The day Chuck Hughes died: Remembering the only NFL player to die in a game
The pass, on third and 1, sails incomplete as the clock ticks down in the fourth quarter.
He had lined up on the right side of the formation as the Lions, trailing 28-23, try to mount a comeback against the rival Bears. He races downfield on a post pattern, but Greg Landry’s pass, intended for tight end Charlie Sanders, sails incomplete.
The second-string wide receiver, who’d always been told he was too small to play, turns and begins trotting back the huddle, as he had so many times in high school and college in Texas and eventually, yes, in the National Football League.
He never makes it.
“I was watching him,” Joe Falls would write in The Sporting News. “Why, I don’t know.”
Still, on the Bear’s side of the field, the player pitches forward awkwardly, falling face down, arms at his sides.
Chuck Hughes, 28, is dead.
It is October 24, 1971. Fifty years ago this Sunday.
Across more than 100 years of league play, he remains the only NFL player to die during a game.
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Moments earlier, Hughes — only in the game because of an injury to starter Larry Walton — had caught a 32-yard pass from Landry for a first down. He was sandwiched by Bears defenders Bob Jeter and Gary Lyle on a hard tackle right after the reception but got up, adjusted his helmet, and headed back to the Lions huddle. It was his only catch of the day.
“He had only three more plays to live,” Falls wrote.
The black-and-white image, frozen in time, can be colorized in the mind’s eye. The Lions’ Honolulu blue home jersey and silver helmet and pants, the Bears’ white-over-white with a navy helmet worn by Dick Butkus, hands on his hips. The grass at Tiger Stadium probably isn’t the brilliant green in October that it might’ve been earlier in the summer for baseball, Al Kaline and Norm Cash, big Gates Brown.
The image doesn’t convey the way Butkus eventually would wave frantically to try to summon help. In the photo, the gravity of the situation just now appears to be sinking in on the officials who stand over the only person in the frame who truly was motionless when the picture was snapped.
“Somebody better get out there,” Falls recalled someone murmuring in the press box.
It’s odd but very human how time easily measured in neat seconds and minutes becomes so relative, so stretched, under certain circumstances.
“It seemed so terribly long for anyone to get to him,” Jeter would say later.
Doctors and trainers from both sidelines converged on Hughes. An anesthesiologist in the stands reportedly came down to the field to offer help.
One doctor with his back to the press box appeared to be leaning very close to Hughes, apparently to give him mouth-to-mouth.
Falls felt a chill.
Now another doctor began pounding Hughes’ chest with his fist as a hushed crowd looked on. Even a typically bustling game-day press box fell quiet. Soon the wail of an ambulance, from Henry Ford Hospital, could be heard.
The doctors’ efforts, described in The Sporting News, “were futile.”
It took until 50 minutes after the game for doctors to declare him dead from a heart attack caused by blood clots, but years later Hughes’ wife, Sharon, said that she knew when she was with him on the field. She knew what Falls, admittedly shaken, and others in attendance most surely knew almost an hour earlier.
Yahoo Sports’ riveting 2013 account of the day included these chilling words about Sharon Hughes, the newly minted widow:
(A)t 5:41 p.m., three hours after the start of the game, they were telling her what she already understood. Her husband was gone. And then came the bitter reality of informing the world that the receiver who had just caught a 32-yard-pass in a game that was televised through much of the Midwest was dead.
Wrote Falls: “I saw a man die before my eyes.”
The following week, The Sporting News’ NFC Central correspondent, Jerry Green, reported that the Lions had scheduled a team party for the night after the Bears game.
“Chuck was looking forward to the party,” linebacker Mike Lucci said.
The players felt it would be a fine night for the 40 of them to get together for an evening of camaraderie and fun.
“Instead,” Green wrote, “the Lions attended a private rosary.”
Senior editorial consultant Bob Hille has worked for or with Sporting News for more than 25 years.