The legacy of his grandfather never leaves Derek Stingley Jr. as his family's back story always reminds the gifted Houston Texans rookie cornerback about the violence of football, a shared love for the game, and the power of prayer for a family steeped in tradition.
Four decades ago, Darryl Stingley was playing wide receiver for the New England Patriots when a fateful encounter with Jack Tatum, one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the league, rendered him a quadriplegic during one of the most infamous plays in NFL history.
It was Aug. 12, 1978, and the Patriots were playing a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. Stingley, who had agreed to and not yet signed a contract to become one of the highest-paid receivers in the league after catching 110 passes for 1,883 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first five NFL seasons, ran his crossing pattern over the middle of the field moments after running a reverse and being ordered by coaches to remain in the game.
A brutal collision ensued as Stingley tried to catch a pass from quarterback Steve Grogan, reaching for the football with his right hand as Tatum arrived with a full head of steam with his shoulder pad connecting squarely with the crown of Stingley's helmet with a lot of torque.
Stingley collapsed motionless at the 10-yard line, having broken his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae and severely damaged his spinal cord. His cracked helmet was removed, and he was carted off the field and taken to the hospital. No penalty flag was thrown as the league ruled the crushing hit wasn't illegal.
Stingley never walked again, eventually regaining limited mobility in his right arm. He lived in a wheelchair for the remainder of his 29 years before the Chicago native died on April 5, 2007, at age 55 from heart disease and pneumonia complicated by his spinal condition.
A settlement was reached with the NFL, and the Patriots agreed to pay for all of Stingley's medical expenses for the rest of his life as well as his children's education.
Despite what happened, Stingley's youngest son, Derek Stingley Sr., never shied away from sports. He went from playing baseball in the minor leagues to nine seasons playing Arena football and semi-pro ball.
That no-fear mentality has resonated with Stingley's son, the Texans' first-round selection and third overall pick, and former LSU consensus All-American. Derek Stingley Jr. was six years old when his grandfather died.
He's watched videos and viewed photos of the play that cost his grandfather so much. He hasn't harbored any hard feelings toward Tatum, who never reconciled with his grandfather. He displays no hesitation in his twitchy, quick-striking style of play.
For this Louisiana family, this is an extremely proud moment. And Derek Stingley Sr. is confident that his father would be beaming with pride at his grandson's accomplishment as one of the first players selected.
“I think he would be ecstatic, over the moon, I think he’d be proud,” Stingley Sr. said at NRG Stadium following his son's introductory press conference. "I think this moment for us as a family, the way we feel about it, it would be 100 more times from him. Just to know that his grandson has carried on the legacy of our name in a sport that basically took his livelihood away. But, at the same time, something that he truly loved and cared about.”
What his grandfather and family endured hasn't haunted Stingley Jr. Instead, the former blue-chip recruit has embraced the game taught to him by his father, honoring them with his lockdown cornerback skills. For him, it's about bringing honor to the family. Not dwelling on a painful past.
“Well, for me, whenever I'm out there playing, you don't want to play thinking about injuries or playing scared, because then something might happen if are you out there like that," Stingley Jr. said. "Really, I just go out there and just play, have fun, like I said, and just do what I do."
That's the approach his father followed as a minor league outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies and when he was once knocked unconscious as a football player. Stingley Sr. could have avoided sports. Instead, he spent three years as an outfielder in the Phillies’ minor-league system, played in the Arena Football League for almost a decade, and held multiple coaching jobs in football.
When Darryl Stingley first got injured, the emphasis to his son was to not let an aberration deter him from pursuing the game he loved.
“My mom had to tell me at the time: ‘This is a freak accident, it’s a one in a million chance that something like this can happen,’" said Stingley Sr., who was drafted by the Phillies in 1993. “Then, my dad wound up singing me the same tune: ‘Look, go out and play football. Don’t be afraid of it. What happened to me was just an anomaly.’"For us, it became part of everyday life. It got to the point where if I would wake up in the morning, go to the kitchen and grab a glass of water, I would stop myself in my tracks and go back and see my dad. It was something that was just natural for us to think that way and be that way. We never looked at it as a nuisance or anything like that.”
A former five-star prospect ranked the top recruit in the nation, Stingley Jr. dominated at The Dunham School with his rare blend of athleticism and technically sound play. He didn't miss a beat at LSU as a freshman All-American.
“I would say I'm just calm," Stingley Jr. said. "I don't let my emotions get too high, too low. I know in certain areas whenever I mess up, I know how to diagnose it and talk it through with my coaches and fix it real fast."
At 6-foot, 190 pounds with 4.37 speed in the 40-yard dash, Stingley Jr. proved he was over a surgically repaired Lisfranc injury at his campus pro day audition in Baton Rouge. With that pivotal box checked, the Texans identified him as the top cornerback on their draft board and selected him one pick before the New York Jets drafted Cincinnati All-American corner Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner fourth overall.
With that selection, Houston affirmed their faith in Stingley, a Ballengee Sports client who will soon have a fully guaranteed, four-year, $34.6 million contract that will include a $22.3 million signing bonus and a fifth-year club option.
“It means a lot because they saw my true talent beyond everything else," Stingley Jr. said. "Whenever you are surrounded by people that know your true worth, it just makes you feel better as a person.”
The Texans envision a simple and challenging assignment for Stingley Jr. When the Texans drafted him, coach Lovie Smith said he plans to have him shadow opponents' most dangerous wide receiver every play.
"He has been a productive player, he was a productive player early on in his career," Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. "He had some bumps in the road there in '20 and '21, but in the end, we felt comfortable with Derek. We think he is a good player. Kind of fits the profile of what we're trying to do. I would say defensively and kind of how we're building the program, so that was the rationale behind the pick there.
"Derek has played at a high level ever since he walked in the building at LSU. Runs well, he plays with good technique. Plays the ball well, he plays under control, lays with good anticipation. I would say his football acumen is good. Really cares about football, he is a technician. He is really devoted to understanding the techniques of playing the position. So, when you look at everything in totality, we just felt like that made the most sense for our team, and I would say just organizationally there was a consensus."
Stingley Sr. was seven years old when his father was injured. Four months later, his father returned home with his mother, Martine. And the family started a routine of caring for the former NFL player. Darryl Stingley went on to be a Patriots personnel consultant, graduated from Purdue, visited paralyzed patients in hospitals, and wrote a book called "Happy to be Alive."
On July 14, 1998, while playing safety and returning kicks for the Albany Firebirds, Stingley Sr. was knocked out and suffered a concussion. He was taken to the hospital. Six years later, Stingley Sr. began coaching.
Stingley Jr. visited his grandfather before his passing, receiving Darth Vader gifts from him at Christmas. Every time, Stingley Jr. walks onto the field a prayer is said. The fundamentals, playing the game with proper technique, were instilled in Stingley Jr. long ago.
“It was part of everyday life for him because his grandfather was already in a wheelchair,” Stingley Sr. said. "You can get some guys that can be aggressive, and they want to feel that way. But, at the end of the day, just play with some type of technique to where everybody can actually walk off the field.
“There was no real impact on Derek’s decision on playing football because of what happened to my dad. And there was no real impact on my decision, because my mom and my dad was, ‘Hey, go out and do it, play it, this is a good sport. We’re good at this. You’re an athlete. You can do this. This can be something that you can do for your livelihood.’”
Stingley said he plans to work extremely hard and prove he’s worthy of the Texans’ investment in him. “I will always give 100 percent,” he said.
"When Stingley is healthy, there's simply no better corner in the draft," an NFL director of scouting told Pro Football Network. "He's outstanding in every way we grade football players. Players like him don't grow on trees. They're rare for a reason."
What's also unique is this family's football story. And the low-key personality of Stingley Jr. has some parallels to his grandfather. It's reminiscent of Darryl Stingley and how he approached football and life.
“His personality is more like my dad’s,” Stingley Sr. said. “Derek is a little more reserved, like my dad was a little soft-spoken, thinks before he speaks. By me being a coach, I’m comfortable with speaking a little bit. In my opinion, I think Derek is better at his age of 20 than I was and, truly in my mind, than my dad was as well.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.