On Oct. 24, 1971, Lions’ receiver Chuck Hughes became the first and still only NFL player to die during a game.
In 102 years of NFL football, one player has died during a game. On Oct. 24, 1971, as the Detroit Lions played the Chicago Bears at Tiger Stadium, Lions’ receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed and died.
Via the Altoona Mirror:
Altoona’s Ed Flanagan, the Lions’ all-pro center, was joined in his annual dustup with linebacking great Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears.
The Lions were down by five points with less than two minutes to go. Detroit marched into Bears’ territory when wide receiver Chuck Hughes snared a 32-yard pass from Greg Landry that moved the ball at the Chicago 37.
Hughes had just replaced Johnstown’s Larry Walton, who had twisted an ankle. Three plays later, Flanagan gasped as he watched a Landry aerial slip through the fingers of Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders in the end zone.
As he gathered his mates for fourth down, Flanagan noticed someone was missing from the huddle. He gazed downfield and saw Hughes lying face down and motionless in the muck of Tiger Stadium at the 20-yard line.
Chuck Hughes suffered a heart attack, collapsed on the field and died instantly. An autopsy would show he suffered advanced arteriosclerosis. A blood clot has dislodged, settling into the large artery leading to his heart. He was 28 years old.
According to a Yahoo! Sports story in 2013 (which is well worth reading), Hughes has suffered a heart attack late that preseason, seven weeks before he died. If that happened to someone in the preseason today, it’s hard to believe they’d be cleared to play that season, let alone in mid-October. The family said doctors thought Hughes had injuries to his spleen, lung or kidney but could not confirm. He insisted on continuing to play. The autopsy also showed he had an enlarged spleen and liver.
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Hughes was an undersized player and an underdog story, from earning a scholarship to Texas Western (now UTEP) from coach Bum Phillips before being made to walk-on by Phillips’ replacement. Hughes went on to set numerous school records, and he is still fifth in school history in receptions (168) and second in receiving yards (2,997).
Hughes was taken in the fourth round of the 1967 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. He landed with the Lions in 1970.
Advances in medical diagnosis, and keen attention to player health and safety, makes what happened to Hughes unlikely to ever happen again. On the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, his story can’t be forgotten.