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.



About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.