" (Tatum has said neither Stingley nor his attorney will return his calls.)

Son of a tea blender, Stingley was all-city in football at Chicago's Marshall High, then All-America at Purdue. Drafted by the Patriots in 1973, he was one of the National Football League's top receivers before the injury.

Stingley waived his rights to sue a year after he was paralyzed. He got his full $55,000 salary for the 1978 season, $30,000 this year and will receive $2,000 a month for life. In addition, all his medical bills will be paid and players around the league recently donated $34,000 toward his sons' college expenses. The Patriots also bought him a specially equipped van.

Darryl has been appointed a scout for the team—a job he hopes to start this year, using an adapted projector that he can operate to study films of college games. His old teammates are confident that if anyone can return to some sort of productive life, it is their onetime star receiver and unofficial team barber. "Tell Darryl," says defensive lineman Ray Hamilton, with mock impatience, "that I need a haircut."

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