Green: Damar Hamlin’s collapse brings back memories of Lions’ on-field tragedy

Detroit News
Jerry Green |  Special to The Detroit News

The afternoon Chuck Hughes joined the Lions in a trade with the Eagles, he requested superstition-defying uniform No. 13.

“No, you can’t wear that number here,” said Roy “Friday” Macklem, who controlled the Lions’ locker room with an iron fist.

A placid man, Hughes accepted the uniform number he was issued rather than the 13 he had worn at Texas Western and with the Eagles in the NFL.

Rather, Macklem, the Lions’ late equipment manager, handed Hughes No. 85 in the locker room the club used during training camp at Cranbrook in the old days.

So, it was No. 85 in Honolulu blue that Hughes was wearing when he played backup wide receiver for the Lions in 1970 and 1971. It was in October ’71 that Hughes went out on a pass route in a Lions’ game vs. the Bears at Tiger Stadium.

Hughes was a decoy on that play, in for the injured Larry Walton. Hughes had previously caught a 32-yard pass from Greg Landry.

Hughes never made it back to the huddle.

The scene was my first thought when I saw Damar Hamlin go down on the field in the Bills’ Monday Night Football game against the Bengals in Cincinnati.

“Unprecedented,” the ESPN crew kept informing America on the telecast during the dramatic stoppage as players gathered around, tearing up and mumbling prayers.

My mental images flashed back — clearly — to Chuck going down about the 30-yard line in left field and Dick Butkus above him. Butkus, a vicious Hall of Fame linebacker, was the humanitarian. He was waving frantically to the Lions’ bench.

Moments later, Lions’ physician Dr. Richard Thompson was pounding Hughes’ chest in an attempt to restore a heartbeat. Dr. Edwin Guise was blowing into Hughes’ mouth.

These movie pictures kept rolling through my head Monday night as doctors performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Hamlin on the field.

On that dirty gray day at Tiger Stadium, Hughes, at just 28, was lifted via stretcher. He was carted by ambulance to Henry Ford Hospital, about three miles north. Sharon Hughes, Chuck’s wife, was aided into the ambulance.

And for some reason, the game was permitted to finish. Another 62 seconds. In fearful silence. The Lions lost.

My memory keeps going.

The press rode the elevator to the main concourse and rushed to the Lions’ locker room. There, the door was shut.

We waited. When the door opened, coach Joe Schmidt told us that Chuck had died of a heart attack. He had died on the field, face down, on the mud-ridden gray grass.

The Lions’ players canceled their postgame party for that Sunday night.

“Chuck was looking forward to the party,” the late Mike Lucci told me.

“The players felt it would be a fine night for the 40 of them to get together for an evening of camaraderie and fun,” I wrote.

“Instead, the Lions attended a private rosary.”

Three days later, the Lions flew on a team charter to San Antonio for Hughes’ funeral.

The NFL Players Association invited Sharon Hughes to New Orleans during the prelude to Super Bowl VI in New Orleans in January 1972. Landry introduced me to Sharon Hughes. We talked about Chuck. The uniform number. Her grief.

“At night, I wake up and reach out for Chuck’s hand,” she said.

“It’s not there.”

The Lions, so sadly, have been a franchise so connected to tragedy.

The thoughts about Chuck Hughes — his passing — and his personality keep returning.

Reggie Brown, flat on the field at the Silverdome in 1997, unconscious, then surviving with a spinal contusion. Scary moments.

Mike Utley, hit during a game in 1991, his spine twisted, paralyzed for life. A thumb’s up as he was rolled to the locker room. Later, always a smile as he worked diligently for his foundation.

Coach Don McCafferty, winner of Super Bowl V with the Baltimore Colts, after one season with the Lions.

Lucien Reeberg, at 21, and Eric Andolsek — during offseasons.

There is one final, flashing, precious image of Hughes, in 1970, the season he was denied his No. 13 jersey.

Another Monday Night Football game, Dec. 14, the Lions defeating the Rams in the Los Angeles Coliseum, 28-23.

This time, the players had a party. The Lions had played themselves in line for the playoffs.

On the ride back to Long Beach and the Lions’ hotel, Lucci stopped the auto he was in, transporting a journalist riding shotgun. Lucci went inside the party store and emerged with a couple of cases of beer for his team.

Upstairs at the hotel in the postgame party room, the player behind the bar popping open the cans of beer was Chuck Hughes. He was grinning and singing along with his teammates.

I remember, he handed me one. Perhaps another.

The joy was unforgettable.

The next Sunday, the Lions beat the Packers and qualified for the playoffs. They lost the infamous 5-0 game in Dallas.

And a year later, iron-willed Friday Macklem retired Chuck Hughes’ No. 85 uniform.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports writer.

Articles You May Like

Lions Mailbag: Sign Da’Ron Payne In Free Agency, Draft Noah Sewell, Detroit Trade Down The Draft
Aaron Glenn lined up to have second interview for Arizona Cardinals head coaching job
Mitch Albom: Retirement doesn’t knock twice — unless it’s Tom Brady who’s knocking
All four Detroit Lions’ Pro Bowlers to participate in week’s skill competitions
Lions losing assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley to Panthers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *