Power coach Stingley channels his inner 'Superman'


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Derek Stingley could hear his mother's voice piercing the darkness of their Chicago home, but he couldn't understand what she was trying to tell him.

It was a late summer night in 1978 and his father, Darryl, was away playing in an exhibition game against the Oakland Raiders. But something unexpected had happened to a fifth-year wide receiver for the New England Patriots.

As Martine Stingley spoke, Derek could sense something was wrong, but this 7-year-old boy kept coming back to a word beyond his comprehension.

Paralyzed.

Despite his age, Derek knew his father's profession came with some damaging occupational hazards such as broken bones and torn ligaments.

"I didn't see anything past that," he said. "I just thought all would be well."

Unfortunately for him and his family, there was more to it. At just 26, Darryl was a quadriplegic, paralyzed from his chest down.

However jarring his father's injury was, it never poisoned football for Derek, who played in high school and college, first at Purdue and later in junior college. His career concluded with an eight-year stay in the Arena Football League, where he has remained as a coach, an odyssey which brought him to Pittsburgh as the Power coach in 2012.

"We're a football family," Derek said.

The play

The play is as infamous as any in NFL history, one where the inherent brutality of the sport became all too real.

In a meaningless preseason game, a leaping and outstretched Stingley tried to catch an out-of-reach throw from quarterback Steve Grogan, only to be hit head-first by Oakland's Jack Tatum the moment his right foot landed.

The blow was a vicious one that struck Stingley above his shoulders, sending the receiver plummeting to the turf. He lay motionless and limp, his body sprawled on the field.

A few hours later and half a country away, a phone rang. Darryl was in an Oakland hospital with a serious injury and Martine had to leave immediately, leaving Derek and his brothers, Darryl Jr. and John, with their grandmother.

But there was still one word that lingered in Derek's mind, one that would change the Stingley family from that day forward.

Paralyzed.

Superhero

Where many boys looked up to their fathers, Derek and his brothers mythologized theirs. Sure, there was the same love and admiration, but Darryl was always something more to his sons.

He would sometimes walk shirtless in the family's home, exposing his chiseled 6-foot frame that he sculpted through weight training and other activities such as karate and ballet.

It was such an impressive sight for his sons that they even gave him a special nickname: "Superman."

The allure of superheroes for young boys is that there's an indestructible, invulnerable quality to them. Darryl was routinely in dangerous situations on the football field, but like the heroes he was likened to, his sons couldn't think of their role model being critically harmed.

Derek would not see his father until Christmastime that year, and it was then he began to grasp the enormity of the injury.

He saw his father, in his physical prime, lying down with a medical halo around his head. His Superman, the athletic specimen who he thought could fly forever, would need to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

"In my mind, I couldn't wrap that around my head, that there was no sickness to the point where he couldn't get up and walk," Derek said. "I just couldn't understand that."

All of the Stingley boys were close with their father, but once they first saw him paralyzed, they knew things would never be the same.

"After the injury, a lot of that changed, and it changed immediately," said John Smith, Derek's half-brother.

Yet for everything that was diminished with Darryl's injury, the emotional bond remained.

With his father rehabilitating at a nearby hospital, Derek was constantly there to assist on the long road to recovery. Derek would raise Darryl's arms and legs to keep his blood circulating, though the limbs would immediately fall back down when Derek let go. The exercises were part of therapy, but they were something Derek wanted to do as he held a sliver of hope that Darryl could one day return to the field.

During the process, questions routinely ran through Derek's head. Why did he have to jump as high as he did for the ball? Why was it overthrown? Why was the pass intended for him when others were open? Most importantly, why did this happen to his father?

While his son was stung by hypotheticals, Darryl didn't outwardly dwell on his condition, nor would he allow others to. Things would never be as they once were, but it was a reality Darryl was gradually willing to accept.

His strength helped the rest of his family maintain some sense of normalcy and, while he may have not been the same physically imposing figure, he was still Superman to his sons.

"He's my hero," Smith said. "To watch him go through that life-changing experience, he was still able to be a father to his sons, a husband to his wife, a brother to his sister, a son to his mom. He still did what was required of him even though he was bound to a wheelchair. That stuck with me."

Steelers connection

Though they played the same position and were drafted a year apart from each other, Lynn Swann knew little of Darryl Stingley beyond what he saw on the field.

But what the two lacked in personal friendship, they made up for in shared experience. Swann, a Steelers receiver, Pro Football Hall of Famer and Power co-owner, was also a victim of the Raiders' secondary of that era, as he was memorably concussed by George Atkinson in the 1975 AFC championship.

The incident was one of a handful Swann had against Oakland, but for all he endured, nothing compared to what happened to Stingley.

"If anything, what it did was it made people realize and left an example of some of the worst things that can happen in football," Swann said.

Faced with the tragedy, the NFL implemented more restrictive officiating that outlawed hits to the head that players such as Tatum regularly employed. They were measures Swann described as the "tip of the spear" in the league's movement to make the sport safer.

Forever linked in the history of the game, Tatum and Stingley never publicly reconciled. Though Tatum's coach, John Madden, visited Darryl in the hospital, the two never spoke in the ensuing years.

Tatum proposed a televised apology in the mid-1990s, but Darryl and the Stingley family declined, viewing it as a disingenuous effort to promote his upcoming book. The two died three years apart from each other without ever reaching a common ground.

"My dad always said, 'Hey man, my number hasn't changed over 25 years, so if you want to apologize, you can call me and we can talk about it over the phone. If not, his cross is heavier than mine knowing he has to go through his entire life knowing what he did,' " Derek said.

Darryl's legacy

Minutes before his team's practice at UPMC Sports Performance Complex, Derek watched as his son, Derek Jr., scampered around the field cradling a football in his right arm.

Though his son is just 12 years old, Derek sees glimpses of his father in him, from their facial structures to the way they play football. Derek can even remember the look of amazement on his father's face as he watched a 5-year-old Derek Jr. run routes.

Darryl's injury never blemished the game for Derek, largely because his father didn't want it to be that way. He was never discouraged from playing football and, after a brief stint in the Philadelphia Phillies' minor league system, Derek enjoyed a lengthy Arena Football League career.

His father's ordeal did, however, change the way others close to him viewed the game.

"Any time I watch football, that's always in my mind," Smith said.

Darryl passed away in 2007 at 55, but his affinity for football never deteriorated even as he bore the scars the game gave him.

As he saw it, his misfortune was the product of a freak accident, one that would not tarnish the sport he loved for the rest of his family.

Though Darryl is gone, his spirit lives in Derek as he looks upon the next generation of a football family playing the game that, for better or worse, defined it.

"I didn't force football on my boy, my dad didn't force football on me, my granddad didn't force football on my father," Derek said. "It's in us. That's our family."

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Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.


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