Legendary former Raiders safety Jack Tatum died of a heart attack in Oakland on Tuesday at the age of 61.
Known as The Assassin for his hard hits on opposing receivers, Tatum played for the Raiders from 1971-79 and finished his NFL career with the Houston Oilers in '80.
"We are deeply saddened by the news of Jack Tatum's passing," the Raiders said in a statement. "Jack was a true Raider champion and a true Raider warrior. ... Jack was the standard bearer and an inspiration for the position of safety throughout college and professional football. Our thoughts, prayers and well-wishes go out to his wife Denise and family."
Tatum joined the Raiders as a first-round draft pick out of Ohio State in 1971. He soon gained a reputation as a ferocious hitter and feared player who patrolled the Raiders secondary.
He jumped into the nation's consciousness his second season for his part in one of the most controversial plays in NFL history.
Tatum arrived at the same time as a pass from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw to running back Frenchy Fuqua in an AFC playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium with 22 seconds left.
The ball hit off Tatum, according to officials, and bounced back toward the line of scrimmage. Running back Franco Harris caught the deflection before it hit the ground and raced 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown in what now is known as The Immaculate Reception.
The Raiders were convinced the ball hit off Fuqua, which would have made another Steelers receiver ineligible to catch the ball, as per the rules at the time. Officials upheld their initial ruling.
Six years later, Tatum gained everlasting fame for a hit he delivered on New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley in an exhibition game at the Coliseum on Aug. 12, 1978.
Tatum's devastating hit on a pass over the middle of the field left Stingley paralyzed. Stingley died three years ago without making peace with Tatum.
Tatum said he attempted to visit Stingley in the hospital soon after the incident, but he was denied access by Stingley's family. He never apologized for the jarring blow.
"It could have happened to anybody," Tatum said. "People are always saying, 'He didn't apologize.' I don't think I did anything wrong that I need to apologize for. It was a clean hit."
Then-Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks backed Tatum.
"I saw replays many, many times, and many times Jack Tatum was criticized," Fairbanks said several years ago. "But there wasn't anything at the time that was illegal about that play.
"I do think probably that play was a forerunner for some of the changes in rules that exist today that are more protective of receivers, especially if there is head-to-head-type contact. I think that probably pre-empted some of the things that happened today."
Tatum wrote an autobiography in 1980 called "They Call Me Assassin" for which he was criticized for glamorizing his hard-hitting style.
In a later book titled "Final Confessions of an NFL Assassin," Tatum wrote: "I was paid to hit, the harder the better. And I hit, and I knocked people down and knocked people out. ... I understand why Darryl is considered the victim. But I'll never understand why some people look at me as the villain."
Stingley said he felt as if Tatum was profiting at the expense of his injury and never reconciled with Tatum.
Tatum was recruited to Ohio State by legendary coach Woody Hayes as a running back. Assistant coach Lou Holtz convinced Hayes to convert Tatum to safety his freshman season.
"We have lost one of our greatest Buckeyes," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said in a statement. "When you think of Ohio State defense, the first name that comes to mind is Jack Tatum. His loss touches every era of Ohio State players and fans."
Tressel gives out a "Jack Tatum Hit of the Week Award" to the player who delivers the most-impressive hit each week.
In recent years, Tatum suffered from diabetes. Doctors amputated his right leg in 2003 and later removed the toes on his left foot because of staph infection caused by diabetes.
"He endured a lot of problems, and it's unfortunate he passed away so young," Ohio State teammate and close friend John Hicks said in an interview with The Cleveland Plain Dealer. "He was a tremendous athlete and a great person."
Great athletes come and go. Tatum left a lasting impression that still resonates with today's players as a result of the many big hits he delivered throughout his career.
Tatum's hard-nosed style of play spawned a legion of players who wanted to be just like Tatum. Countless replays of Tatum knocking the helmet off the head of Minnesota Vikings receiver Sammy White in the Super Bowl and his head-on collision with Oilers running back Earl Campbell are etched in the minds of fans from coast to coast.
Tatum played in 136 games during his NFL career and recorded 37 interceptions. He was selected to three Pro Bowls and started for the Raiders in their first Super Bowl victory, at the end of the 1976 season.
He has been inducted into College Football Hall of Fame and Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame. He is survived by his wife Denise and three children.