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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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side. He is the author of many articles and books, including biographies of local sports legends Joe Louis and Ty Cobb and histories of Tiger Stadium and Detroit's Negro leagues.