Happy 50th, AFL

September 9 is the first day of the 2010 NFL season. That, I suppose, we all know.

What you might not realize is that the date also marks the 50th anniversary of the AFL’s inaugural regular season game. On September 9, 1960, the Boston Patriots hosted the Denver Broncos at Boston University Field.

The Pats were expected to beat the Broncos handily. They didn’t. And the biggest part of the difference was a spectacular punt return touchdown by Denver’s rookie running back/placekicker (and, as the result of an injury to halfback Al Carmichael, kick returner) Gene Mingo.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter in Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in New England Patriots History in which I look at the game and Mingo’s back-breaking play.

“It sort of freaked me out that during my first game I was going to have to do something I had never prepared for,” Mingo remembers. “But in those days, football wasn’t so specialized. We had 33 guys on that team. If you wanted to keep your job, you did what your coach asked.”

Mingo did a bit more than anyone could have expected.

As the clock ticked away in the third quarter with neither offense accomplishing much — a fact at least partially attributable to poor lighting, which made passing the ball increasingly difficult as the night wore on — Mingo took a punt from Tom Greene at the Broncos’ 24-yard line.

He started left, saw that he had good blocking to his right and cut over to take advantage of it. Eluding coverage, Mingo charged up the right sideline leaving only Greene, the backup quarterback and punter, between him and the end zone.

“Not only did I punt the ball that Gene Mingo returned for the TD, I also was the last Patriot player to have a chance to tackle him,” Greene recalls. “I tried, but he ran over me like a truck in what was surely a testimony to his determination and ability.”

Mingo powered the full 76 yards down the field and into the end zone, logging the first punt return touchdown in AFL history and posting the points that would decide the game.

Wanna know the rest? Buy the book. It’s worth it. I promise.

More Radio

Just a quick heads up: I’ll be on the The Jim Polito Show on WTAG, 580 AM/94.9 FM in Worcester, Massachusetts, Thursday, September 9 at 8:05 a.m. talking about the book and the upcoming Pats season. The segment will re-air Friday, September 10 at 6:05 a.m. Tune in if you’re around. Or log on to the station’s web site. And, you know, if you have a second, stop by the event page on Facebook and let me know you’ll be listening.

I’ve also taped an interview with Monte on The River, 93.9 FM in Northampton, Massachusetts. That’ll run either on Thursday, September 9 or Friday, September 10. I’ll let you know exactly when as soon as I hear.

It’s On

I’ve scheduled the first radio interview related to Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in New England Patriots History. I’ll be on the Morning Show with Brad & Bo on WHYN, 560 AM in Springfield, Massachusetts, Friday, September 3 at 7:05 a.m. talking about the book and the upcoming season. I’ve very excited to get things rolling. If you’re not in the area, you can listen through the WHYN web site.

I’ve got an events page up on the site now, which currently lists that interview and a signing in Walpole October 23. Keep checking back for more events, including those signings with Steve Nelson (and some Nellie media appearances).

Also, Amazon now has a cover image up. That seems like something.

The book is out. You can buy it. And read it. And, I hope, enjoy it. So, you know, get on with it.

Available On Line

It appears that Amazon is selling Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in New England Patriots History, though they still don’t have a cover image up. So if you’ve been waiting for that to kick in, well, apparently it has.

Still no word on signings with Nellie. You’ll know when I know. Meanwhile, I’m working on signings with just me. There again, I’ll let you know what’s up as soon as there’s something to report.

It’s Out There

Went to my local Barnes & Noble this afternoon to pick up Pat Kirwan and David Seigerman’s Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, which I can’t wait to read, and a copy of the latest Pro Football Weekly (getting ready for a fantasy draft on Thursday and I like their board a lot) and saw copies of Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in New England Patriots History on the shelf. It was my first actual sighting of the book in the wild. So, you know, it’s out there. Which is pretty damned exciting if you ask me.

Waiting and Planning

As I wait for Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in New England Patriots History to hit stores, and for Triumph to finalize dates and locations for the two signings with Patriots legend Steve Nelson, I’m starting to plan some other activities for the fall. Those will include signings (yeah, just me without Nellie) and, you know, some other stuff TBD.

If you’re just wondering when signings are happening, please keep checking back (or make things easy on yourself by joining the Game Changers Facebook group). When you see an Events page show up on the navigation bar, it means there’s something to list.

I think I’m going to be in Foxborough on September 12, when the Pats host the Cincinnati Bengals. I’ll spend the hours before kickoff walking around the parking lots talking to fans (I can’t sell out there, so I’m not gonna be trying to sell anyone anything; I’ll just be chatting and telling folks about my book). So if you’re gonna be out there tailgating and you’ve got a regular spot and you want me to stop by and say hello, just drop me a line and let me know where. I’ll do my best to get over your way.

If you’ve got suggestions about where I should sign, leave a comment and let me know. I’ll try to work it out. (For what it’s worth, I’ve tended to sign at chain stores, because they’ve generally been more receptive to me than indies. But the indies that have had me have been great. So, you know, I’ve got no loyalties either way. If a store will have me in, I’ll get there.)

And, of course, if you’ve got an event that needs a storytelling football historian or you want me to come and tailgate with you, we can work that out, too.

One More Day, One More Play

With copies of Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in New England Patriots History scheduled to ship from Chicago tomorrow (which I hope means they’ll hit the shelves of your favorite bookstore very soon), I’ve been thinking not only about what’s up ahead for me but what’s ahead for the Patriots. It appears to be one of those seasons when there’s a ton of promise but also many questions to be answered. It’s also, according to the experts, supposed to be a tough season in the AFC East. Both of those things bring to mind 2003. And that’s got me thinking about the game in Miami in which the Pats took control of the division. Here’s video of the huge OT touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Troy Brown that won a hard-fought game.

“For a quarterback, having a receiver like Troy Brown is very calming, settling. You know this guy’s going to catch the ball when you throw it to him, he’s going to get open when he’s supposed to, he’s going to do what you need him to do.”
Steve Grogan

Signings With Nellie Are In The Works

It’s not really news at this point that Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in New England Patriots History is scheduled to ship from Chicago on Thursday. But a reminder isn’t gonna hurt you.

More along the lines of actual news, we (and by we I mean the folks at Triumph ) appear to be closing in on dates for a pair of signings with Patriots Hall of Fame member Steve Nelson. I’m still blown away by the very fact that Nellie agreed to write the foreword for this book. I’m gonna be incredibly psyched to get to go out and sign books with him.

Yeah, yeah, I know that no one who shows up at those events is gonna care one bit about getting my signature. I don’t care. I want to meet Nellie just like you do. Because, look, here’s a guy who was part of the great Patriots squads of 1976, 1978 and 1985. And consider this: It was largely defense and special teams that got the 1985 Pats to Super Bowl XX. And Nellie was no small factor on the D that season. He led the team in tackles during the regular season (149) and was second on the team in tackles in the playoffs (26). This despite the fat that he he dislocated his shoulder in the second quarter of the wild card round win over the Jets. Not only did he play though that injury, but he recorded seven solo tackles and a fumble recovery. That’s the definition of tough football. Then two weeks later, still playing hurt, Steve had a key forced fumble that helped the Pats beat the Dolphins in Miami to win the Lamar Hunt Trophy. Huge. (Keep in mind, those of you who weren’t around for it, that those were the days when the Patriots never, ever won in Miami. That was one of the most significant wins in team history. Not on the same level as the Super Bowl victories, of course, but close. I think it would fall fourth on my list of all-time greatest Patriots triumphs.)

Oh, and by the way, this year marks the 1985 squad’s 25th anniversary. What better time to meet Steve Nelson? That goes for you and me both. I’ll let you know when you’ll get the opportunity as soon as dates are confirmed.

On Jack Tatum’s Passing

With the news breaking that Jack Tatum has died, I thought I’d post the section of The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping and Gut-Wrenching Moments from New England Patriots History that deals with what Tatum did to the late Darryl Stingley.

This isn’t about passing judgment or speaking ill of the dead. It’s just about remembering a man for who he was: a great football player, sure, but not such a great human being.

The Worst Injury In Patriots History: Darryl Stingley

There comes a moment once every three or four seasons when we’re reminded, suddenly, painfully, horribly, of what a savage sport football can be.

Ninety percent of the time, it begins with nothing more than two players doing their jobs. An offensive player doing everything he can to advance the ball. A defender going all out to stop him. A collision. Brutal. But in nearly every important way not unlike the scores of other brutal collisions that take place on fields across the country every Sunday through the fall and early winter.

Then one of the players involved — usually the one who took the hit rather than the one who administered it — fails to get up. And it starts to become clear that he hasn’t simply had the wind knocked out of him. And that what’s happened isn’t merely game ending or season ending, but career ending.

Sometimes the replay shows precisely what happened. Joe Theismann’s leg snaps like dry kindling under the weight and power of Lawrence Taylor. Sometimes it’s not so clear. Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett, while pitching in on special teams, goes down after a collision with Denver Broncos kick returner Domenik Hixon with what will later be revealed as a spinal injury. Either way, by the time you see the injured player being carried off the field, you know it’s the last time you’ll ever see him in pads and a uniform.

It’s the worst part of the game.

Almost no one who wasn’t present in Oakland, California on August 12, 1978 saw Darryl Stingley being carried off the field. It was the pre-season. It was the ’70s, long before cable TV and ravenous fans turned every minor occurrence in the NFL into a media event. It was the middle of summer, when people had better things to do than follow exhibition football games.

By the end of the day, however, most football fans — and especially those in New England — not only had heard about Stingley’s injury, but had seen the hit that caused it on the evening news. Many have seen it more than a few times since. And every time, it’s as brutal and horrific — and as stunningly ordinary — as the last.

Stingley, the wide receiver, extends, putting in the extra effort that was his stock in trade in an attempt to pull down a pass from quarterback Steve Grogan that had sailed a bit too high. Doing his job. Then Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum comes flying in, full of the fury he was famous for, and pulverizes Stingley. Tatum’s forearm and helmet crash into Stingley’s helmet, hammering the defenseless receiver to the ground. Stingley collapses to the field. And he never makes it back to his feet. Never.

Stingley would never walk, nor even use an arm in any real way, after that hit. The two broken vertebrae he suffered in that pre-season game left Stingley a quadriplegic. The injury also led to Stingley’s early death on April 5, 2007 at the age of 55.

There remains, even 30 years later with Stingley in the ground and Tatum reportedly losing a long battle with diabetes, division over the hit that cost Stingley almost everything.

There are those who believe the hit was unnecessarily vicious, dirty, and uncalled for. It was a pre-season game with nothing meaningful on the line, they argue. Tatum should have recognized that Stingley had no hope of catching the pass and pulled up.

Grogan is one of those. He has maintained over the years that the hit was late and that Tatum had to know the play was effectively over before he ever got to Stingley. Grogan also hasn’t been shy about criticizing Tatum for they way acted immediately after the hit and in all the years thereafter.

Tatum never made any attempt to show remorse for what had happened or concern for the man he’d crippled. While his coach, John Madden, and teammates spent time with Stingley in the hospital, Tatum stayed away, insisting he had nothing to say to the injured player. And not only did Tatum’s position on the matter never soften, he made something of a post-football career out of sneering at Stingley.

Tatum, who always embraced his nickname, “Assassin,” has written three books about his experiences in the NFL, They Call Me Assassin, They Still Call Me Assassin, and Final Confessions of an NFL Assassin. In each of them, Tatum celebrates his crushing playing style, taking pride in the fact that the hits he administered frequently seemed designed not to stop offensive players but to injure them. In his last book, Tatum criticized defensive players who came along after his time for not being savage enough, claiming that if he’d played the way current players do “Darryl Stingley wouldn’t be confined to a wheelchair.”

And that approach to the incident has always placed Tatum well outside the range of normal, understandable human behavior. Even the hardest hitters in the game have typically expressed horror when their play has resulted in serious injury. Taylor, for instance, not only frantically called for medical attention for Theismann after his famous hit, but broke down on the field, and has said he has never been able to watch the play.

That Tatum not only insists he did nothing wrong in his hit on Stingley, but actually boasts of the results, certainly colors the way Grogan and other critics perceive the events.

“It was Jack Tatum that was the real problem, when he was bragging about the fact that he had done what he’d done to Darryl,” Grogan said in an interview on Boston sports radio station WEEI the day Stingley died. “That was what was hard to take.”

Looking at the hit, it’s hard not to conclude that Tatum’s personality was ultimately more problematic than his play.

The blow Tatum delivered to Stingley was without question intended to punish. Tatum clearly wanted to make sure Stingley would forever be looking over his shoulder any time the two men found themselves on the same field.

Tatum had to know that was the only way you slowed a receiver like Stingley, a possession guy whose greatest quality was that he put every bit of himself into every play whether he was throwing a block (not an unusual role for a receiver in Chuck Fairbanks and Ron Erhardt’s run-oriented offense) or making tough catches while operating against tight coverage underneath. Stingley wasn’t always the most gifted receiver on a field (though sometimes he was), but he was usually the hardest working. And the toughest. If you didn’t get into his head, he posed a continuous threat.

But Tatum’s hit was legal at the time. (It was partially as a result of that play that rules were later put in place protective defenseless receivers. And it’s those rules, in combination with rules protecting quarterbacks, that have made the passing game such a huge part of professional football.) It may have been ill-advised. It may have been unnecessary. But it was within the rules. And Tatum was simply playing the way he always played – whatever anyone might think of that.

That doesn’t change anything, of course. It doesn’t give Stingley his legs, or his life, back. It doesn’t change the fact that the Patriots lost a player who was a leader on the field and off, a player who’d led the team in receptions in the previous season and who might have had another half dozen good to great years in him.

It doesn’t make Tatum any less wrong for the way he handled himself after that day, either. The only thing that ever could have redeemed Tatum would have been an apology. And now, as of April 5, 2007, it will always be too late for that.

Here’s a Favorite

My journey into video while putting together the first page of bonus material from Game Changers: The Greatest Plays in New England Patriots History led me to take a look back at one of my favorite plays from the Patriots dynasty era. So I figured why not share another bit of great video.

The play, which I cover in a section titled “Everybody Wants Some,” comes from the 2001-02 AFC Championship game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. And it involves one of my all-time favorite Patriots players, Troy Brown. Troy’s efforts, particularly after Tom Brady was lost to injury, were the most pivotal factor in the win. And his recovery of a blocked field goal and subsequent lateral to Antwan Harris was just one of the spectacular plays Troy made to lead the team to an incredible victory.

Here’s a quote from Game Changers: Patriots:

I knew it was a risk pitching it out, but I wanted to get the ball to Antwan. He was the fastest guy on the field.
— Troy Brown