Remembering the tragic day Detroit Lions' Chuck Hughes died on the football field 50 years ago
On a gloomy, damp afternoon more than 50 years ago, 54,418 excited football fans made their pilgrimage to Tiger Stadium to see if the Detroit Lions, sporting a four-game winning streak and tied for first place with Minnesota in the NFC Central Division, could defeat the "Monsters of the Midway" led by Chicago’s Dick Butkus.
Local radio listeners — the regional telecast was blacked out in Detroit — were glued to the play-by-play of Van Patrick and Bob Reynolds on WJR-AM (760).
With the Lions in a two-minute drill and trailing, 28-23, little-used Chuck Hughes, who entered the game in the fourth quarter replacing the injured Larry Walton, made a 32-yard catch from quarterback Greg Landry for a first down on the Bears’ 37-yard line.
However, by 3:30 p.m. Oct. 24, 1971, the game’s outcome seemed meaningless. The tragedy that occurred with a minute left to play would forever serve as a glaring reminder of life’s fragility.
It is believed Hughes is the only player from the NFL who died while competing in a game.
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Who was Chuck Hughes?
Although a walk-on at Texas Western (later the University of Texas-El Paso), Hughes finished his college career with the second-most receiving yards and the third-highest number of receptions in NCAA history. He was the 1967 fourth-round draft choice of the Eagles and played sparingly in his three seasons with Philadelphia.
The reserve receiver was acquired ahead of the 1970 season, when he made a remarkable 42-yard catch that helped seal the victory over the Oakland Raiders in the Thanksgiving Day game.
"Chuck didn’t have great speed but he was a good player, a great guy and teammate, and he worked like hell at practice," former Lions head coach and Hall of Famer Joe Schmidt said earlier this month. "He would follow me up and down the sidelines asking to get in the game but Chuck never complained."
“Chuck ran great routes and had great hands, but what we all remember most about him was the quality of the person and how well-liked he was by everyone. He was always upbeat and never down and was someone you always wanted to associate with."
A sudden tragedy
After Hughes’ first-down catch, Landry threw the ball out of bounds to stop the clock, and then appeared to connect with end Charlie Sanders — until the tight end was slammed to the ground by Butkus just as the ball arrived.
With 1:02 showing on the game clock, the 28-year-old Hughes began running back to the huddle when suddenly he grabbed his chest. He dropped face down onto the turf at the 25-yard line.
Bears defensive end Ed O’Bradovich will never forget what he witnessed that day.
"After the play, I turned around and I saw Chuck fall to the ground about 12 yards away and when he was laying there his eyes were wide open," O’Bradovich, now 81, said from his home in Illinois. "The Lions were out of timeouts and I was thinking he was trying to get an injury timeout so I started yelling at him, 'You no-good so-and-so, and I screamed at the referee that he was faking it. But then I saw Butkus bend over and start waving to the Detroit bench for medical help and I thought, 'Oh (expletive), what can this be.'"
Lions center Ed Flanagan saw Butkus waving his arms while standing near Hughes.
"When I first saw Butkus standing over him I first thought, 'Oh God, don’t tell me Dick hit Chuck,' but as we learned no one had hit him on that play," Flanagan said recently.
Former Detroit radio and television personality Tom Ryan was sitting with his wife Joan in the upper deck at the opposite end, behind the south end zone.
"We didn't have a portable radio or binoculars with us and we assumed Hughes had been knocked unconscious, but then it progressively looked more serious with the medical personnel out there for so long and with the crowd becoming eerily so silent," Ryan said.
Lions team physicians Richard Thompson, Edwin Guise, trainer Kent Falb and assistant trainer Gary Tuthill rushed onto the field. After carefully removing the receiver’s helmet Guise began administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Hughes as Thompson began rhythmic thumping on Hughes' chest.
"When I got to Chuck, it was an athlete trainer’s worst nightmare because he was not breathing and was extremely pale," said Falb, who ran to the concourse area under the stands near the Tigers' bullpen to notify the awaiting ambulance personnel. They came out with a gurney to transport Hughes to Henry Ford Hospital, 3 miles north of the ballpark.
'Someone doesn't just drop'
As the minutes ticked, which many witnesses thought felt like an eternity, a man ran out with an oxygen tank while anesthesiologist Eugene Boyle ran down from the upper deck stands and onto the field to assist the Lions doctors.
Meanwhile, on the radio broadcast, Van Patrick and Bob Reynolds in very somber tones tried to fill the time as best they could. Patrick kept saying, 'This doesn’t look good, this doesn’t look good at all.'
Hughes' wife Sharon was sitting in the west upper deck stands with the other player wives.
"Normally after a play, I would be talking with my friend Dru Robb (wife of defensive end Joe Robb) but for some reason after the play ended, I was focused on Chuck and saw him grab his chest and fall down," Hughes said last week from her home in San Antonio. "I knew right away it was serious because someone doesn’t just drop in mid-stride when you haven’t been hit. I thought maybe he had choked on his mouthpiece. Dru and I immediately ran down and although they would not let us on the field, we waited next to the ambulance."
As the medical personnel ran Hughes off the field on the gurney, the fans were standing and not a sound could be heard. The receiver, one of 14 children raised in meager circumstance in west Texas, never regained consciousness.
"I knew something horrible had happened because when they were rolling Chuck off the field one of his arms fell down and his hand was flopping around back and forth, and I thought to myself, 'Holy Christ, I think he’s dead,'" said O’Bradovich.
Falb said his wife remembered it was "so quiet in the stadium that the only thing you could hear was the fading sound of the ambulance siren until it finally made it to Henry Ford Hospital.”
Hughes had jumped into the ambulance and accompanied her husband to the hospital.
"Kent Falb worked continually on Chuck giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and I don’t know how he kept on and on but he did," said Hughes, who began dating Chuck when the couple attended Texas Western.
None of the players at that point cared about the game, and when play resumed with 62 seconds left, the Bears ran out the clock with their 28-23 victory after Landry threw an incomplete pass to Altie Taylor.
"When we got into the locker room, we all got down on one knee and prayed for Chuck," O'Bradovich said.
With the media banned from entering the Lions locker room, head coach Joe Schmidt had gathered his players, many of whom were sitting in front of their lockers, still in their uniforms and openly weeping.
"I was so confused and upset that I really didn’t know how to handle it, but I did my best to speak with the team and asked everyone to pray for Chuck before I went to the hospital," Schmidt said.
How did this happen?
After the game, a distraught Thompson, told reporters, "His heart stopped on the field. We thought we got it going one time but couldn’t be sure. It stopped again."
At 4:41 p.m., Charles Frederick Hughes was pronounced dead. He was 28.
“I know that the doctors and Kent Falb tried their very best to save Chuck,” says Sharon Hughes.
Detroit Free Press sports editor Joe Falls wrote the next day that as team owner William Clay Ford was choking back tears he said: "Never, ever in the wildest moments would you ever believe a thing like this could happen. It’s just inconceivable. Our whole team is filled with a great sense of sorrow. Chuck was a great player and a great person."
The following day the autopsy report revealed Hughes had died from an undiagnosed and advanced "arteriosclerotic coronary heart disease with acute coronary thrombotic occlusion" or as otherwise described by Thompson: "He had a hardening of the main artery supplying blood to the heart and a clot had formed in this artery shutting off the flow of a blood."
The report also mentioned that there was old scarring on the posterior wall of the heart indicating evidence of previous heart trauma.
Guise told reporters, "One dies officially when one is pronounced dead, but in my heart, I feel Chuck died on the field."
To this day, Falb agrees.
"We did everything we could based upon the skills and everything we knew at the time. You could have had the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic on the field that day but he was not going to survive. He was dead," says Falb.
'Rare and unusual'
When speaking to reporters upon the release of the autopsy report, Guise said: "The degenerative disease was coming on for years, and there’s no way to detect this. I’ve been talking to cardiologists all over the place and no one has devised a test to discover hardening arteries. If I had known he had the disease I would have advised him not to play football."
Guise revealed Hughes' parents also "died of what it appears to be heart disease."
The Lions doctors explained that injuries Hughes suffered in an exhibition game Sept. 4 against Buffalo had required two hospitalizations, and testing gave no indication that his heart was damaged. Prior to an exhibition Sept. 26 Hughes told one reporter:
"I’ve had sharp pains in my stomach and chest and they’ve made all sorts of tests but nobody seems to be able to figure them out. I want to play though. They aren’t that bad."
Sharon Hughes said Chuck never felt the same after the exhibition game injury.
"He then always seemed to have heartburn and was always asking for Alka-Seltzer," she says.
"It’s pretty rare and unusual to have a 28-year-old athlete die from atherosclerotic coronary heart disease," said Michael Emery, co-director of the Sports Cardiology Center at the Cleveland Clinic. "If 50 years ago an athlete received the typical evaluation athletes get today, significant coronary heart disease would still not likely be found because our typical cardiac preparticipation evaluations in young athletes focuses on inherited genetic heart conditions affecting the heart muscle or electrical system. It’s one thing to find coronary heart disease after the fact from an autopsy but determining that in advance would have been extremely difficult back then.
"We’ve done tremendous work in the last 50 years of lowering people’s chances of dying from a heart attack with better diagnostics — such as calcium scoring — recognizing who is most at risk, modifying those risk factors and treating people with medications such as statins and lifestyle changes," Emery said.
Trying to pick up the pieces
Two days after the game, a mass was held at St. Aloysius Church on Washington Boulevard in downtown Detroit, and on that Wednesday the entire Lions team and front office — as well as representatives from the NFL — attended the service and burial in San Antonio.
An education scholarship fund for the Hughes' son was quickly established while letters of sympathy poured were sent to the team and the Hughes family.
By the end of the week Sharon Hughes received a personal heartfelt sympathy letter from President Richard Nixon that read in part:
"Our thoughts and those of countless fellow Americans are with you as we share your grief on your husband’s death. The tragedy that took him at such an early age is lamented by all who knew him and by countless admirers who so appreciated his skill and good sportsmanship."
Jeff Haag, a former newspaper writer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who has been working on a Chuck Hughes biography manuscript for several years, was 9 years old when he watched the Lions receiver die on television.
“It always had an enormous impact on me because I didn’t have the concept of death associated with the game that I was falling in love with," Haag said recently. "It was a surreal experience. The camera close-up of Steve Owens on the sideline with his helmet off and a very worried look on his face is an image that has always stuck with me."
The late Lions linebacker Wayne Walker told Haag in 2007, "After that day, the only thing that really mattered to me was going back to the locker room with the same number of guys I’d gone out there with. Screw that, 'Winning is everything' nonsense."
Coaches finally began practices on that following Thursday in preparation for a Monday night game against the Packers in Green Bay. The team announced the players would wear black bands on their sleeve in memory of Hughes and that his No. 85 was retired.
In addition, the Lions revealed their team physicians were creating a cardiac unit containing treatment machines and auxiliary equipment and they would be taking a portable cardiac unit to road games. In making the announcement, Guise said, "even if we’d have had this special equipment there, considering the autopsy findings of massive cardiac damage, it probably wouldn’t have been of any benefit in the Hughes case."
In the Monday night game, the Lions tied the Packers, 14-14, and went on to end the season with a 7-6-1 record.
"We lost everything when Chuck passed away and it was really tough to play the rest of the season," Greg Landry said. “We had a good team and a good record up to that point but our hearts weren’t in it after that."
In the months following her husband’s death, Lions quarterback Bill Munson introduced Hughes' widow to high-profile Detroit attorney Joe Louisell. In October 1972, two months after Louisell’s own untimely death, Sharon Hughes, left with a toddler to care for, filed a $21.5 million malpractice lawsuit against Henry Ford Hospital, alleging the failure to diagnose the potentially fatal condition. Two years later the suit was settled for an undisclosed amount of money after three days of testimony at a jury trial.
Now 76, Hughes is retired after working for the school system in Sheridan, Texas. Her son Shane, 51, is married, without children, and works for Capital Group in San Antonio.
However, she’s disappointed that her husband's No. 85 was first reissued by the Lions in 2005 for wide receiver Kevin Johnson who requested the number. Others who have since worn the number include Tony Scheffler and Eric Ebron, and this year wide receiver Tom Kennedy wears 85.
"The family has not appreciated that and we really think it should have remained retired," she said.
How does she remember her late husband?
"Chuck was a very kind, congenial person who laughed a lot with a distinct giggle. He was a good husband and a good father, and Shane was a delight in his life," she said.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Lions' Chuck Hughes died on field 50 years ago. Inside the tragic day.