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Chuck Hughes' On-Field Death Remains One of NFL's Darkest Moments

Oct 22, 2010 – 2:44 PM
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David Whitley

David Whitley %BloggerTitle%

The big buzz this week has been football brutality, and how something must be done before somebody gets killed.

The irony is the only time an NFL player actually died on the field, nobody touched him.

It happened 39 years ago Sunday. A routine NFC Central showdown turned into the darkest day in NFL history. With just more than a minute left in the game, Detroit wide receiver Chuck Hughes dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 28.

The Lions have a bye this week, so there will be no commemoration. Even if Chicago and Detroit played, it's unlikely anyone would want to remember that afternoon. Those who were there will never forget.

"I've never seen anything like it," Bears owner George Halas said.

And he had seen it all. Halas was there when the NFL was formed in 1920. Through thousands of games, tens of thousands of players and millions of plays, Hughes remains the only player to die in front of a paying audience in the NFL.

It's not the kind of thing you celebrate, so in that sense the NFL is fortunate it happened when it did. Imagine if a player – any player – died today. It would immediately be Tweeted and replayed around the world.

There was no NFL Ticket or SportsCenter in 1971. The first time most Americans saw the incident was the next night during the halftime highlights on Monday Night Football.

As Howard Cosell did the voiceover, there was a brief glimpse of a player in a blue jersey lying on the turf. A doctor was pounding on his chest.

Hughes was taken away on a stretcher, never to be seen again. Even the film has seemingly vanished into the recesses of history.

You can go to YouTube and find everything from Red Grange in the 1920s to Jack Tatum's paralyzing hit on Darryl Stingley. Hughes' collapse is nowhere to be found.

NFL Films has a tape, but the footage is only of Hughes lying on the ground. It is never shown at the family's behest. If a player collapsed in today's multi-media world, such matters of taste would not matter.

"Today it would be everywhere," Herman Weaver said.

The big buzz this week has been football brutality, and how something must be done before somebody gets killed.The irony is the only time an NFL player actually died on the field, nobody touched him. He was Detroit's punter in 1971 and lived in the same apartment complex as Hughes. Their wives were sitting next to each other when the play happened. They rushed from the stands to the sideline, where Sharon Hughes went to her husband's side.

That kind of scene doesn't fade with time.

"I try to put a smile on my face every day," Weaver said, "because we're not guaranteed tomorrow."

Another irony is that if anyone seemed capable of going forever, it was Hughes. He was an early-day Energizer Bunny, not one of those beer-bellied linemen that used to dot NFL rosters.

"He was just a beanpole," defensive end Larry Hand said. "He could just run all day."

Hughes was a stud in at Texas Western (now UTEP), setting an NCAA record with 17 catches for 349 yards in a game against Arizona State. Philadelphia took Hughes in the fourth round of the 1967 draft, but he caught only six passes in three years.

The Eagles traded him to Detroit in 1970, and he caught eight passes that first season. He hadn't been there long enough to establish a lot of relationships. But what his teammates knew of him, they liked.

"He was always around, patting people on the back and cheering them up," quarterback Greg Landry said at the time.

Hughes complained about chest pains after a preseason game in early September. Cardio tests didn't show any problems, but the scare might have been why Hughes started attending Detroit's chapel services.

Weaver, who has gone on to make a career out of lay preaching, said Hughes made a conversion to Christianity a couple of weeks after his heart scare.

"He'd come to know the Lord," Weaver said.

So Hughes showed up early at Tiger Stadium for chapel that day. The typical attendance was about 20, or less than half the roster. It might have been slightly higher that day since they were facing Dick Butkus.

Chicago was 3-2 and looking to snap Detroit's four-game winning streak. Nobody under 30 will believe it, but the Lions were once pretty good. They'd gone 10-4 the year before, but Dallas beat them 5-0 in the playoffs.

A win over the Bears would again establish Detroit as the class of the conference. That's why 54,419 fans were in a panicked frenzy as the game wound down.

Chicago led 28-23, but the Lions had the ball. Starting receiver Larry Walton had been injured in the fourth quarter, so Hughes was in the game. Landry hit him for a 32-yard gain to keep the final drive going.

Chicago's Bob Jeter and Gary Lyle turned him into a human sandwich at the end of the play, but Hughes popped right up. Landry then threw three straight incompletions. The last one went across the middle for tight end Charlie Sanders.

Hughes had run a deep pattern and was jogging back to the huddle. In an instant, he was facedown on the turf.

There was only 1:02 left, so some players thought Hughes might have been faking an injury to stop the clock. Sanders even yelled for him to get up.

The closest player to him was Butkus. Chicago's middle linebacker looked down at Hughes and started waving toward the Detroit sideline. Butkus loved to stalk and taunt and intimidate opponents.

"But all of the sudden," Weaver said, "he was dead serious."

Team physicians Edward Guise and Richard Thompson ran onto the field. Hughes was already turning as blue as his jersey, so Guise started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while Thompson administered heart massage.

After a few minutes, Hughes was put on a stretcher and carted off the field. The game continued, though you could almost hear the clock tick down that last minute. Nobody seemed to care that the Lions didn't score.

The players went to the locker room, which was closed to reporters. Sanders and kicker Errol Mann were crying. They all awaited word from Henry Ford Hospital, where Hughes had been transported.

"Everyone was praying for a miracle," owner William Clay Ford said.

It didn't happen. After almost an hour, doctors gave up trying to revive Hughes.

"His body could take it no longer," Guise said.The time of death was 5:41 p.m. ET.

Most of the crowd heard about it on the radio heading home. The players were still in the locker rooms.

"The winning is spoiled," Butkus said. "I'm not as happy as I'd like to be."

An urban legend quickly sprung around Butkus. People had seen him yelling over Hughes' crumpled body, and many assumed Butkus had at long last actually killed somebody with one of his hits.

Butkus has long refused to talk about that game, and declined comment for this story. But he had nothing to do with Hughes going down. At that point, there was nothing anybody could do.

"He was, in effect, dead when he hit the turf," the UPI reported.

But why? How did the beanpole who could run all day literally stop dead in his tracks?

An autopsy showed Hughes had arteriosclerosis, an abnormal thickening of the artery walls. About 70 percent of his circulation was impeded. Blood clots then blocked the remaining flow of blood through his left coronary artery.

At the press conference announcing the findings, Guise was asked if Hughes was playing with one foot in the grave.

"Essentially, that's true," he said.

So why didn't the earlier test flash a big red warning sign?

Guise said it was "unfortunately very routine to miss symptoms of arteriosclerotic disease and artery hardening."

Hughes also had a family history heart disease. His widow filed a $21.5 million lawsuit against Henry Ford Hospital for failing to diagnose the problem after Hughes complained of chest pains six weeks earlier. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount in 1974.

It's not completely unheard of for otherwise athletes to die from heart attacks. Loyola-Marymount basketball player Hank Gathers collapsed during a game in 1990, while Boston's Reggie Lewis died in an offseason practice in 1993.

Cardinals' tight end J.V. Cain died of congestive heart failure during training camp in 1979. The NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement now requires annual EKG testing. Stress testing and echocardiograms are done based on those results.

Most of those procedures weren't around or were far less effective 39 years ago. So on any Sunday at any stadium, there could be another Hughes. But the chances of an NFL team having to attend a teammate's funeral three days after a game are far more remote.

"Don't let Chuck's death wreck the season," Sharon Hughes said that day.

About 200 mourners and all 49 of Hughes teammates had gathered in San Antonio. Along with his wife, Hughes left a 23-month-old son, Brendan.

Something was not the same after that with the Lions. They won only three of their last eight games and missed the playoffs. The team eventually started the Chuck Hughes Award, given annually to the team's most improved player.

Detroit also retired No. 85.

You can be sure no other player with 13 career receptions has his jersey number retired. But then, no other player had the impact of Chuck Hughes.

"It was always on people's minds," Weaver said. "They thought, 'Hey, if it could happen to him, it could happen to me.'"

The next game on the schedule was Green Bay. As usual, there was a pregame chapel service offered for Detroit players.

It was packed.

Contributing: Milton Kent.
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