On my second birthday — that would be Oct. 12, 1968 — Ohio State opened its Big Ten season in Columbus against Purdue, a team that had held the No. 1 ranking since the start of the season and that had destroyed the Buckeyes in a visit to Ohio Stadium the previous year. Ohio State was ranked 4th in the country, but were 13-point underdogs at home.
The Boilermakers were loaded — Mike Phipps was having an All-America year at quarterback, and Leroy Keyes, the team’s halfback, would finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting to some guy from Southern Cal named Simpson.
Ohio State had some talent too, although people were still figuring out just how good its sophomore class would be. Rex Kern, John Brockington, Jim Stillwagon, Mike Sensibaugh were all part of a recruiting class that was still just seeing its first few weeks of playing time — freshmen were ineligible to play back then — and it appeared they would turn out to be pretty good.
Another member of that class, a defensive back from Passaic, N.J., named Jack Tatum, would figure to be a pretty big part of the Purdue game. The legend says Woody Hayes gave Tatum, who was already proving to be a standout cover man and a fearsome hitter, one assignment — follow Leroy Keyes everywhere he goes.
Ohio State won that game 13-0, and Tatum largely shut down Keyes. That game was a springboard to an undefeated season and a national title after beating USC and the aforementioned Simpson in the Rose Bowl.
There are plenty of reasons to remember Jack Tatum — They Call Me Assassin, Sammy White, the Immaculate Reception, Darryl Stingley — and if you look around Deadspin or other sports blogs this week, you’ll see that there are plenty of people who think Tatum, who died earlier this week, is a dirtbag, especially for the paralyzing hit on Stingley.
Dispatch sports columnist Michael Arace makes an excellent point in his column about Tatum. He said everyone remembers a portion of the quote from the book — “I like to believe my best hits border on felonious assault…” — but they rarely remember the rest: “…but at the same time everything I do is by the rule book. My style of play is mean and nasty, and I am going to beat people physically and mentally, but in no way am I going down in the record books as a cheap-shot artist.” The rules were different then; Tatum’s hits were vicious, but legal.
He probably won’t go down in the record books as a philanthropist either, even though he raised a ton of money to help fight diabetes, a disease that forced the amputation of one of his legs and left him hobbling whenever he made appearances at recent games in Columbus. He’ll be remembered as the Assassin and not as the Reverend, a nickname given to him by teammates for his quiet, soft-spoken nature.
That’s OK. As was the case with Woody, the folks in Columbus know the story. And we know Jack Tatum was one of the best ever.