1971 Bears vs. Lions The tragic death of Chuck Hughes

People who were there say they are still haunted. Haunted by the eerie wail of the ambulance siren as it echoed off the downtown Detroit buildings. When it left Tiger Stadium that fateful day there were very few people who knew that Chuck Hughes was already gone.

It remains the greatest tragedy and only death ever to occur during a NFL game. October 24, 1971.

It began as a prototypical Bears, Lions game day. A chilly autumn wind blew through the old, venerable home of the Lions, standing majestically on the corner of Trumbull and  Michigan Avenues. A slight, dreary drizzle began before game time and would continue on and off all afternoon. The entire city had a melancholic feel to it.

Chuck Hughes, in the Lions locker room, was getting ready for the game. Only a couple of months prior, Hughes had a health scare when he complained of chest pains to the team physician, but after an examination he was cleared to play.

It was shaping up to be a slugfest between two teams still squarely in the playoff hunt, although both would falter in the second half of the season. The Central back in those days was commonly referred to as the “black and blue” division for its hard hitting and menacing defenses.

That makes it even more ironic then, that Hughes’ death came after a play where he wasn’t even touched. Many people mistakenly thought that he had been levelled to the ground by Dick Butkus. But that just wasn’t the case.

Up until moments before his collapse it had been a very uneventful game for Hughes. The Bears had 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 thirty-two yard gain. He was sandwiched and brought down by two Bear defenders at the Chicago thirty-seven yard line. He 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 in the crowd thought Hughes might be faking an injury to give the Lions more time. Others thought that Butkus was taunting the Lions’ bench. But everyone in the stadium quickly became aware that something was terribly wrong when they saw 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 who was in the stands that day.

Chuck Hughes lay at the Bears twenty yard line for what must of seemed like an hour with 1:02 showing on the game clock while the doctors tried to bring life back to the 28 year old Texan, who had only recently become a father ( his son was not yet two years old when the unthinkable happened ). The faces in the now hushed crowd showed all of the emotions of the moment. First confusion, then anguish, and finally, despair.

The remaining minute and two seconds of the game was played in almost complete silence. Virtually no one cared about the final score.

I remember watching this game as a ten year old child. And I don’t recall a single play of it before Hughes slumped to the ground. But I remember too vividly Butkus waving to the sideline. And the doctors knelt over the fallen receiver, desperately working to save him.

Now, after all these years, when I watch the Bears play the Lions those two times every season, I do so with the slightest tinge of heaviness in my heart.

Even now.

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