Every defensive player who ever strapped on the pads would like to be known by any of those descriptions. But when Ohio State football players are discussed, there's usually only one who fits every one of them – Jack Tatum.
Born Nov. 18, 1948, in Cherryville, N.C., John David Tatum very nearly did not embark upon a football career. In fact, while growing up, he had little interest in playing any organized sports. Even once his family moved to Passiac, N.J., and he got to high school, he still didn't want much to do with football.
"Football wasn't the big game back then – it was basketball," Tatum said. "We all wanted to be basketball players."
That was until the football coaches got a look at his streamlined 6-0, 204-pound frame. Somehow, they convinced Tatum that he could also play football. Spending time at running back, fullback and linebacker, he still wasn't convinced. In fact, he felt that playing football was only a way to bridge the gap between basketball seasons.
In the fall of 1965, however, his attitude toward the sports began to change.
"I was told I was pretty good, but I didn't think too much about it," Tatum said. "I was just having too much fun at the time. I didn't really take (football) seriously until I started getting a lot of letters from colleges (during my junior year of high school). That's when I thought maybe I would have a chance."
He earned all-state honors as a fullback during his senior year in high school, gaining 1,421 yards that season. Figuring he would like to get away from home to go to college – but not too far – Tatum visited several colleges before deciding on Ohio State, becoming the sixth New Jersey native on the roster at that time. The others included wide receiver Bruce Jankowski, linebacker Mike Radtke and linebacker Glen Mason.
As Woody Hayes amassed his 1967 freshman class, it was immediately apparent that it was a talent-rich group. In fact, the starting backfield for that freshman team featured Rex Kern at quarterback, the likes of Larry Zelina and Leo Hayden at halfback and John Brockington and Tatum at fullback.
But with veteran Jim Otis and Brockington parked in front of him at fullback, Hayes took one look at Tatum and knew he had to get him on the field. He got together with the other members of his coaching staff and came up with the rover position – part linebacker, part safety, all intimidator.
Hayes said later that he was afraid Tatum would be upset with the move to defense, but nothing could have been further from the truth.
"I would always sneak to the defensive side and play LB in practices," Tatum said, "so I didn't mind the switch at all."
As one of several starting sophomores on Ohio State's 1968 team, it took very little time for Tatum to establish himself as the authoritarian on defense. In the season opener against Southern Methodist, he first knocked out the Mustangs' starting running back and later did the same thing to their tight end who dared cross over the middle for an attempted pass.
The player who would later be known simply as "The Assassin" was born.
Tatum was an integral part of the Buckeyes' run to the '68 national championship as the OSU defense shut down such star running backs as Leroy Keyes of Purdue, Ed Podolak of Iowa, Ron Johnson of Michigan and O.J. Simpson of Southern California.
In addition to his bone-crushing tackles, Tatum was a complete athlete. He was typically the strongest of the defensive backs and usually the fastest player on the entire squad. Hayes often said that he would have excelled at any number of positions on the field.
Tatum continued to star for the Buckeyes for the next two seasons as the team narrowly missed stringing three national championships together in succession. Only a 24-12 upset loss to Michigan in the 1969 season finale and a 27-17 loss to Stanford in the 1971 Rose Bowl prevented Tatum and his classmates from unblemished careers.
Despite those two losses, Tatum earned consecutive All-America honors and was named the national defensive player of the year in 1970.
He was a first-round selection with the 19th pick overall in the 1971 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders and immediately cracked the starting lineup as a rookie, manning the free safety position.
For the next nine seasons, Tatum patrolled the middle of the Silver and Black secondary, intimidating opposing receivers and hammering anyone who dared try and catch a ball in his vicinity.
Despite his reputation as a hard hitter, though, Tatum was an excellent cover man and his 636 return yards after interceptions is an all-time Raiders franchise record. He made the Pro Bowl three times.
Tatum is perhaps best known for two incidents during his NFL career, both of which he'd just as soon forget.
In 1972, he put a teeth-chattering hit on Pittsburgh running back John "Frenchy" Fuqua in the AFC championship game. Fuqua couldn't hold onto the attempted pass, but teammate Franco Harris scooped the ball out of the air and ran 42 yards for a touchdown. The last-second play, which gave the Steelers a 13-7 win, was forever after known as "The Immaculate Reception."
Four years later, Tatum delivered a crushing tackle to New England receiver Darryl Stingley during a game, a blow that resulted in Stingley being paralyzed.
But his stellar play in the NFL far overshadowed the bad moments, and he helped Oakland to its first world championship, a 32-14 win over Minnesota in Super Bowl XI.
Tatum retired following the 1979 season and settled in the Oakland area, starting a business which produced his own recipe of barbecue sauce among other things, and working for the NFL during the season as a member of the Uniform Code Enforcement Team.
In 1981, Tatum was elected to the OSU Athletic Hall of Fame, joining a star-studded group of inductees that year which included Archie Griffin, Warren Amling, Sid Gillman, Merle Wendt and former coach Paul Brown.
Three days after the Buckeyes' national championship victory in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, Tatum was diagnosed with diabetes. He underwent surgery later that year for amputation of the toes on his left foot, and has since undergone several more procedures that cost him his left leg below the knee.
Nevertheless, Tatum continues to attend Raiders games as well as the occasional Ohio State contest, and has begun the Jack Tatum Fund For Youthful Diabetes in Ohio to raise money to fight child diabetes.
"I'm fortunate now because my diabetes is under control with diet and exercise," Tatum said. "I had some pretty low moments, but my spirit is good now. I can play with my children again and I'm back playing golf."
In 2004, Tatum was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
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