The Tragic Death Of Chuck Hughes, The Only N.F.L. Player To Die During A Game

Dick Butkus watches as Chuck Hughes lies on field. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Football is an inherently dangerous sport. With 300-pound players lunging at and wrestling each other to the ground, there are bound to be injuries. In recent years, the National Football League has implemented policies to mitigate the risks, including newly designed helmets and concussion protocol, but in the case of the only N.F.L. player to die during a game, the shock-absorbing helmet wouldn't have helped.

Who Was Chuck Hughes?

Charles "Chuck" Hughes grew up in Texas with his 12 siblings and was a standout football player on his high school team in Abilene. He went on to play football for Texas Western College, which is now called the University of Texas at El Paso, where he racked up some school records, including the most all-purpose yards in a single game, the most yards per reception in a single game, and the most receptions in a single game. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth round of the 1967 N.F.L. draft, and after three seasons with the Eagles, he was traded to the Detroit Lions in time for the start of the 1970 season.

Tiger Stadium, Detroit, Michigan, 1998. (RickDikeman/Wikimedia Commons)

Chuck Hughes's Last Game

On October 24, 1971, the Detroit Lions played host to the Chicago Bears at Tiger Stadium. In the fourth quarter, as the Lions huddled up to plan their next move, Hughes started to run toward the huddle but suddenly dropped to the turf halfway there. Dick Butkus, who was the Chicago Bears's linebacker at the time, saw Hughes grab his chest and start to violently convulse. Hughes was whisked away to Detroit's Henry Ford Hospital, but unfortunately, there was nothing anyone could do to save him after he hit the turf. He was dead on the field before the ambulance even showed up.

Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, Michigan. (Mike Russell/Wikimedia Commons)

What Happened After Chuck Hughes's Death

Hughes's autopsy showed advanced arteriosclerosis that had gone undiagnosed, blocking 75% of one of his coronary arteries and causing coronary thrombosis, which cut off the flow of blood to his heart. It would later come out that Hughes had gone to Henry Ford Hospital seven weeks prior to his death complaining of chest pain, but the doctors failed to run the appropriate tests that would have led to a diagnosis. As a young, fit man, he didn't fit the profile of a person suffering a heart attack, so the doctor told him he may have bruised his spleen and sent him on his way.

Hughes's widow filed a $21.5 million malpractice lawsuit against the hospital for failing to diagnose his condition, and the case was settled for an undisclosed amount in 1974. Today, team doctors are more intimately involved with the health of their players, accompanying them to medical appointments and taking more precautions on and off the field. With player safety now in the front seat, let's hope that Hughes remains the only N.F.L. player to die during a game.