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Chuck Hughes - 1971 NFL Fatality Despite its obvious inherent violence, the National Football League has only ever had one fatality occur on the field since it first began play in 1921--and it occurred from an undiagnosed heart ailment rather than from a bone-jarring collision. On October 24, 1971, Chuck Hughes of the Detroit Lions died during the final two minutes of a home game at Tiger Stadium versus the Chicago Bears. Hughes was born in Pennsylvania in 1943 but grew up in Texas with his 14 siblings. He set several school records for pass receiving at Texas Western University. He had spotty NFL career that began with the Philadelphia Eagles. By 1971 Hughes was used mostly as a special teams player and occasionally at wide receiver. On that fateful day Hughes collapsed while returning to the Lions' huddle following a play that did not involve him. Before his collapse it had been a very uneventful game for Hughes. The Bears held a 28-23 lead in a see-saw battle when the Lions got the ball back for one last drive toward the end zone. With under two minutes to go, Lions' quarterback Greg Landry dropped back and found Hughes on a crossing pattern for a 32-yard gain. He was sandwiched and brought down by two Bear defenders at the Chicago 37-yard line. Unhurt, Hughes popped up immediately and ran back to the Detroit huddle. It was the fifteenth and last catch of Chuck Hughes' career. After two straight incompletions Hughes was walking slowly back to the line of scrimmage when he suddenly grabbed his chest and fell to the ground. Some fans initially thought that Hughes might be faking an injury to give the Lions more time to devise their next play. But everyone in the stadium quickly became aware that something was terribly wrong when they saw Chicago's Dick Butkus waving his arms frantically at the Detroit bench and yelling for help. Team doctors Edward Guise and Richard Thompson rushed onto the field in an attempt to revive the lifeless Hughes. Guise began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while Thompson performed CPR. They were joined by Dr. Eugene Boyle, an anesthesiologist from Gross Pointe, MI, who descended from the stands. It was all to no avail. Hughes was pronounced dead at Henry Ford Hospital. He was 28. The photo of the incident shown here led many people to wrongly believe that Dick Butkus had administered a fatal blow to Hughes. Hughes' cause of death was declared to be a coronary thrombosis, which caused a massive myocardial infarction which cut off the blood flow to his heart. Hughes had had concerns about chest pains weeks before October 24, but a medical examination turned up nothing amiss. Hughes' family eventually sued Henry Ford Hospital for malpractice and was given an out-of-court settlement. Hughes left behind a young widow and a son who was not quite two years old. The Lions have retired Hughes' jersey #85.
Tags: NFL  fatality  Chuck  Hughes  1971 
Added: 23rd November 2015
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Posted By: Lava1964
Posted by: Steve on 2015-11-24 
I never knew this Lava!
Posted by: Lava1964 on 2015-11-24 
I only had a vague knowledge of this tragedy until a few days ago. I recently attended a Lions' home game and saw Hughes' name listed among the team's players whose numbers are retired. Then, completely by chance, I was watching some Monday Night Football halftime highlights from 1971 and this incident was mentioned. My interest was piqued so I did some further research into Hughes' career and death.
Posted by: Classico on 2015-11-26 
Your notes are 100% correct - I remember it well as it was widely reported by the national sports media. And yes, for a while a few people said that it was Butkus's hit that caused the fatality - some said this because they were trying to build up his ferocity or his character as a ferocious hitter. But that was utter nonsense as the hit had nothing to do with the medical condition (a blockage) as you point out.


A great tragedy and loss for the Lions and the NFL.
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