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Son of Crippled Ex-Pro Dreams of NFL

July 12, 1996 GMT

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ Derek Stingley wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps, catching balls and running them into the end zone in the NFL.

Darryl Stingley took his last steps leaping for a catch in an NFL game, but he shares his son’s dream.

``My dad told me, `Go ahead, play football. What happened to me was a freak accident. Don’t think about what happened to me. That’s part of football,‴ Derek said of his father, a former New England Patriots receiver who was paralyzed after taking a hit from Jack Tatum in 1978.

``I can see it in his eye, hear it in his voice, that he’s happy I’m playing football.″

Derek, a thoughtful 25-year-old playing Arena Football with the Albany Firebirds, knows he’s playing under the shadow of his father’s accident. He has his father’s build, speed and name.

His father has no worries his son could suffer a similar fate.

``He’s where he belongs,″ Darryl said.

Darryl Stingley played football until Aug. 12, 1978, when during an exhibition game the 26-year-old receiver went up for a pass up the middle. Tatum, a hard-hitting safety for the Oakland Raiders, hit him from behind. Stingley was permanently injured.

Replays of the incident over the years have made football fans wince. But Derek, who was 7 at the time, didn’t see it until years later.

He has clear memories of when his mom told him his father was injured. He thought: Broken arm? Broken foot?

No, his mother said, your father is paralyzed.

``Me being young, I didn’t know what paralyzed meant. And I said `No!′ The last time I saw my father, he was a big man walking around ... muscles everywhere,″ Derek said. ``I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to. I didn’t really believe it until I saw my dad and actually got up on his chest in the hospital _ crawled up on his chest _ and asked him to get up. At that time, I guess I knew.″

Derek says he had two fathers. The first one was the one he watched catch balls from the stands at Foxboro Stadium. That father played baseball with his three boys and threw footballs so hard Derek would struggle to catch them.

``Now, I have the one that I have to help him whenever he needs a glass of water, help feed him, or help clothe him,″ he said. ``But I know it’s the same man.″

Now living in Chicago, Darryl, 44, runs a youth foundation. He helps troubled kids, goes to every Bulls home game, and keeps up on football.

``Inside my head, and definitely inside my heart, I still play the game,″ he said.

Darryl also keeps close tabs on his son’s athletic career _ though often by phone and videotape because of his wheelchair.

Derek first tried to make his name in baseball. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1993 and played in their farm system for three years.

Able to run 60 yards in 6.1 seconds, Derek became an ace at stealing bases in Class A ball. Derek laughs when he remembers his coach’s call when the team needed a runner: ``Stingley, get your legs in there!″

But he was frustrated as he more and more became a role player _ and he never really forgot football.

``Even when I played baseball, I thought of football every other day,″ he said. ``I would see football games on TV and say, `I know I can do that. Just give me the time to work out.‴

At age 24, Derek switched sports. He signed up for the minor-league Louisiana Bayou Thunder and was put to work last season covering receivers and returning kicks. His rookie season tally: 12 regular-season punts and kicks returned for touchdowns, seven interceptions, league defensive player of the year.

``Very poised, very mature, very focused,″ said Bayou coach Stan Cherniack, who thinks Derek has NFL talent but needs more playing time.

This year in Albany he hasn’t had the same success. On injured reserve, Derek is looked upon as a developmental player. He’s trying to sharpen his skills, listening to one former player in particular.

``I tell him everything I thought gave me an edge over other players,″ Darryl said. ``One time I said, `Oh man! I can’t believe I’m giving a defensive back tips!‴

With Derek already 25, he has limited time to chase his NFL dreams.

Darryl concedes his son got a late start, but believes Derek’s speed and athleticism could carry him to his old league _ maybe even into a Patriots uniform.

Darryl chuckles at that thought: ``Probably make me wanna walk.″

End advance for July 13-14