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The Tragic Story of Chuck Hughes: The Only Player to Die in an NFL Game

The Death of Chuck Hughes!
Publish Date: 10/07/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

The NFL has always been a gladiatorial sport where violence and aggression are applauded. Screaming fans thirst for blood in NFL stadiums every Sunday afternoon with an unmatched passion for any other sport. Many people believe that a player has never died on this field of battle in an NFL game. If you are one of those people, today I will tell you about the tragic death of a 28-year-old football player who made the most out of what God gave him.

Chuck Hughes was an undersized and not especially fast player in the NFL, but what he lacked in athletic ability he more than made up for in heart. The irony is that the same heart that allowed him to play in the NFL is what did him in at the end.

Chuck Hughes NFL career

The Philadelphia Eagles picked Hughes in the fourth round of the 1967 NFL draft. He played three years with the Eagles, mainly as a special teams player who sometimes got onto the field as a receiver. In 1970 he went to Detroit, where he started six games and caught eight passes. What made Hughes an NFL player was his tireless hours of practice, working on catching the ball and his route running.

Hughes first heart attack

Most people don’t know that the only player to ever pass away on the field in an NFL game is that Chuck Hughes didn’t have just one heart attack, he had two, and the first one he suffered was that same year in the Lions’ final preseason game. That’s just seven weeks before the heart attack that killed him.

Detroit was playing the Buffalo Bills, and late in the game, the Lions ran a few plays to Hughes. On one of those plays, he took a shot to his ribs and his side. He walked off the field and stood on the sideline. But after the game, he collapsed in the locker room. In an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come at the end of the following month, he was raced by ambulance to Henry Ford Hospital.

Hughes stayed in the hospital for four days. His family said the doctors thought he had an injury to his spleen, lung or kidney, but nothing could be confirmed. A few weeks later, he told the Detroit News he had sharp pains in his stomach and chest, but no one could figure out. He said he could handle it. He said he wanted to play.

Later, an autopsy would show he had an enlarged spleen and liver. Several doctors and ER technicians who saw the autopsy report told Haag that Hughes probably had a spleen injury that was so painful it triggered the first heart attack. No one would have thought to look for a heart attack, not in someone seemingly so fit. You have to figure the last thing that the doctors would expect in a 28-year-old NFL player who was healthy would be a heart attack, but sadly that is exactly what it was.

The tragic second heart attack

When Chuck left the hospital four days later, he was still running a temperature and complaining about what he thought was just acid reflux.

The day before the tragic day, Chuck had gone to a party with his wife Sharon, and she recounted thinking he looked sick and was worried. That night Chuck went to the team hotel to prepare for the next day’s game, and for the first time, he did not call Sharon the night before a game. Nobody told Sharon until later that Chuck had been sick all that night, repeatedly vomiting, and that his teammates were worried about him.

The Bears-Lions game of October 25th, 1971, was a typical black and blue division game. The game ebbed and flowed, with the Bears taking the lead on a Bobby Douglass’ quarterback sneak, giving the Bears a 28-23 lead with time running out.

With under two minutes to go, the Lions began a final last-ditch drive to try and win the game. Larry Walton, who had caught a touchdown pass from Lions’ quarterback Greg Landry earlier, was injured. Number 85, Chuck Hughes, had replaced him.

Now Landry was looking for Hughes downfield, and the sure-handed flanker made a diving 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 said 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 moan 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 middle linebacker had finally killed someone on the field. But Butkus immediately saw something was wrong and frantically signalled to the sidelines. Trainers and doctors hurried out. A physician charged down from the stands. As more than 54,000 people silently watched and held their collective breaths, doctors beat their fists on Chuck Hughes’ chest, but to no avail. The stadium clock showed 62 seconds left in the game, but time had run out on the life of Chuck Hughes.

After what seemed forever, Hughes was placed on a stretcher and rushed by ambulance to Henry Ford Hospital, but reports indicate that he had already passed away on the field as his arm hung limp and lifeless off the side of the stretcher that was carrying him. 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-excited fans filed out, talking in low, hushed tones. 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.

The Bears won the game as the Lions just went through the motions after Hughes collapsed, and who could blame them? Chuck Hughes was a man that always made the most out of what he was given in life. Tragically he is only remembered for being the only NFL player to die in a game, but Chuck Hughes was more than that. Luckily the Detroit Lions honored Hughes by retiring his number 85 jersey and giving out a most improved player each year to a Lions player in Hughes’ name.

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