50 years ago: Remembering Lions’ Chuck Hughes, only man to die in NFL game

Detroit News

One day about a year after her husband collapsed on the turf at Tiger Stadium, Sharon Hughes picked up her nearly 3-year-old son to feed him.

“Momma, where’s Daddy?” asked little Brandon Shane Hughes.

“Well, honey, he’s gone to heaven,” she told him.

“Well. He left his car,” Brandon said.

“Oh, you’re right,” she offered, nodding toward the Ford LTD in the driveway of their El Paso, Texas, home. “We’ll have to see what we can do about that.”

There was nothing anyone could do about the loss the Hughes family endured 50 years ago this weekend. Before more than 54,000 fans, Detroit Lions receiver Chuck Hughes became the first and only NFL player to die in a game.

It’s a loss that has lingered for the many friends and family of who knew, loved and played with Hughes and who still feel the devastating impact of his unusual and controversial death.

Sharon wasn’t allowed on the field the day her husband died. Security guards wouldn’t let her to come to his aid and check her worst fears.

Those fears were realized when she was invited to ride in the ambulance with him to the hospital on a day she will never forget: Sunday, Oct. 24, 1971.

Charles Frederick Hughes was the 11th of 16 children in a family that moved from Philadelphia when he was 8 to New Mexico and eventually Abilene, Texas. He loved Stetson hats, cowboy boots, horseback riding and country and western music artists such as Roy Orbison. He cherished his college sweetheart, who became his wife, and the son they named after “Shane,” the protagonist in the classic 1953 Western.

Long, sometimes emotional conversations with Sharon and his college quarterback, Billy Stevens, and University of Texas at El Paso teammate Bob Wallace brought out the character, personality and achievements of a man they adored.

Sharon left his clothes in the closet for a few years along with his car in the driveway. But she sensed a need to move on after that grieving period.

“You don’t really have much choice,” said Sharon, 75, and now living in San Antonio. “I read an article once that said it’s senseless to go through life like you’ve got a team of horses in front of you and you’re holding the reins, and you’re digging in with your heels all the way through life.

“And I said I would never be one of those people to dig my heels in and let a horse drag me all over the place.”

Stevens, 76, a retired banker who played briefly with the Green Bay Packers, said, “Chuck was a good friend and a good person.” He paused and his voice cracked.

“When he was still here.”

Hughes, Stevens and Wallace helped new coach Bobby Dobbs take what was then called Texas Western College from futility to prosperity. The Miners were 0-8-2 in Hughes’ first varsity season in 1964, but went 8-3 in 1965 and upset Texas Christian in the Sun Bowl.

“We had a big meeting when he became the coach,” recalled Stevens, “and Dobbs tells us, ‘We’re going to throw the football. We’re going to throw the heck out of the football.’ He told the quarterbacks and receivers to get ready.

“After that meeting, Chuck walks over to me and says, ‘You and I are going to get to be real good friends. We’re going to start working out together, and we’re going to get better.’ ”

They’d run laps up and down the stairs and wind sprints that summer at Kidd Field or the Sun Bowl in the dry Texas heat, “and you were breathing sulfur fumes from the plant down the road,” Stevens recalled. The last thing they did in the two-hour workouts was run pass patterns or scrimmage.

Hughes worked out a routine where Stevens would throw 10 crisp passes to the right side of the field followed by 10 to the left. Then Stevens was instructed to throw 10 each way that were “too high, too low, too far, too short” and Hughes and the others would have to adjust to catch those balls.

“During the season,” said Stevens, “Chuck would make a super catch and come back and tell me, ‘Told you we needed to work on that.’ Chuck and I were very close friends. In fact, we’re still very close with his wife.”

Pam and Billy Stevens have been married for 54 years. They were hitched in college just like Sharon and Chuck, and the couples had dinner together every weekend, usually eating tacos or enchiladas. They listened to music and went dancing.

“The best times in the world,” said Sharon, chuckling with delight. “Oh, my goodness, yes.”

The joy extended to the football field.

“I can’t tell you how much fun we had playing,” said Stevens. “Chuck and I and Bob Wallace. We’d laugh in the huddle after one of them made a great catch. It was just fun.”

Stevens threw for 3,032 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1965, and Hughes caught 80 passes for a school-record 1,519 yards and 12 touchdowns. Hughes’ 349 yards against North Texas set an NCAA single-game receiving record.

“That was the very first game we played together,” Stevens said. “Quite honestly, we couldn’t do anything wrong that day.”

Wallace that season had 54 catches for 896 yards and eight touchdowns — including a school-record 92-yarder that beat Utah on the game’s final play.

“We were the Three Musketeers,” said Wallace, who is Black. “This is before segregation ended, but we knew how to have fun together and we were close.

“There wasn’t a whole lot we could do there in El Paso, but we did a lot of horseback riding. We did outdoor things, go-kart racing, anything that let us be free. And we did some night clubbing, too.”

Stevens was the backfield-receivers coach at what became Texas-El Paso in 1971. They were breaking down film when somebody came into the room with the news.

“We stopped the film,” said Stevens, pausing while being overcome for a few seconds. “They told everybody.”

His friend was gone, dying while playing the game they loved, and not even 50 years has taken away the pain.

Wallace, a tight end for the Bears from 1968 to 1972, had gotten together with Hughes the night before the game and they spoke on the field prior to kickoff.

“We wished each other good luck,” said Wallace, a retired firefighter living in Tempe, Arizona. “And we hoped and prayed that neither one of us got injured or anything like that.”

What were the odds of him being there that numbing day in Detroit?

“Isn’t that something?” Wallace asked. “And for that to happen, it was devastating. It was unbelievable.”

Hughes, Stevens and Wallace were enshrined in the UTEP Athletics Hall of Fame. However, only two of the “Musketeers” were there to experience the inductions, and something was sadly missing without Chuck.

Sharon began dating Chuck when they were freshmen in 1963, the year she also was elected homecoming queen. They were fixed up by a mutual friend who introduced them in a dorm lobby.

The couple drove in Chuck’s red-and-white Chevy to the Fiesta Drive-In to see “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” starring Kirk Douglas.

“So, we had Snickers and Coors beer,” said Sharon, “and I got my first kiss that night. And it was happily ever after.”

Chuck proposed to her in February 1967, one month before the NFL team from the town where he was born drafted him in the fourth round.

“Well, honey, we’re going with the Philadelphia Eagles,” Chuck told Sharon.

They got married in the home of a UTEP football booster, inviting 50 people, and honeymooned in New Mexico. They lived in El Paso during the off seasons, always renting there and in the Philadelphia and Detroit areas during the seasons.

Their son was born Nov. 2, 1969. Sharon said he was called by his middle name while growing up, but now goes by Brandon. Both were derived from the movie that starred Alan Ladd in the title role and Brandon De Wild as the young boy who cries out as the movie’s hero rides away: “Shane! Come back!”

“Of course, Chuck was a cowboy at heart,” Sharon said. “He loved Westerns. He said he wanted a son and was going to call him Shane. I was pregnant when we were watching that movie and when the film credits rolled, the little boy was Brandon.

“So, I told Chuck, ‘Brandon Shane.’ Doesn’t that go good together? He said, ‘It sure does.’ Shane cringes when I tell that story.”

Brandon, now 51, “answers to both names,” Sharon said. He works for Capital Group, an investment firm.

“He was about 2 when Chuck died,” Sharon said. “I would tell him stories about his father but he was so little.

“After Chuck died, I tried to keep his memory alive as best I could. I kept Chuck’s clothes in the closet for two or three years, and one day decided that was not healthy. So, I called Chuck’s sister, Mary, and said, ‘Can you come down here and get this stuff? It’s been a couple years and we need to start over.’ ”

Brandon holds the father he never really got to know in high regard.

“All I can really say is he was a giving and caring man that loved his family very much,” Brandon said. “He was very much missed and I’m sorry I didn’t know him.”

Four of the 16 Hughes siblings remain — his sisters Jean and Dodie and brothers Johnny and Tim.

“Chuck was always there for me,” said Dodie Barbee of Edmond, Oklahoma. “I just wish his son, Brandon, could’ve known him because he would have been a wonderful dad for him.”

Their parents, Thomas, a World War II Army Air Force veteran who survived a plane crash, and Margaret, also died young, both of heart attacks. Dad passed in 1949 and Mom in 1958, when oldest son Tom, an ex-Marine, became the guardian for the younger children. He raised them with his wife and his own two young children.

Margaret was three months pregnant with Dodie when Thomas died.

“Our parents taught us to help each other and we all have a very strong love for each other and family,” said Dodie, adding that Chuck used to organize the family reunions they still have.

Sharon said she received “checks from the NFL” until Brandon was 18, player benefit payments, Social Security checks, and briefly sold real estate. She filed a malpractice lawsuit in 1972 against Henry Ford Hospital and settled out of court. U.S. District Judge Robert E. DeMascio dismissed a jury that had heard three days of testimony in the case.

“It was pretty tough,” Sharon said. “Their attorney was unforgiving. Chuck had been hospitalized at Henry Ford several weeks before he died. But all of the EKGs were missing from the records (that her lawyer requested). They wouldn’t return his calls.

“He said, ‘I’ll slap a $20 million lawsuit on them. That’ll get their attention.’ But he wasn’t suing for a certain amount of money. He was just suing them for Chuck’s death because they allowed him to come home with a 101-degree temperature. Chuck never felt good when he left that hospital.”

Sharon charged that doctors at the hospital failed to diagnose the potentially fatal condition when her husband was hospitalized for chest pains after a preseason game Sept. 4 against the Buffalo Bills, less than two months before his death.

Hughes was injured in that game, helped off the field, and taken to Henry Ford Hospital in an ambulance for the first time. He missed the last preseason game and home opener with the Minnesota Vikings, but traveled with the team to the first road game Sept. 26 against the New England Patriots.

Pete Waldmeir, then the associate sports editor of The Detroit News and a columnist, spoke to Hughes in the lobby of the team hotel before that game.

“I don’t know what’s wrong,” Hughes told Waldmeir. “I have had sharp pains in my stomach and my chest, and they’ve made all sorts of tests, but nobody seems to be able to figure them out. I want to play, though, and they aren’t that bad.

“They thought I broke a rib or two against Buffalo, but that’s not it. I guess I’ll be all right.”

The autopsy revealed the cause of Chuck Hughes’ death was a heart attack caused by a blood clot in an artery.

“But no matter what you read, I did not sue them for $20 million,” Sharon said. “That was just a threat to get their attention. I had to sign papers saying I would never say what the settlement was. It wasn’t huge, but it was probably more than I thought I could ever have.”

Sharon married a homebuilder three years after Chuck’s death, “and that lasted five years” before they were divorced in 1980, and she never married again. Sharon worked other jobs and moved about 20 years after that to Sheridan, Texas, to take care of her parents.

San Antonio, where she buried her husband, is where she eventually moved in June 2020.

“But before then,” said Sharon, “I would drive twice a year from El Paso to change the flowers at the grave. I did that for many, many years, and then I stopped going.

“And now I’m in San Antonio, and I’ve been once to replace the flowers.”

Sharon said she would rather remember Chuck at the places they once shared together. Golf courses, like drive-in theaters and football stadiums, remind her of him. He was friends with PGA star Lee Trevino and loved to golf, and she took up the sport to spend more time with him.

“Chuck just was meant for me,” Sharon said. “I adored him, and thought he was handsome. He was a very nice man, very possessive. I didn’t get out of his sight too much. He had a wonderful smile and was opinionated. He looked at things in black and white. He was a good conversationalist with a great laugh, a wonderful laugh, a belly laugh.”

And she laughed heartily herself, just recalling it.

“There wasn’t a day for 20 or 30 years that I didn’t think about him,” she said. “But at 50 years, I think about him every other day.”

Sharon recalled the wives of Lions players getting together on Saturday nights and attending home games together.

They became close to defensive end Joe Robb and his wife, Dru, who was seated next to Sharon at that showdown against the Chicago Bears, when they noticed Chuck drop to the ground late in the fourth quarter.

“It was in between plays and Chuck was running back to the huddle,” Sharon said. “I didn’t usually do that, but it was meant to be. In mid-stride, he grabbed his chest and fell forward. So, that’s it.

“(Bears linebacker) Dick Butkus was there and motioned for someone to come. He could see Chuck was in trouble. Dru and I ran downstairs and they wouldn’t let us on the field. I said, ‘That’s my husband.’ And they said, ‘I’m sorry.’

“So, we ran down and went to the ambulance and Chuck was being loaded on. I said, ‘I’m Chuck’s wife.’ And they said, ‘OK, get in.’ ”

There was no reviving him.

And, just like that, their lives together were over.

“We never purchased a home until the year that he died,” Sharon said of the El Paso house they bought in April 1971. They furnished the bedrooms and had “a card table with folding chairs” in the kitchen when they departed that summer for Detroit, never to return together.

Sharon said Chuck aspired to become a coach when his playing days were over, but died when he was only 28.

Now she lives in the town where he’s buried at Sunset Memorial Park.

“There’s a football on his tombstone,” Sharon said.

She went to El Paso on Sept. 25 for what she said was “the last time.” It was for a Miners football reunion, and Billy and Pam Stevens were welcoming her back to the town they never left.

“It was the last hurrah,” Sharon said. “I can’t imagine there will be anything else to celebrate in Chuck’s name. He’s in the UTEP Hall of Fame, the Big Country Hall of Fame (for Abilene area athletes), and he’s been memorialized many times.

“So, this will probably be the time. … I can’t imagine anything else, except telling you his story. This will be a nice ending to a beautiful story, a nice memory.”

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.

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