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

By | September 30, 2022

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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.

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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.