Deadly game: A tragic end for Detroit Lions receiver Chuck Hughes

Detroit News

There’s a smile-inducing photo Sharon Hughes loves that was taken when her husband, Chuck Hughes, played for the Detroit Lions in 1970 and 1971.

It was snapped during a party. To Hughes’ right are running back Steve Owens, the 1969 Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma and Chuck’s road-trips roommate, and Greg Landry, the Pro Bowl quarterback who recalls Chuck fondly 50 years later.

They’re all grinning widely, arms around one another, hoisting a cold one together.

Buddies being buddies.

They were all part of something special in Detroit back then.

The future appeared bright for the 1971 Lions. They made the playoffs the previous season, had three future NFL Hall of Fame players, and were 4-1 headed into the Oct. 24, 1971 game with the Chicago Bears.

They trailed, 28-23, after Chicago quarterback Bobby Douglass’ go-ahead touchdown run with just over four minutes remaining, but were driving for a potential go-ahead score before 54,418 at Tiger Stadium on a cloudy, 59-degree afternoon.

Landry, a threat to both run and pass, completed a 32-yard pass that Hughes made a diving catch on while getting crunched, putting Detroit on the Bears’ 36-yard line.

“I hit him chest high,” Chicago safety Garry Lyle said after that game, “and (cornerback) Bob Jeter hit him in the legs. When he came down, he sort of folded up and sucked in his stomach.”

But he popped up and jogged back to the huddle.

Hughes had replaced starting flanker Larry Walton, who pulled a leg muscle on the final play of the third quarter.

On the previous Lions’ offensive series, Hughes had tackled Jeter after he intercepted a pass.

The teammate who was always ready to play, always ready to help, was coming up big.

“My fondest memory of Chuck is that he used to stay after practice,” Landry told The Detroit News. “We’d throw passes on certain routes that he was going to run that weekend. He would always stay after. If I didn’t think I’d thrown enough, he would say, ‘Greg, I’ll run ‘em for you.’ He did that for our other quarterback, Bill Munson, too.

“We had a nickname for him, ‘Roadrunner,’ because he never ran out of gas. ‘You wanna do another one? Let’s run this route.’ He came in as the third receiver and played a lot. If he could get to it, he caught it. He never had a loss of energy. For as long as your arm was good, he’d run routes.”

Hughes’ big catch injected life into that drive. But three incomplete passes later (one was a ball drilled to the ground by Landry to stop the clock), and with 1:02 remaining to play, Hughes dropped to the ground and died after running a route as a decoy on third down.

Bears cornerback Charlie Ford told The News after the game: “He was blinking his eyes and bobbing his head when he was waiting for the snap of the ball (on his final play).”

Hughes’ sudden death didn’t make any sense to Landry.

Landry noted, “He was the ‘Roadrunner,’ and he just kept going. He never said die, you know. He ran so much that I would ask, ‘Are you OK?’ He’d say, ‘I’m fine.’ That’s why it was a real surprise when they said he had a heart attack because he was just full of energy all the time in practices and games. It was a real shocker, that one.

“We were in the two-minute drill and people were running around. He was coming back to the huddle and he collapsed. And (Bears Hall of Fame linebacker) Dick Butkus was waving to the Lions’ bench to get somebody out there.”

Butkus was quoted after the game: “I turned around and he was walking in a daze and started to fall. I thought they were trying to get a timeout. Then I saw his eyes roll and I called to the Detroit bench for a doctor.”

Landry remained focused on his fallen teammate, prone and motionless near the Bears’ 20-yard line. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and a vigorous cardiac massage were done during a 10-minute attempt to revive Hughes.

“When the stretcher came out,” said Landry, “they put him on it, and when they went back into the stadium, his right arm just fell. It just fell off (the stretcher), and it went so easy. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, there must be something very seriously wrong with him.’ ”

Sharon Hughes wasn’t allowed on the field. She ran to locate the ambulance she’d heard arriving, sirens blaring.

“They had a hard time trying to revive him,” Sharon recalled. “A very hard time. Kent Falb (the Lions’ head athletic trainer) did CPR until we reached the hospital. I don’t know how he had one ounce of energy left in him.

“He worked his heart out, but they just couldn’t save him. Chuck was already turning blue in the ambulance.”

Landry’s fourth-down pass was broken up by Jeter, and the Bears ran out the clock with three running plays.

The game, now an afterthought, was over.

“Then we all went into the locker room,” Landry said. “We all sat there and nobody changed anything. We were all just waiting to see what was wrong with Chuck.”

Coach Joe Schmidt, a Hall of Fame linebacker on some of Detroit’s greatest teams, told his players: “Let’s pray for Chuck. The game means nothing.”

Landry continued, “We all stayed in the locker room until we found out whether he was going to make it or not. And when we got word (about 30 minutes after the game concluded) from someone in the PR department that he passed away, it really took a lot out of us.”

Sanders and placekicker Errol Mann were sobbing, and pretty much everyone was crying.

Within minutes, the U.S. flag at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull was lowered to half-staff.

Bears tight end Bob Wallace, a Hughes teammate at UTEP who caught a 15-yard touchdown pass that day, didn’t learn of his close friend’s fate until the team plane landed in Chicago.

Wallace recalled: “Our team physician said, ‘No matter what, where we would’ve been, that was going to happen, no matter what we were doing.’ We’d later watch that play (where Hughes collapsed) over and over.”

“Chuck had passed away. It was devastating, devastating. Something that devastating will be with us forever. Something we have to live with, and remember forever. Chuck was my friend. I loved him and his family. He was a great guy, man. I love him!”

Everybody agreed on his personal qualities.

Landry added: “He was a great teammate, and was friends with everybody. Everybody loved him. He was a real warm guy. He was a very good man.”

The entire team attended Hughes’ memorial service in San Antonio, and they wore black armbands on their uniforms after that.

His brother, Tom Hughes, and Sharon both encouraged the Lions to stay focused. Linebacker Mike Lucci talked about winning “a championship ring to give to his wife, his son.” Schmidt thought they’d “be able to rally over it.”

However, the grief was too much to overcome.

“When he passed away,” continued Landry, “that wrecked our season. We went to the funeral, and everybody on the way back was like, ‘Our season’s over.’ We were doing real well at the time and we were a very good team. But it just took the stomach out of us when he went down.”

Detroit went 3-5-1 beginning with that 28-23 loss to Chicago, and didn’t make the playoffs again until 1983. So, those future Hall of Famers — cornerbacks Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau and Sanders — and the rest had made the playoffs for the last time.

That 32-yarder was the only catch Hughes made in 1971, when he saw most action on special teams. The All-America receiver from UTEP was the Philadelphia Eagles’ fourth-round pick in 1967, and caught 15 passes for 262 yards with nary a touchdown during his five-year career.

The Chuck Hughes Most Improved Player Award is given annually by the Lions, who also retired his No. 85.

“I loved that he had an award named after him,” said his sister, Dodie Barbee, who lives in Edmond, Okla. “He was so dedicated to football. He always had a football in his hand.”

Her defensive end grandsons, Brady and Logan Stone, have honored their great-uncle by wearing that No. 85 for Edmond Memorial High.

Charles Frederick Hughes’ number, like his spirit, have lived on a half-century after he lost his life on the field. The “Roadrunner” endures in memories because he was somebody who made friends easily, played the game hard and loved every minute of it all.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.

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