DETROIT, Michigan – The guys in the city hall have the upper hand over us. They are used to dealing with tragedy, pain, and disaster. Even anguish.
How do you do it in the sports department?
You do it because you try to be a professional journalist. But it is not easy. It never is. That’s because we deal with the fun and games aspect of the business.
Even as I write this, I am still a bit shocked by what I saw at Tiger Stadium. I saw a man die before my eyes. That had never happened to me before and it left a sick feeling in my stomach.
I’m talking about Chuck Hughes, the Lions wide receiver, who collapsed on the field near the end of the game with the Chicago Bears and was pronounced dead about an hour later at Ford Hospital of a coronary thrombosis.
He was on the riverbank the day Chuck Thompson’s seaplane exploded in front of the main grandstand, killing him almost instantly. But I really didn’t see it happen. All I saw was the jet of water from the back of his boat and then some pieces of wood flying in the air.
I have seen several car accidents on television in which men have died, but it is not the same. I have written obituaries for many sports figures, some of whom I knew intimately, and this is not easy either. But I wasn’t there when they died.
Shaken by Bo’s heart attack
The hardest moment, so far, was on the day of the Rose Bowl game two years ago when we were told that Bo Schembechler, the Michigan coach, was not with the team but was confined to a hospital with “an upset stomach.” .
That gave me a chill because if you know Bo Schembechler, you know that it would have been a great tragedy for him not to be on the sidelines with his team. As the day wore on, it was discovered that he had suffered a heart attack. That was probably the hardest story I’ve ever had to write.
But now, in a dark moment, I saw Chuck Hughes fall before my eyes and it was a terrible experience … because you knew the moment they started working on him that something was wrong, something terribly wrong.
What happened was this:
The Lions tried to get the game out in the final two minutes. They were losing, 28-23, but started moving across the field the way so many professional clubs have been seen to do at the end of a game.
Hughes grabbed the pass
Hughes, a second striker for the Lions, was in the lineup due to an injury to regular wide receiver Larry Walton. But no one noticed until quarterback Greg Landry threw a pass down the middle and there was Hughes catching it for a 32-yard gain. Hughes took a tremendous blow from Chicago defender Bob Jeter and Garry Lyle just after catching the ball.
He got caught in one of those sandwich entrances, where two players hit him at the same time, but no one thought about that because Hughes just got up, adjusted his helmet, and went back to the group.
He only had three more works to live.
In the third and one, the Lions desperately trying to score, Hughes lined up on the right side and took off down the field. He approached the goalpost when the pass went to Charlie Sanders. It was incomplete.
Hughes turned down the field and began jogging back to the group. I was looking at it. Because I do not know.
A common sight
Suddenly, while still on the Chicago side, he fell forward on his face and lay down on the grass.
I didn’t think about it too much because I’d seen players just collapse from exhaustion.
Hughes lay there and no one seemed to notice. Several moments passed. Players and coaches on the Lions bench couldn’t see it because players on the field blocked their view.
Someone in the press box muttered, “Someone better get out.”
Finally, Dick Butkus the Bear came over and looked at him.
Butkus started waving frantically toward the Lions bench and now they were running toward Hughes: two team doctors and two coaches.
Conjecture among writers
They bent over it and began to work on it. The large crowd did not seem overly concerned. It was a familiar scene at a soccer game: doctors treating a fallen player.
Someone else in the press box said, “Maybe he swallowed his tongue.”
That makes sense. That has happened before. Or maybe you just ran out of breath.
But I started to feel a little uncomfortable. …
Hughes had fallen with no one around him.
The doctor with his back to the press box seemed to lean very close to him. He seemed to be giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I felt a chill go through me. Now the other medic started pounding Hughes’s chest, hitting him with his fist.
He got very quiet in the press box. The game, now, meant nothing. You immediately feared the worst. He had never seen anyone hit a player’s chest on the field. On the way down in the elevator, everyone seemed to look at everyone else with those strange looks, those blank expressions, when he just learned of a tragedy.
Writers kept out
We never went into the locker room. They kept the press out as Lions players, coaches and officials waited inside for news from the hospital.
The bad news came in about an hour. The players solemnly walked out, many of them still glassy-eyed with tears. They had seen a teammate die before their eyes and there are no words that can express how they must have felt.
Chuck Hughes was 28 years old. I didn’t know him well, except that whenever I saw him or talked to him, he always seemed to have a smile on his face, and he was certainly one of the friendliest guys on the team.
I can’t believe it happened.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.