24 Mar 1943 1
Oct 1971 1

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Full Name:
Charles Hughes 1
24 Mar 1943 1
Oct 1971 1
Social Security:
Social Security Number: ***-**-9683 1

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An eyewitness account of the only death to occur on an NFL gridiron


With under two minutes to go, the Lions launched a final drive. Larry Walton, who had earlier snagged a scoring pass from Greg Landry, was injured. Number 85, Chuck Hughes, had replaced him.

The slender Hughes, one of 16 children, had been a standout at Texas Western, where he set receiving records that still stand. In one game alone he caught 17 passes for 349 yards. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1967, spending three seasons as a back-up end and special teams player before being traded to the Lions in 1970. He was a peppery team player, always “patting people on the back and cheering them up,” Landry said at the time.

Now Landry was looking for Hughes downfield, and the sure-handed flanker made a tumbling grab to give the Lions a clutch first down on the Bears’ 37-yard line. The 32-yard reception was Hughes’ first of the year and only the fifteenth of his unremarkable five-year pro career.

Landry went back to pass twice more, throwing incomplete each time. On third down, Hughes flanked out to the right. The Bears cornerback covering him later remarked that Hughes’ eyes “looked kind of strange” as they faced each other across the line of scrimmage.

Hughes ran a down-and-in, but Landry passed instead to tight end Charlie Sanders, who dropped the ball near the Chicago goal line. A collective groan went up in the stands. Most eyes were on Sanders when Hughes, returning to the huddle, suddenly clutched his chest and collapsed around the Bears’ 20-yard line.

Lying face down in the vicinity of deep left field, Hughes twitched uncontrollably on the soggy turf. Dick Butkus stood over him. Some thought Hughes was faking an injury, or that Chicago’s bestial middle linebacker had finally killed someone on the field. But Butkus immediately saw something was wrong and frantically signaled to the sidelines. Trainers and doctors raced out. A physician charged down from the stands. As more than 54,000 people silently watched, doctors beat their fists on Chuck Hughes’ chest. The marbled sky hung low over the left-field stands. A cold drizzle fell. The stadium clock showed 62 seconds left in the game.

After what seemed forever, Hughes was placed on a stretcher and rushed by ambulance to Henry Ford Hospital. The game resumed, distracted players moving listlessly inside the hushed ballpark. A siren could be heard in the distance. Moments later the game was over and once-rambunctious fans filed out, talking in low tones. Mary and I sat inside an idling bus on Michigan Avenue, the goofily smiling Lions bobblehead in hand, listening to updates drift over the driver’s radio. Hughes was officially pronounced dead at 5:34 p.m. An autopsy revealed that he had died of acute coronary thrombosis, brought on by premature hardening of the arteries. Nature had given Hughes the heart of a 60-year-old man.

Head coach Joe Schmidt and the entire Lions team attended Hughes’ funeral in San Antonio. Hughes left behind his wife and a two-year-old son. It was reported that Hughes had complained of chest pain earlier in the season but that he had been pronounced healthy. His widow sued the Lions, Henry Ford Hospital, and several individual physicians for malpractice. The parties settled out of court. Meanwhile, the Lions took Hughes’ number out of circulation and established a team award to honor his memory.

His greater legacy was a newfound attitude among many of his teammates, including Lions punter Herman Weaver, who was recently asked about that dark day at Tiger Stadium. “I try to put a smile on my face every day,” he said, “because we’re not guaranteed tomorrow.”

Chuck Hughes

Charles Frederick "Chuck" Hughes (March 2, 1943 – October 24, 1971) was an American football wide receiver in the National Football League from 1967 to 1971. He is, to date, the only NFL player to die on the field during a game

Hughes was born on March 2, 1943 in PhiladelphiaPennsylvania.[2] He moved with his family to Texas when he was young, along with his twelve siblings.[3] Hughes attended high school in Abilene, Texas

Hughes played college football at Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso)[2] where he is still listed in the all-time football records; his accomplishments include:

  • The most all-purpose yards in a single game, 401 in 1965 against North Texas State University (he is also second with 360 the same year against Arizona State University
  • The most yards per reception for a single game, 34.9, also in 1965 against North Texas—this is also an NCAA record
  • The most receptions in a single game, 17, also against Arizona State in 1965
  • Second in all-purpose yards for a season, with 2044 in 1966
  • First in all-purpose yards per game for a season, 204 in 1965
  • Second in all-purpose yards per game for his career with 132
  • Fifth in all-purpose yards all-time with 3,989
  • Second in career receiving touchdowns with 19 and yardage with 2,882

He was inducted into the UTEP Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006

Hughes was drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1967 NFL Draft and played three seasons with the Eagles before he was traded to the Detroit Lions prior to the start of the 1970 season. Although listed as a wide receiver he saw most action on special teams, being a backup at wide receiver. In his five-year career he caught only 15 passes

On October 24, 1971 while playing for the Detroit Lions, he suffered a fatal heart attack during the final minutes of a game versus the Chicago Bears at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. He had run a pass route but was not part of the play, an incomplete pass intended for Lions tight end Charlie Sanders. He was jogging back to the huddle when he collapsed on the Bears' 15-yard line without contact.[3] Initially some thought he was faking an injury to stop the clock, but Bears linebacker Dick Butkus frantically signalled for help on the field.[6] It was obvious that he was in serious trouble, and the game was finished in near silence. His teammates were informed of his death before leaving the stadium. Hughes, as it turned out, suffered from advanced arteriosclerosis. The autopsy revealed that his coronary arteries were 75% blocked and that he was killed by a blood clot that completely cut the circulation to his heart muscle.[7] His family had a history of heart problems.[8] Hughes was buried in San AntonioTexas, and all 40 of his Lions teammates attended his funeral, including head coach Joe Schmidt.[4] He is survived by his widow, Sharon Leah, and his son, who was 1 year and 11 months old at the time, Brandon Shane.[3] A $10,000 trust fund was set up for his son Brandon by an insurance company.[9] His widow filed a $21.5 million malpractice lawsuit against Henry Ford Hospital in 1972 for not diagnosing his condition when he was hospitalized after complaining of chest pains. The lawsuit was settled on October 3, 1974 for an undisclosed amount of money.[10]

The Lions retired his number, 85, in his honor, and annually make an award to the most improved player in his name.

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