The day Detroit's Chuck Hughes died at Tiger Stadium

The day Detroit’s Chuck Hughes died at Tiger Stadium

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LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – Dick Butkus, with arms flailing, trying to get the attention of medical personnel on the sidelines. More than 50 years now, and that image still remains vivid. The Chicago Bears’ middle linebacker, one of the NFL’s most punishing tacklers, knew immediately an opposing player was in trouble.

Chuck Hughes, a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, was at Butkus’ feet. Hughes that day, Oct. 24, 1971, in rainy, humid Tiger Stadium, would become the only NFL player to die on the field.

With 1:02 left in the game, and our Lions trailing 28-23, my best friend, Steve Gillespie, and I watched from the upper deck in what was left field for baseball games. We were agonizing over a missed pass, from Detroit quarterback Greg Landry to one of the game’s best tight ends, Charlie Sanders. A pass slithered through Sanders’ hands near the goal line. If Sanders catches it, it’s likely touchdown Detroit and the Lions’ fifth victory in six games.

Pretty sure I was lifting a head hanged in disappointment when I saw Butkus, in his white Bears No. 51 jersey, jumping and waving.

His back was to us, and Hughes, No. 85 in Honolulu blue, was face down near the Chicago 20.

We heard fans around us ask: “Did Butkus hit him?” Someone said, no, that Hughes had just collapsed. His widow, players from both teams and some fans say Hughes had just run a pass route and was returning to huddle for the next play.

Medical personnel raced to the prone Hughes. The player was nearest our end of the field, but it was difficult to see exactly what trainers and two team doctors were doing. Later we learned a doctor also was summoned from the stands. CPR was performed, and the medical crew had cut away Hughes’ jersey and shoulder pads. In no more than 10 or 15 minutes, an ambulance drove onto the field and took Hughes to Henry Ford Hospital. At 5:34 p.m., Hughes, 28, in his fifth NFL season, was pronounced dead. Cause of death: heart attack.

In those days, there were no smartphones, and interactive scoreboards and the like were for more modern venues, not Tiger Stadium. So fans would bring transistor radios to games and listen live. We can remember the voices of Lions play-by-play broadcaster Van Patrick and his booth sidekick, Bob Reynolds, echoing in the stadium while Hughes was being attended to. But not much else, to be honest.

After the ambulance drove off, they finished the game, the last 1:02. Landry missed on a fourth-and-10 pass, and the Bears then ran out the clock.

Unlike Monday night, when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed, players did not gather to pray. They mingled some at midfield, then went to their locker rooms.  

No postgame show on cable television, no sports talk filling the airwaves. Only on the drive home, on the radio, or later when they got home did fans learn that Hughes had died. The late TV newscasts led with Hughes, I do remember that, and the next day, newspapers had a few more details.

The game itself is pretty much a blur. I recall a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by the Lions rookie Ron Jessie, easily Detroit’s most exciting play.

But Butkus. And Hughes, with medical personnel working frantically and us trying to see exactly what was going on through the legs and backs of players, those images remain clear.

I was miffed Monday night and early Tuesday morning that ESPN, which televised the game, and the NFL Network, never mentioned Hughes’ death. Announcers kept saying they had never seen anything like Hamlin’s collapse. Only much later, some 36 hours after the game, did media even seem to get around to Hughes.

That Monday night and on my social media pages, several friends remembered Hughes, and so many wondered why his collapse, so similar to that of Hamlin, initially was ignored or overlooked.

As ESPN announcers were telling us that in the NFL nothing like Hamlin’s collapse had ever before happened, my boyhood pal, Steve Gillespie rang my cellphone. “What, these guys, these experts, don’t know about Chuck Hughes?” he asked.

Hughes’ death prompted the NFL to retool its medical approach, making sure that stadiums were equipped with defibrillators. In the minutes after his cardiac arrest, Hamlin was given CPR, oxygen and an external defibrillator was used to help restore his heartbeat, according to reports.

The medical upgrades – specifically the presence defibrillators – can be traced to that October day in 1971.

The day after Hamlin’s episode, NBC News found Sharon Hughes, Chuck Hughes’ widow, who empathized with the football player’s family. “Can you imagine how his mother felt?” Hughes told NBC News. “It’s a horrifying feeling, and, well, I just felt so sorry for the whole family …”

Years after Hughes’ death, a former newspaper colleague of mine was in the press box at Lions game and sat next to Landry, the Detroit quarterback in 1971. This was in 1997, some weeks after another Lions’ player, linebacker Reggie Brown, was hit and paralyzed in a game against the New York Jets.

The talk soon turned to Hughes.

“Landry said when they were putting Hughes on the stretcher, his limp arm fell to the side and he knew then that he was dead,” my newspaper colleague recalled.

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