40 years ago Lions receiver Chuck Hughes died on Tiger Stadium gridiron

Detroit Lions cheerleaders look on in stunned silence as Detroit's Chuck Hughes is tended to on the field at Tiger Stadium in 1971.

It remains the greatest tragedy to have ever occurred during an NFL game.

Forty years ago today on October 24, 1971, at Tiger Stadium Detroit Lion wide receiver Chuck Hughes died on the field of a fatal heart attack with just over a minute to play in a game that would be won by the Bears 28-23.

The score was meaningless.

Life suddenly seemed more precious, especially to the stunned crowd of 54,418 fans, the players, and a press corps that would struggle to find the right words to describe what had happened.

The 28-year old Texan had just run a pass route on a play that turned into an incomplete pass intended for Lion tight end Charlie Sanders. As he jogged back to the huddle Hughes suddenly fell face first on the Bears’ 15 yard line.

Everyone knew something was wrong when the Bears’ vicious middle linebacker Dick Butkus started frantically waving his hands to the Detroit sideline signaling for help.

Trainer Kent Falb and team physicians Edward Guise and Richard Thompson ran onto the field and were soon joined by a Lion fan that jumped out of the stands, Dr. Eugene Boyle, an anesthesiologist from Grosse Pointe.

It was reported that Hughes had already turned as blue as his number 85 jersey.

A stadium had never been silenced so quickly.

Witnesses said you could hear a pin drop and at least one has said he is still haunted by the sound of the ambulance siren as it pulled away from the eerily quiet ballpark.

Numerous attempts to resuscitate the father of a 23-month old son were made for up to an hour on the field, in the ambulance and at Henry Ford Hospital. Hughes was officially pronounced dead at 5:41 PM but reports circulated that he had actually died when he hit the turf.

An autopsy revealed that Hughes had arteriosclerosis, an abnormal thickening of the artery walls. Just a few weeks earlier at an exhibition game he had complained of chest pains but was cleared to play. (His widow subsequently filed a $21.5 million malpractice lawsuit against Henry Ford Hospital for failing to diagnose the problem six weeks earlier. The case settled in 1974 for an undisclosed amount.)

Following the funeral attended by the entire team in San Antonio Texas, the Lions wore a black arm band on their left sleeve for the remainder of the season. At the next game, an ABC Monday Night contest at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, a moment of silence was held in his memory.

In his honor the Lions retired Hughes’ number 85 and annually they give an award to the most improved player in his name.

Someday, I am hopeful that the Lions will finally hang their championship banners at Ford Field along with jersey banners for their Hall of Fame players.

And next to those jerseys should be number 85.

32 replies on “40 years ago Lions receiver Chuck Hughes died on Tiger Stadium gridiron

  • Dodie (Hughes) Barbee

    Thank you for this artice about my brother Chuck. A young man from Iowa is writing a book about Chuck, he had hoped to have been finished by the 40th reuion of his death. He is getting there but he has alot of interviews that haven’t been transcribe as of yet.
    I really enjoyed you article – thanks again.
    Dodie Barbee

    • Aaron

      Hi Dodie. I watched that game as a kid in Chicago. Do you know if the book was ever finished? I’d love to read it. —Aaron

  • Jonni Hughes Wray

    thank you for remembering Chuck on this day, he was very special to our family and we were so proud of him as he lived his dream of playing football.
    Jonni Hughes Wray

    • Carl Peterson

      Joni, hello I was a 13 yr old kid at that game. It saddened everyone. Then I ended up in Florida where I got to know Ruth Hughes and her family (Ruth was married to Jim Hughes) and I kinda felt weird as Jim had just died from cancer. So I became friends with the Schumeister family, and over time we all went our way. Didn’t mean to bother you but when I saw you left a comment about the game, I just wanted to say something to you and you family.

      Carl Peterson Retired Detective from Detroit but living in Florida.

  • Bill Whedbee

    I am a amatuer football history buff and I am very interested in learning more about Chuck Hughes. I have studied a lot about him from what I can find online. If someone could contact me when the book about Chuck is released I would be forever grateful.

  • Mickey Dillon

    I can’t help but notice that the current TE Tony Scheffler has number 85. Seems to defeat the purpose of retiring Chuck’s number to me.

    I’d be I terraced in reading that book myself. I married into the family of his widow, Sharon.

  • .Bill

    I witnessed this event , the story isn’t exactly correct . Yes the game was about over , and yes they thru a couple of passes deep , but Chuck Hughes dyed on the second pass that was thrown after recieving a big hit from the safety on the first deep pass . It was a clean hit and no one thought much about what had occured , the surpises was that Chuck Hughes ran the same route and droped dead about the same spot as the last hit .

  • bruce Dineen

    I was in the army stationed in Italy in 1966. His brother,Pat Hughes was also stationed there. Pat at age circa 35 dropped dead of a heart attack. we heard it the next day ad we were all shocked

  • Adam Oliver

    Dear Dodie,
    My father speaks of your brother very highly every Sunday and always makes the family take a minute of silence before every Lion game in his name and Mike Utley too! Your brother should’ve never, ever been cleared to play! The Lions need to pick another medical facility too! Even though their name is on the hospital it doesn’t mean it’s a good one????? It took the death of NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Sr. before all drivers were required the “Hans Unit”! Let’s hope the NFL really starts getting serious about player safety before someone really dies of a play gone wrong! My family’s prayers and thoughts are with you and your whole family!

  • John Walker

    I went to high school in Abilene, Tx. with Chuck and remember him well. He was a great guy. As I recall, we were all in the same home room class. I did not know Pat Hughes. He must have been an older brother. Does anyone know what ever happened to Johnny?

    I was shocked when he died. I remember seeing it on TV.

  • Randy

    I have heard various versions of this over the years. And they all seem to omit the violent hit that “Bill” mentioned in his post. I do not know how Mr. Hughes got up from that hit. He was running at full speed on a long pass route and boom. How he attempted another long route on next play was amazing.. I have to believe that the hit had as much as the heart condition to do with the tragedy and it was not in NFL interests to acknowledge.

  • Charles Evaristo Brady

    My Uncle, Evaristo Martinez, was best friends with Chuck at Abilene High. It is always great to hear him brought up. All the best to the Hughes family – please keep in touch.

  • C miller


    It was actually Blaise Alexanders Death http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_Alexander and not Dale Ernhardt’s that caused the Hans device requirement. Blaise died in October of the same year and would have lived if it would have been required after Dale’s death. Blaises father agreed not to sue the bajeppers out of NASCAR only if they started to require it, and make it known that it was because of Blaise that they were doing so.

  • Paul Alan M

    To this day I remember hearing the strong classic voice of Van Patrick, the Detroit Lions play-by-play radio announcer, tremble when describing so vividly this awful incident. I miss hearing that voice…and many of us still have not forgot Chuck Hughes and that day.

  • Sue Armelagos

    I was only 13 when I was at that game with my dad. He had season tickets. I remember that game vividly. I didn’t know the severity of the situation but my dad must have because he ushered me out quickly. We heard the news on the radio on the way home. My dad died 2 years later, at age 42 but I remember those games with sweet memories. To help us find our seats, he chipped off the paint on the rail in front of us.

  • Bill Whedbee

    I am interested in the book that is being written about Chuck. If anyone knows if or when this book will be out, please email me with the information. Thanks a million!!!!

  • Rusty Hughes

    I just came across this article. Thank You Mr.Dow for remembering my uncle Chuck. Jeff Haag will be in Breckenridge, Tx November 18-22, 2013 to interview anyone who knew Chuck. Mr. Walker, Johhny lives in Corsicana,Tx and will be in Breckenridge to see Jeff. Charles Brady, I have heard many wonderful stories of your uncle Evaristo…my parents thought a lot of him. His sacrifice made him a real hero to us kids growing up. I know my mother would love to meet you, we live in Graham, Tx.

  • Jeff Haag

    I’m the individual Dodie Hughes mentioned in regards to the book on Chuck Hughes. In recent weeks, I’ve also been in contact with Mr. Dow, who has graciously offered his help with my project. The good news is my work on Chuck Hughes is well underway; the bad news is I expect it will likely be another two years before it is actually available. I would like to think that is a generous time-frame, but I need to be realistic about what still needs to be accomplished to make the book a reality. The truth is, Chuck Hughes lived a truly remarkable life, as Dodie can attest. There is so much more to Chuck’s story than simply being recognized as “the football player who died on the field.” Hopefully, my project will greatly contribute to expanding on his current status as simply a sad footnote in NFL history.

    • Chris Hughes

      Chuck Hughes was my uncle. I never met him since I was born in 1986. But I have always been interested but nobody really talks about it while I was around for stuff. So if you are done with the book I’d like every much to read it.

  • Mary Ann Whiteman

    I remember watching that game on TV as a high school kid and Bears fan. They worked over him for a long time on the field, and finally got him in an ambulance. For quite a while after that, I didn’t watch football. Chuck Hughes dying while playing the game made me question the violence involved.
    Many years later, I realized that most players play even with all the risks, because they love the game.

  • James De Pree

    I was a photographer for Chicago Today. Chuck Hughes dropped to the turf in front of me. I immediately saw that Hughes had started to turn blue and dick butkus was screaming for help. I immediately began photographing what was happening. Detroit sideline personnel started CPR and immediately gave mouth to mouth after pulling his younger out of his throat. I knew from the moment I saw him that he was dead. I seen a lot of things during my career, but nothing as Erie as this.

  • Vincent Cusumano

    I was 10 years old with my Dad at the game. I remember seeing the Lion on the Turf. It was so sad to see a man down and thinking how often we take life for granted.

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