07/29/2010 06:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jack Tatum, "The Assassin," Is Dead. What Is the Future of Football?

The Assassin is dead. Long live the Assassin? Former Oakland Raiders defensive star Jack Tatum, whom ESPN once ranked as the sixth most feared tackler in pro football history (though anyone on the receiving end of a Jack Tatum stick will tell you that #6 is far too low, a slap in the face to a man whose tackles were said to sound like car crashes), died of a heart attack in Oakland on Tuesday.

In the 1970s, Tatum was part of the Raiders' infamous "Soul Patrol" secondary, along with cornerbacks Willie Brown and Skip "Dr. Death" Thomas, and safety George "Dr. Death" Atkinson. The feared '76 Raiders boasted two players nicknamed Dr. Death, and the Soul Patrol was but one-third of coach John Madden's vaunted "Eleven Angry Men" defense. No one did nicknames as well as the Raiders. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll even got in on the fun, labeling Atkinson as a "criminal element" who "should be kicked out of the league." (Atkinson would sue for defamation of character.)

Tatum's death comes just as the NFL is beginning to begrudgingly address its issues with player safety, and the legacy of the Soul Patrol provides an interesting platform from which to look at the future of football. These guys were arguably the most violent cogs of an already violent machine--and Raiders fans loved them for it. The very existence of ESPN's "most feared tackler" list attests to the premium football places on intimidation and viciousness.

Three months ago, Congress criticized the league for its stance on concussions, asking whether players' health was being swept aside in an "infected system that needs to be cleaned up." The Soul Patrol certainly enjoyed its reputation as the most intimidating force in football during the 1970s, and it should be noted that as brutal as some of the Assassin's and the two Dr. Deaths' hits could sometimes be, most of them were above-board and completely legal.

Which is precisely what's worrisome about the future of football. The self-described collision sport still celebrates brutality and toughness, and though the league has changed its rules regarding players who sustain concussions, one of modern football's most salient features--as it was in Tatum's day--is the bone-crushing tackle. The belief that American football could ever be completely safe is as much of a pipe-dream as a hope that swimming could ever leave its participants completely dry. Football players are supposed to be warriors, men who'll play while hurt until a doctor drags them off the field. The sport roughly mirrors combat, and football players are periodically wont to describe themselves as soldiers.

George Carlin pulled off the football-as-warfare analogy better than anyone, to great comic effect:

In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

Now, anyone who spends three hours of a Sunday afternoon with an NFL game will no doubt be treated to as much military vocabulary--"enemy territory"; "shotgun"; "blitz"--as he'll find on the History Channel. And Yale's Walter Camp, the father of the modern game, tried to incorporate military and industrial fundamentals into his nascent sport, noting in 1896 that, "A close study of [war and football] ... will reveal a very remarkable and interesting likeness between the theories which underlie great battles and the miniature contests on the gridiron." Indeed, the 1931 on-field death of an Eli player led many to believe that the combat connection had gone too far. It was, after all, supposed to be only a game. This, though, is the problem.

Because the grisly tangle of football is supposedly staged, the violence supposedly ersatz, one absorbs a game with the same dissociation from the carnage that one has when he reads Homeric epics; that is, the visceral blood and gore of, say, Pyrrhus's murder of Priam in The lIiad is so distant from the reader's experience that it might as well be a game performed on a field or stage in front of tens of thousands of people. Few readers squirm upon reading Homer's description of Pyrrhus's butchery of the old man; it is accepted that these are the larger-than-life actions of larger-than-life characters. Similarly, the hundred-times-a-game collision of helmet against helmet, shoulder pad against shoulder pad, in a football game is accepted as foreign actions performed by foreign characters.

As New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley could have attested, though, the hit he took from Tatum in a preseason game in 1978 that left him a quadriplegic (and eventually contributed to his death in 2007), was very, very real. For all of its metaphorical greatness and heroic literariness, football remains a game in which people inflict incredible amounts of violence upon one another, and no rule that mandates a waiting period after an injury can ever change that. Until the NFL becomes the National Flag Football League, Assassins and Dr. Deaths will continue to prowl the field. No metaphor, no matter how good, would have made a Jack Tatum tackle any less impressive.

Can football become safer and still maintain the glory of its controlled chaos? The Assassin is dead; will the sport soon follow?