An eyewitness account of the only death to occur on an NFL gridiron

Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes lies on the turf at Tiger Stadium on October 24, 1971, having just suffered a heart attack. Dick Butkus stands above him.

I’ve never been one for bobblehead toys. I have just one, a Detroit Lions nodder that dates back to the Nixon administration. It’s stashed away in some box in the attic, a cheesy, crumbling souvenir that I normally would’ve pitched a long time ago but which I feel an obligation to hold onto.

At some point during the afternoon of October 24, 1971, I bought it for my high-school girlfriend (today my wife) at the first sporting event we ever attended together: a game between the Lions and Chicago Bears at Tiger Stadium. However, it’s a bittersweet token of remembrance. That day Lions end Chuck Hughes died on the field – the greatest single tragedy ever to occur at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. In the nearly century-long history of the National Football League, the 28-year-old Hughes remains the only player ever to die during the course of a regular-season NFL game.

It’s hard to believe that it’s now been 40 years. It was a raw and dreary Sunday. A steady, melancholic rain fell all afternoon. Mary and I were seated among a large group of raucous Chicago fans. The tickets were a last-minute gift from my older brother Bob, a Detroit News printer who had either gotten them from a friend at work or, more likely, won them in an all-night poker game downtown. (He once came home with an old DeSoto that he’d won off some poor schmo with no other way to pay up.) Between the fights in the stands and the see-saw battle on the muddy turf, it was an entertaining experience. Bobby Douglass, more of a fullback than a quarterback, had one of the finest days of his career, throwing for two touchdowns and then sneaking over for a third to give Chicago a late 28-23 lead.

With under two minutes to go, the Lions launched a final drive. Larry Walton, who had earlier snagged a scoring pass from Greg Landry, was injured. Number 85, Chuck Hughes, had replaced him.

The slender Hughes, one of 16 children, had been a standout at Texas Western, where he set receiving records that still stand. In one game alone he caught 17 passes for 349 yards. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1967, spending three seasons as a back-up end and special teams player before being traded to the Lions in 1970. He was a peppery team player, always “patting people on the back and cheering them up,” Landry said at the time.

Now Landry was looking for Hughes downfield, and the sure-handed flanker made a tumbling grab to give the Lions a clutch first down on the Bears’ 37-yard line. The 32-yard reception was Hughes’ first of the year and only the fifteenth of his unremarkable five-year pro career.

Landry went back to pass twice more, throwing incomplete each time. On third down, Hughes flanked out to the right. The Bears cornerback covering him later remarked that Hughes’ eyes “looked kind of strange” as they faced each other across the line of scrimmage.

Hughes ran a down-and-in, but Landry passed instead to tight end Charlie Sanders, who dropped the ball near the Chicago goal line. A collective groan went up in the stands. Most eyes were on Sanders when Hughes, returning to the huddle, suddenly clutched his chest and collapsed around the Bears’ 20-yard line.

Lying face down in the vicinity of deep left field, Hughes twitched uncontrollably on the soggy turf. Dick Butkus stood over him. Some thought Hughes was faking an injury, or that Chicago’s bestial middle linebacker had finally killed someone on the field. But Butkus immediately saw something was wrong and frantically signaled to the sidelines. Trainers and doctors raced out. A physician charged down from the stands. As more than 54,000 people silently watched, doctors beat their fists on Chuck Hughes’ chest. The marbled sky hung low over the left-field stands. A cold drizzle fell. The stadium clock showed 62 seconds left in the game.

After what seemed forever, Hughes was placed on a stretcher and rushed by ambulance to Henry Ford Hospital. The game resumed, distracted players moving listlessly inside the hushed ballpark. A siren could be heard in the distance. Moments later the game was over and once-rambunctious fans filed out, talking in low tones. Mary and I sat inside an idling bus on Michigan Avenue, the goofily smiling Lions bobblehead in hand, listening to updates drift over the driver’s radio. Hughes was officially pronounced dead at 5:34 p.m. An autopsy revealed that he had died of acute coronary thrombosis, brought on by premature hardening of the arteries. Nature had given Hughes the heart of a 60-year-old man.

Head coach Joe Schmidt and the entire Lions team attended Hughes’ funeral in San Antonio. Hughes left behind his wife and a two-year-old son. It was reported that Hughes had complained of chest pain earlier in the season but that he had been pronounced healthy. His widow sued the Lions, Henry Ford Hospital, and several individual physicians for malpractice. The parties settled out of court. Meanwhile, the Lions took Hughes’ number out of circulation and established a team award to honor his memory.

His greater legacy was a newfound attitude among many of his teammates, including Lions punter Herman Weaver, who was recently asked about that dark day at Tiger Stadium. “I try to put a smile on my face every day,” he said, “because we’re not guaranteed tomorrow.”

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17 replies on “An eyewitness account of the only death to occur on an NFL gridiron

  • steve

    I was working as a cook at a relatives restaurant. We had a television on to watch them game as all in the kitchen were Bears fans. I don’t remember exactly what I was doing when I first heard that Hughes was on the ground.
    Of course you don’t want anything to go wrong with any of the players from any team. It was his death that has remained in my memory after all these years.

  • Jon Marquardt

    Was sixteen watching the game in Chicago, holding my breath for the Bears to win. Will never forget that scene, suddenly the game wasn’t so important. How he was lying there so still you could tell something was different. He went so young. Great quote from Herman Weaver, every day is a gift! I noticed that in the last decade or so Texas Western put Hughes in it’s HOF. Well deserved! RIP Chuck Hughes…

  • Steve Harms

    My dad had season tickets for many years to Lions games. They were in the right field third deck or press deck. Had to take an elevator to get there. I loved my Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pis-well, the first three for sure. That day, Mr. Bak pointed out, was the perfect scene for a Bears/Lions, Black and Blue Division game. Cold, gray, misty….just the way it can get of the shores of Lake Michigan at Soldier Field in Chicago…It was just going to be a good day….Herman Weaver gets a punt blocked for a safety early in the game. Greg Landry threw a pass over the middle for Charlie Sanders and it was a high pass—-over the middle. Charlie went up and was crushed by a d-back. I couldn’t believe Sanders could get up from that kind of hit, but he did…meanwhile way behind the play Chuck Hughes was lying face down…with a hulking Dick Butkus motioning for him to get…that lasted about two seconds when Butkus realized something was terribly wrong……… the moment trainers and doctors for both team ran out onto the field… fan, also ran out to see if he could assist. 50,000 fans can become awfully quiet which made the scene ever more eerie. Finally, they got Hughes onto the stretch. With my line of sight from high in right field, the stretcher carriers blocked my view of the stretcher and the attendants around him…….but did see something 12 year old will never forget….as he was being transported, to the ambulance, not too far out from the Tiger s dugout….his left arm fell from his torso and dragged on the ground. It was the kind of scene you watch in an old cowboy movie…..the bad guy gets shot, falls on the table…..then his arm falls and hangs limply. I know most people there noticed that happen, I swear there was a collective sound that shows up when you want to scream and don’t….you just can’t keep it all inside. Mr. Bak mentioned the sound of the sirens bouncing off the tall buildings taking Hughes to Henry Ford. I’ve always wished there was film of the last two minutes of that game. Talk about going through the motions…just to get the clock run out…………With all thats going on with player safety in football…..all players other than kickers have to wear thigh pads and knee pads….it’s interesting to realize that the only player ever to die on an NFL field was number 85, Chuck Hughes, wide receiver/flanker for the Detroit Lions.

  • milt mcmahan

    I have been following the Detroit lions since 1945 and while I’ve long forgotten most of the players. The name Chuck Hughes is one that will probably be with me my whole life.

  • John Bartony

    In Detroit the game was on the radio. No home TV as the black-out rule back then crushed any home telecasts unless you were 75 miles or so from the stadium. In a way I am glad I did not see it and I am glad that NFL films did not release any footage that was taken, nor has CBS, although I believe that the game is not in the vaults of CBS. In any case, I read that many of the Lions were crying in the locker room. I can only imagine the sorrow and anguish that prevailed. Us baby boomers will always remember that day and for may years afterwards, when attending the old stadium, I would look out to the left field area where it all happened and just stared at the spot where this husband, friend, and father lost his life at the corner where so much joy and great memories were made.

  • OLe

    …as I recall, the game was a late start…2pm I believe instead of the usual 1pm. Tiger Stadium (as seen on WBBM) had a gothic feel to it because of the heavily overcast day coupled with the constant rain and drizzle. I seem to remember the buzz about the game the day after at school more than watching it live on television. The rumor-mill back then was; Dick Butkus had finally killed someone on the playing field. While I do remember the hit Butkus made on Charlie Sanders (which can be seen in nearly every Dick Butkus highlight reel, Sanders himself described it as; “like being shot”). I believe it was because of that hit on Sanders and the published photograghs of Butkus standing over Hughes that cemented everyones belief that Butkus was the culprit. Contrary to what was mentioned here; Chuck Hughes didn’t die during the same play that Sanders was hit by Butkus. That happened a couple of series later. In fact, Chuck Hughes tackled Chicago’s Bob Jeter after he intercepted a Greg Landry pass on Detroit’s next pocession (which can also be seen in NFL Films’ 1971 week 6 episode of “This Week In Pro Football”). Being a Bears fan, I remember thinking it was a huge victory for Chicago. However, I also remember the poignant phrase in the Tribune that; “It was a tremendous football game, and suddenly it wasn’t a game at all”.

  • OLe

    According to the Chicago Tribune; “For 59 minutes the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions had waged a fierce, exciting, tense battle today before 54,418 at Tiger Stadium. The Bears had come from behind three times and led 28-23 with 1:12 left when Detroit quarterback Greg Landry fired a pass over the middle for Charlie Sanders at the Bears 15. (the Butkus hit that Sanders later described as; “like being shot”) The Bears’ Dick Butkus hit Sanders so hard the ball fell from his sure fingertips. Now it was third down, 1:06 left, and Landry came back with the same play. This time Sanders flinched, dropped the ball, and Butkus stood clapping. Behind Butkus, Detroit wide receiver Chuck Hughes collapesed. When play resumed on fouth down a Landry pass was knocked down by Bob Jeter and the Bears ran out the clock”. Also, in the same article its mentioned that “Hughes had caught a 32-yard pass with 1:32 to put the Lions on the Bears 36, setting up the passes to Sanders (Garry Lyle and Bob Jeter both tackled Hughes). “I hit him high around the shoulder and Jeter hit him low”, said Lyle visibly shaken. “I don’t think we hit him in the head”. It should also be noted that Lyle also states that; “Some people said they thought they saw Hughes vomiting after the catch (and oh by the way, vomiting is an actual symptom of a heart attack), but doctors later denied that” (were the doctors on the field after Hughes’ 32-yard catch?).
    Note: when I stated that; ” Contrary to what was mentioned here; Chuck Hughes didn’t die during the same play that Sanders was hit by Butkus. That happened a couple of series later.” …I didn’t mean to say “series”, I meant plays.

  • Bill Mason Sr.

    Have been Lions season ticket holder since 1955, saddest day ever in Lions history. I think this incident led to the insistence that a doctor be present on the bench at all games. Dick LeBeau told me that everyone loved Chuk. RIP Chuck

  • Daniel Mixer

    My dad, worked for the Lions as a statistician and I remember to this day how he had come home from the game. My mom would always hold Sunday (Thanksgiving) dinner for when he would get. It was always a big meal and we had to eat as a family. Not being able to watch the game due to the blackout rules, and being 12 years old, I was outside playing most of the day. When he finally got home I remember him looking sad and for the first time in my life, not eating dinner with everybody. He just went into our little TV room in the back of the house and ate his on a tray. We didn’t dare disturb him, especially after our mom told us what had happened. It was the quietest Sunday dinner we ever had. The seven of us eating in the dining room and my dad all by himself in our little 10’X10′ “TV” Room.

  • Len Robinson

    I was in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison, in Indianapolis, in Finance and Accounting training. Some buddies and I were watching the game when Hughes’ died on the field. Very sad!

  • James Philip

    I was 15years old when this happened. I was watching the game, and never seen nothing like this. I’ve seen plays were I wondered how a player ever got back up after getting hit so hard. But to see him fall after cluthing his chest you knew something was wrong. I hope I never see something like that again.

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