This past October we remembered the 40th anniversary of the tragic death of Lion receiver Chuck Hughes who died of a heart on the Tiger Stadium gridiron in the closing minutes of a game against the Chicago Bears.
Nearly twenty years later, many will also recall that just before training camp in 1992 a truck ran off the highway killing Lion starting offensive guard Eric Andolsek who was trimming trees in front of his home in Louisiana.
But Lion fans may not know that nearly 50 years ago a promising tackle that had just completed his rookie year as a starting offensive tackle tragically died at Detroit Osteopathic Hospital where he had been admitted for routine tests.
When Lucien Reeberg arrived at training camp (along with fellow “rookie” and writer George Plimpton in the Summer of ’63,) the 6’4” 317 pound tackle immediately impressed his teammates by his brute strength and abilities.
The Lions had picked Reeberg in the 19th round and 264th pick overall in the 1963 draft based upon the recommendation of part time scout and Pershing High basketball coach Will Robinson who discovered the massive tackle at Hampton Institute, the tiny black college where Robinson had found fellow Lion and All-Pro defensive tackle Roger Brown. (A few years later Robinson discovered future Hall of Fame Lion cornerback Lem Barney at Jackson State.
In training camp Reeberg played defensive and offensive tackle in exhibition games and on the insistence of head coach George Wilson lost 30 pounds of weight following a strict crash diet. Back then, it was rare to have a player over 300 pounds, Roger Brown being one of the exceptions.
Reeberg sat on the bench for the early part of the ’63 season, but when he was pressed into service on the offensive line, the Lions discovered they had landed a potential All Pro tackle.
Reeberg and fellow rookie Daryl Sanders, the left offensive tackle formed the only rookie tackle unit in the NFL that season. (Sanders was an outstanding player who quit after just four seasons because he made more money selling cars then playing professional football.)
When Reeberg signed his 1964 contract in the early part of January, George Wilson said he wanted him to play at 250 pounds and asked that he go to the hospital for tests in preparation to going on a diet.
On January 22, 1964 Reeberg entered Detroit Osteopathic Hospital for routine tests. According to team physician Dr. Richard Thompson, “after he was in the hospital Lucien complained to an intern that he had blood in his urine for three days.” As soon as it was discovered that he had uremic problems physicians abandoned the tests connected with the planned weight reducing.
Engaged to be married and just 20 days shy of his 22nd birthday, at 5PM on January 31, 1964 Reeberg died at the hospital as he was being prepared for surgical tests on his kidneys. Open heart surgery was performed immediately but it failed to revive the young football player. His cause of death was listed as “cardiac arrest due to uremic poisoning”.
“I’m really shocked……..the poor kid,” George Wilson told the Detroit News the day after Reeberg died. “I really felt he was going to be a great lineman. He had everything…..size, talent, and desire.”
Many of the Lion players traveled to Brooklyn for the funeral.
Linebacker Ernie Clark was a fellow rookie with Reeberg and the two shared an apartment together on Calvert Street in Detroit.
Recently I spoke with Clark regarding his friend.
“I will never forget that day. Never. Lucien was Christmas morning,” says Clark, the founder of Lifelong Fitness in Detroit, an organization that helps seniors exercise through a unique power sit program. “I think about him all the time, and after he passed away my heart really wasn’t into football and I’ve never been the same. There is no question he was going to be a star in the league there is no doubt about that. He was a wonderful person.”