Assassin began with an obituary. In the summer of 2010, I came across the death notice of former NFL safety Jack Tatum. The name alone evoked my youth and early football fanaticism. As a kid I’d been a Steelers fan and had a great fondness for my home team, the Eagles, too. Still, I knew Tatum, who’d played for the notorious Oakland Raiders, by reputation: In the 1970s, he was known as the league’s hardest hitter—a steam engine of a man—and a dirty player known to take cheap shots when given the chance.
The obituary headline, though, reminded me of something else. It read, “Jack Tatum, Whose Tackle Paralyzed Player, Dies at 61.” During a 1978 pre-season game, Tatum put a hit on New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley. The play looked routine, but Stingley never got up; he was permanently paralyzed from the neck down. For the next thirty years, the two men never spoke. Stingley died in 2007.The incident and its aftermath trailed Tatum like a hellhound for the rest of his life, and in death that’s how his time on earth was summed up in print: as a man who had destroyed the life of someone else. That was his tragic legacy.
Some writers, when inspired, jot a few lines of verse; others create a narrative that may become a short story or novel. I have people talk to one another. I don’t hear voices, mind you. I simply place people in a room together and see what happens. Thus, in the days after reading Tatum’s obituary I imagined a meeting in a hotel decades after a catastrophic collision like the one between Tatum and Stingley. I changed the names and many of the details, but I wondered what might happen if a Tatum-like character tried to make one last ditch effort to reconcile with the man he injured. At the beginning I had no clue. Would the disabled man even show up? If so, what would the two say to one another? Could they ever find a way to put the past behind them? At first, it sounded like a bizarre mash-up of Waiting for Godot and the Knute Rockne Story, but on I typed.
Before I knew it, another man—able-bodied and strong—walked into my play. He was a lawyer representing the paralyzed man, and as the former NFL hitman and the mild-mannered attorney attempted to negotiate a televised reunion, I discovered more about each of them: their strengths and weaknesses, their senses of humor, and the true reason each man had agreed to this meeting in the first place. I never set out to write a “football” play. I’m not even sure what a football play is exactly. I only knew that once the story got rolling, I had to see what happened.
Long after I’d completed the first draft of Assassin, a line by poet Theodore Roethke came back to me: “A man goes far to find out what he is.” Life, with all its pain, joy, and in-between is a journey that, in the end, forces us to reckon with the choices we’ve made, our victories and our failures, our gains and our losses. Only then can we truly discover the kind of stuff we’re made of. During the course of the play, my two characters, Lewis and Frank, confront each other, lie to one another, and attempt to face their demons. In doing so, they reveal their true natures and come face-to-face with who and what they are. They also hope against hope that what happens between them will change their lives, even redeem them, before it’s too late.
-Playwright David Robson
This post originally appeared on InterAct Theatre Company’s blog.