BATON ROUGE, La. — Darryl Stingley, the Patriots receiver who was paralyzed by a vicious hit in 1978, knew his grandson had a special talent.
Derek Stingley Jr., 17, is now the top high school prospect in the country, according to Rivals.com. Known as “Little Sting,” the Baton Rouge cornerback has committed to play next season for LSU, which initially offered him a scholarship when he was in ninth grade in 2015.
But he was just 3 or 4 years old when his father, Derek Sr., who played and coached Arena Football, made a videotape of him running complicated pass routes and sent it to his famous father.
Darryl Stingley, whose NFL career ended at age 26, was ecstatic.
According to Derek Sr., Darryl said, “Unbelievable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid this age that can do the things that he’s doing and making it look so easy. It looks like he’s done it before in a past life.
“He’s going to be special if he chooses to do this for a career.”
Unfortunately, Darryl Stingley never got to see his grandson make his prediction years ago look accurate. He died from complications of his quadriplegia at just 55 in 2007.
Derek Jr. is now a chiseled 6-foot-1-inch, 185-pound star cornerback with a 42-inch vertical leap. During his senior year at the Dunham School, where Derek Sr. is the defensive backs coach, opposing teams avoided throwing anywhere near him.
Fans in the student section of LSU’s Tiger Stadium are already giddy about him, chanting “Der-ek Sting-ley” before a recent game.
He won’t play scared
The Stingleys have been blessed by genetics and tested by fate.
Darryl Stingley was the Patriots’ leading receiver when he took a crushing hit from Raiders safety Jack Tatum in a preseason game in Oakland Aug. 12, 1978.
He would never walk again.
Little Sting has seen the video of the play.
“I don’t think it is a cheap shot,” he says. “But I mean, stuff like that can happen.”
The soft-spoken teenager says he doesn’t worry about injuries.
“I don’t think about getting hurt when I’m playing football, because if you play scared, then something’s going to happen,” he says. “If you’re running around tensing up, that’s not a good way to play because you won’t play to your full abilities.”
He’s well aware of the dangers of football. He got an A in biology for a paper he wrote about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Aaron Hernandez’s condition in particular caught his attention.
“Right now I’m not worried about it,” he says, “but I guess later on when I’m a lot older and I start noticing signs or somebody else starts noticing, then I’ll start to freak out.
“Playing football is just fun. I look forward to practice. I look forward to games. I look forward to getting better. It builds your character on and off the field.”
Character and class are Stingley traits.
“We’re a football family,” declared Derek Sr., 47. “I’m never going to deter my son from it. I’m not going to tell him he can’t do it. It’s America’s game, and in my opinion a man-among-men sport.
“It’s not always worst-case scenario out there. You get guys who’ve played for 10, 12, some 15 years, and walked away without being severely injured.”
Derek Sr., who also played baseball in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, says his father never told him not to play football.
He remembers attending games with his mother and sitting on ice-cold metal seats at the old Schaefer Stadium. He used to think his father was Superman.
He was just 7 years old and asleep at home when his father got hurt. He didn’t even know the meaning of the word “paralyzed.”
Months after the accident, Derek Sr. remembers climbing up on his father’s hospital bed and perching himself on his father’s stomach. People were crying.
“And I tapped on him and said, ‘Dad, get up. Get up! They say that you can’t move. Get up! Dad get up!!’
“He wasn’t saying nothing, and my uncle’s pulling me off the bed and I was just stunned, like, ‘Wow, this is what paralyzed means.’ ”
They talked about it years later.
“[He said], ‘That was probably the lowest point in my life,’ ” Derek Sr. said. “ ‘When my baby boy asked me to get up and I couldn’t move at all. I tried everything in my power to move at least a muscle.’
“He said, ‘I cried that whole night and it was the worst feeling for me forever.’ ”
Derek Sr. later won an Arena League championship in 1999 playing for the Albany Firebirds. Instead of celebrating with his teammates, he raced into the handicapped seating area of Pepsi Arena in Albany to hug his proud father.
Later that year, he was briefly on the New York Jets practice squad. A whistle-twirling defensive coordinator named Bill Belichick worked him out and gave him a second chance when he rushed through a drill.
“He said, ‘Hey man, listen. I don’t care how fast you do anything. I just want to see if you can move your hips and get your knees up.’ ”
But there were also scary times. In 1998, Derek Sr. was knocked unconscious after fielding an Arena League kickoff and had to call his panicked father, who had been in attendance, from the hospital and assure him that tragedy had not occurred twice.
Trying to make grandpa proud
Little Sting wants to play defensive back for LSU and in the NFL, but for now he’s also a kick returner and receiver.
“There’s not really a weak part of his game,” says Neil Weiner, the Dunham School head coach.
This year on offense, he had 24 receptions for 678 yards and 8 touchdowns, averaging 28.3 yards per catch.
“He could be a top-rated receiver in the country if he just wanted to focus on being an offensive player,’’ says Weiner, adding that Stingley, who maintains a 3.85 GPA while taking honors courses, is a very smart player. “He studies film and he picks up on things just like a coach. I think that that separates him from a lot of top-rated athletes.”
During a recent Friday night home game in steamy bayou country, Stingley scored three touchdowns against Port Allen. Two were on receptions of 64 and 57 yards, the third on a punt return.
In the first quarter, Port Allen intentionally kicked the ball away from him. Stingley ran laterally across the width of the field. He grabbed the football from a teammate and raced 79 yards for a TD.
When Stingley took off his sweaty uniform top after the 40-0 victory, no one was surprised that he was wearing a Superman T-shirt.
He also feels like his grandfather is watching over him and his dad.
“I know he’s walking up there, jumping around, probably catching a football or doing something,” says Stingley. “Just looking down on me saying that he’s proud of me and my dad.
“I think he’d say ‘good game’ and then critique me just the way my dad does.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.