I’ll never forget the death of Chuck Hughes, he was the only player to die during an NFL game

Posted: January 8, 2023 by John Ruberry in culture, media, News/opinion, nfl, Sports
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By John Ruberry

Until last Monday, when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest in the first quarter of game with the Cincinnati Bengals, the tragic death of 28-year-old Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes in 1971 during a game was nearly forgotten. 

But not by me–I’ll always remember. When I learned that Hamlin collapsed during a play at Paul Brown Stadium, my first thought was of Hughes–and I switched on ESPN, which was airing the Bills-Bengals game. I was stupefied when members of an ESPN studio panel repeatedly, and of course incorrectly, said that Hamlin’s collapse on the field was unprecedented.

I believe it was James Joyce who said something along the lines that the first death a person experiences is the most tragic. For me, at the age of nine, the passing of Hughes was my first death.

I was at home in the Chicago area that afternoon watching the CBS broadcast of the Chicago Bears game against the Lions. The Bears were several years into a long stretch of mediocrity, while the Lions were just entering their time in the wilderness. The prior year the Lions made the playoffs. Since then, the Lions have been victorious in just one playoff game. 

Unlike the Bills-Bengals matchup, which was nationally broadcast on ESPN, the Bears-Lions game probably aired only in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest.

Late in that ’71 game with, the Bears leading by four points, the Lions, led by quarterback Greg Landry, were on a drive–which was aided by a reception by Hughes–and they were deep in Bears territory with a little more than a minute left in the game when Hughes collapsed at the end of a play. 

Not only were there no smartphones or even camcorders in 1971, but NFL broadcasts five decades ago used fewer cameras than what is used now. There is no videotape of Hughes’ collapse. And there is no videotape of Chicago Bears’ middle linebacker Dick Butkus frantically waving his arms to draw attention to Hughes. Last week, Butkus recalled what happened on that afternoon in Detroit. “He was coming back after an incomplete pass, and I couldn’t believe it, the color that he had. He just dropped,” the NFL Hall of Famer said.

Trainers and doctors from both teams, as well as a physician attending the game, tended to Hughes as he lay on the grass. My recollection is that Hughes was on the turf for about twenty minutes. Although Gary Dymski, who later became a journalist and who attended the game, said it was “ten or fifteen minutes” before an ambulance arrived.

In this ABC Detroit clip, Hughes’ nephew discusses Hamlin and the death of his uncle.

Unlike last week’s Bills-Bengals game, the Bears-Lions game continued, ending with a Chicago victory. Butkus recalled that there was no talk of cancelling the game. About ninety minutes later, Hughes was declared dead at Henry Ford Hospital. I was stunned when Hughes’ passing was announced as I watched a local news program.

The cause of Hughes’ death was a heart attack. After his autopsy it was discovered that his arteries were 75 percent blocked. Hughes had been treated at Henry Ford that summer, apparently, he had suffered a minor heart attack, but medical personnel attributed his chest pains to a spleen injury.

The next day at my elementary school, the Hughes death was what everyone was discussing. As well as a rumor that Butkus “killed” Hughes after a powerful hit. Not true. That night on the Chicago ABC Monday Night Football pregame show, one of the hosts, Detroit Lions legend Alex Karras, was nearly in tears as he reminisced about his former teammate. I was close to tears too.

Immediately after Hughes’ death, the NFL made it a league rule that there must be an ambulance at all games. Life-saving protocols have since been added by the NFL–each team is required to have an Emergency Action Plan, which was activated after Hamlin’s collapse. Generally, there are over two dozen doctors of various specialties at each NFL game. 

The EAP probably saved Hamlin’s life.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

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