Darryl Stingley died Thursday morning. That’s sad news, but it’s not a sad day.

The darkest days came and went in the Summer of ’78, when this kindergartener and too many other budding, star-crossed New England sports nuts learned that one of our favorite Patriots would never play or walk again, for reasons we couldn’t comprehend.

Stingley brightened every day that followed, of course. He schooled us more from a wheelchair than Tom Brady ever conveyed in the two-minute drill or Tedy Bruschi taught on third-and-goal.

No. 84 was our first and certainly not last lesson that paralysis isn’t a handicap, let alone a death sentence. He kept smiling when many of us would have turned to drugs or alcohol for artificial joy. He continued working his ass off when most of us would have been content to mark an ‘X’ on our disability checks.

While he only checked in at six feet and a chiseled 195 pounds when all his muscles still worked in intuitive union, Stingley never stopped showing us how to be the bigger man. He never publicly gloated when Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum, the man whose senseless, ill-timed hit severed his spinal cord, experienced a double dose of godsmack and lost his legs to amputation.

Tatum’s failure to call or visit Stingley became legendary. Years later, when Tatum expressed interest in a televised reunion with Stingley in a pathetic, patently obvious attempt to peddle a book, Stingley simply, smartly said no.

Stingley’s injury forced football to examine some of its hackneyed, macho trappings.

With few exceptions, defensive backs are no longer permitted to bump a receiver, let alone roam the middle of the field like the Tasmanian Devil and try to knock their prey into next Thursday without making a play on the ball.

By conveying the so-called “Stingley benefit,” the NFL is forced to look after its own when they have suffered permanent, disabling injury. As modern salaries spiral out of sight and sensibility, no professional league sufficiently takes care of its forgotten stars. But at least now there’s a conversation.

Owners and coaches have shuffled through the revolving door. Millions of fingerprints dot three Vince Lombardi trophies. The Patriots never let Stingley out of their embrace, however.

He was a director of player personnel. He made himself a friend and mentor to disabled fans in the community. Back home in Chicago, he threw his time and treasure into a foundation for inner-city children.

Shed no tears for Stingley. He demonstrated a life of faith and forgiveness. He’s running routes right now in a place where there’s no need for artificial turf or artificial limbs.

We’ve celebrated so many Patriot triumphs lately that it’s easy to lose track. Just don’t ever forget that Darryl Stingley was our original champion.


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