Thursday, July 7

The Day Chuck Hughes Died: Remembering the Only NFL Player Who Died in a Game

The pass, at third and 1, sails incomplete while the clock advances in the last quarter.

He had lined up on the right side of the formation as the Lions, with a 28-23 lead, tried to rally against the rival Bears. He runs downfield in a post pattern, but Greg Landry’s pass, destined for tight end Charlie Sanders, sails incomplete.

The second-line wide receiver, who has always been told he was too young to play, turns around and begins jogging back to the group, as he had done so many times in high school and college in Texas and eventually, yes, in National Football. League.

It never succeeds.

“I was watching him,” Joe Falls wrote in The Sporting News. “Because I do not know”.

Still on the Bears’ side of the field, the player leans forward awkwardly, landing face down, arms at his sides.

Chuck Hughes, 28, is dead.

It is October 24, 1971. Fifty years ago this Sunday.

Throughout more than 100 years in the league, he remains the only NFL player to die in a game.

TSN FILES: Tragedy on the Grid

Moments earlier, Hughes, alone in the game due to an injury to starter Larry Walton, had caught a 32-yard pass from Landry for a first down. Bears defenders Bob Jeter and Gary Lyle loaded him into a tough tackle right after the reception, but he got up, adjusted his helmet and headed back to the Lions group. It was his only catch of the day.

“He only had three more works left to live on,” Falls wrote.

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The black and white image, frozen in time, can be colored in the mind’s eye. The Lions ‘blue Honolulu jersey and silver helmet and pants, the Bears’ white on white with the navy blue helmet worn by Dick Butkus, hands on hips. The turf at Tiger Stadium is probably not the bright green in October that it could have been in early summer for baseball, Al Kaline and Norm Cash, the great Gates Brown.

The image does not convey the way Butkus would eventually frantically wave to try to call for help. In the photo, the severity of the situation appears to be beating down on officers who are standing next to the only person in the frame who was actually motionless when the photo was taken.

TSN FILES: Death Visits Gridiron – ‘Triumph Is Spoiled’

“Somebody better get out,” Falls remembered someone in the press box muttering.

It is strange, but very human, how time easily measured in seconds and minutes becomes so relative, so stretched, under certain circumstances.

“It seemed awfully long for someone to get to it,” Jeter would later say.

Doctors and coaches from both sides converged on Hughes. An anesthesiologist in the stands reportedly came down onto the field to offer help.

A doctor with his back to the press box seemed to lean very close to Hughes, apparently to give him word of mouth.

Falls felt a chill.

Now another medic began to pound Hughes’s chest with his fist as a silent crowd watched. Even a typically boisterous press box fell silent. Soon the wailing of an ambulance was heard, coming from Henry Ford Hospital.

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The doctors’ efforts, described in The Sporting News, “were to no avail.”

TSN FILES: A Monument to Hughes

Doctors took up to 50 minutes after the game to declare him dead, but years later, Hughes’s wife, Sharon, said she knew when he was with him on the field. He knew what Falls, certainly shocked, and the other attendees surely knew almost an hour before.

Yahoo Sports’ fascinating account from 2013 of the day included these chilling words about Sharon Hughes, the newly minted widow:

(At) 5:41 pm, 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 across 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 that it would be a good night for their 40s to get together for a night 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.

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