Football Thursday: Legacy of Chuck Hughes goes deeper than being only NFL player to die on field during a game
He is forever frozen in the picture now, this man with blue eyes gazing into a future that would never be his. Chuck Hughes will remain 28 years old and in the middle of a professional football career nobody could have predicted back home in Abilene, Texas. He will never get old. He will never wear down. He will never lose his sturdy chin or his slightly bent nose or his crooked half smile. He will always be young.
Sharon Hughes loved her husband's smile. It had such assuredness. Sometimes she will say, "He was confident, that boy," because that's how he seems to her, trapped for eternity in a hopeful gaze during the last year of his life. She is 68, a librarian and bus driver in a tiny school district in southern Texas. And the 42 years she has lived since he became the only player to die on the field in an NFL game are far longer than the eight they were together. She tries to imagine what he would look like today, at 70, wondering if he would still be handsome. But she can't. So she stares at the picture of the man eternally youthful and figures that's how she will always know the love of her life.
"He was gorgeous to me," she says.
Every Sunday, football players crash into each other with such ferocity that a sickening feeling lingers that someday someone won't get up. And yet for anyone under the age of 50, the story of the only player to die on an NFL field is a mystery. Few have heard of Chuck Hughes. Even fewer know about the 6-foot wide receiver with modest NFL speed who fell in a lifeless heap on the field of Detroit's Tiger Stadium late in the Oct. 24, 1971, game between his Lions and the Chicago Bears.
The story of the blood clot that became lodged in a hardened artery in his heart, silencing it in a massive heart attack, has been forgotten. Those who were there, who saw him lying face-first on the turf say he was dead before he even hit the ground.
"It was a sad moment," his teammate Tom Vaughn says. "A super-sad moment.
There is nothing about Hughes that says he should have been an NFL player. He was not tall. He was not fast. He was not particularly strong. But he was a talented, smart athlete and driven to be a good football player. Jeff Haag, a writer in Iowa who is working on a biography of Hughes, calls him the ultimate underdog and draws a comparison to Denver Broncos receiver Wes Welker – an undersized player who was determined to be great.
Hughes grew up in a family of 15 children, first in Breckenridge, Texas, and then Abilene. He was late to football for a Texas kid, not picking it up until he was in the sixth grade. At first he was a running back before moving to receiver where he quickly learned to run precise routes.
And once he learned them, he practiced them. Again and again and again. Stories spread around town of the young receiver who never stopped playing football. Because of a glitch in his transfer from Breckenridge to Abilene, Chuck was too old to play his senior year of high school and yet he insisted on practicing with the team, simply to stay sharp. He HAD to get better. His brother Johnny, who played cornerback, says he learned more from Chuck than he ever did from a coach. Chuck insisted on going against him in practice, showing him how to stop certain patterns and telling him the things receivers hated defensive backs doing.
Bum Phillips, then the coach at Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) in 1962, gave Hughes a scholarship. But after Phillips left, the next coach, Warren Harper, rescinded the offer, making him earn a spot as a walk-on. Hughes not only made the team, he set numerous UTEP records, including most receptions, receiving yards and all-purpose yards in a game, and is third on the school's list of career receiving yards.
The Philadelphia Eagles picked him in the fourth round of the 1967 NFL draft. He played three years with the Eagles, mostly as a special teams player who occasionally slipped onto the field as a receiver. In 1970 he went to Detroit, where he started six games and caught eight passes. Even as a professional who was not a featured player he worked tirelessly, showing up early in the morning or staying after practice to run routes or practice catching balls.
Sharon laughs as she says her female friends never really knew Chuck. He never seemed interested in chatting with the women the way some players did. She calls him "a man's man," always wanting to hang out with the guys, talking about football or playing golf.
"The players used to say he was a friendly, Western kind of guy," Sharon says. "He had a good sense of humor and laughed a lot. He had a really strong giggle. His sister had the same giggle. If he got tickled he'd giggle."
Chuck's sister, Dodie Hughes Barbee, nods.
"If you met him on the street he would greet you with a smile and a very polite, 'Hello, how do you do?'" she says. "He was just a pleasant person, I thought. Chuck was just a real all-around good guy.
"He didn't have a mean streak. He was just a sweet, nice guy."
And he loved football.
What most people don't know about the only player to die on the field in an NFL game is that Chuck Hughes actually had two heart attacks. The first came in the Lions' final preseason game, seven weeks before he died. Detroit was playing the Buffalo Bills and late in the game the Lions ran a flurry of plays to Hughes. On one of those plays he took a shot to his ribs and side. He walked off the field and stood on the sideline. But after the game, he collapsed in the locker room. In an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come at the end of the following month, he was raced by ambulance to Henry Ford Hospital.
Hughes stayed in the hospital for four days. At the time, his family says, the doctors thought he had an injury to his spleen, lung or kidney, but nothing could be confirmed. A few weeks later he told the Detroit News he had sharp pains in his stomach and chest but no one could figure out what they were. He said he could handle it. He said he wanted to play.
Later, an autopsy would show he had an enlarged spleen and liver. Several doctors and ER technicians who saw the autopsy report told Haag that Hughes probably had a spleen injury that was so painful it triggered the first heart attack. No one would have thought to look for a heart attack, not in someone seemingly so fit.
"He was 28 years old, in top flight shape and could run all day long," Haag said. "No one suspected, doctors or anyone, he would have a heart problem – because he had been complaining of some chest pains – he had a slightly high, elevated temperature. Maybe someone would have suspected it in somebody who was older but not in a professional athlete who was 28 years old in the prime of their life."
And so Hughes returned to the Lions, who waited patiently for their third receiver to be healthy enough to play. But something clearly was wrong. "After that, he never felt 100 percent," Sharon Hughes says.
Chuck Hughes had a fever when he left the hospital. Over the next few weeks he constantly asked Sharon for Alka-Seltzer to calm what he thought was acid reflux. Looking back, she is sure he was feeling something but no one could say what. He wanted to get back to football, finally getting clearance to appear in the Lions' fifth game of the year at Houston.
On the day before he died, Chuck and Sharon went to an afternoon party at the house of a Lions teammate's friend. Several of the players' families were there. She remembers having fun, but she could tell Chuck did not feel well. "His color was bad," she recalls. They argued over the gum their nearly 2-year-old son, Shane, was chewing. Chuck said a child so small shouldn't have gum. When they got home, Chuck kissed Sharon goodbye and went to check in to the hotel where the team stayed on nights before home games.
But something was amiss. Chuck didn't call Sharon that night as he always did when he checked into his room. Years later teammates told Haag that Chuck was ill and had thrown up several times that evening, yet nobody called Sharon to tell her that. She was left alone with the silence of the phone that didn't ring and the silly argument over chewing gum.
The day of the Chicago game was mild and muggy for a late October day in Detroit. The game went back and forth until Chicago took a 28-23 lead in the fourth quarter. When Larry Walton, one of the Lions' starting receivers, hurt his ankle late in the game, Hughes replaced him. He caught a 32-yard pass and was instantly hit high and low by two Bears. He crawled up and ambled back to the huddle.
A couple of plays later Hughes ran down the field – a decoy on a pass that went to Charlie Sanders. He stopped, turned and headed toward the huddle. At the 15-yard line he locked eyes for a moment with legendary linebacker Dick Butkus, then his eyes rolled in the back of his head and he collapsed on the turf. For a moment many of the players thought he was faking an injury, a common practice in those days. But then Butkus waved wildly toward the benches.
Doctors and athletic trainers sprinted onto the field. Sensing something wrong, an anesthesiologist in the stands ran down from his seat and toward Hughes, who was lying motionless, his arms at his side, his helmet turned sideways.
From her seat, Sharon first thought Chuck had swallowed his mouthpiece. Then she worried that maybe a dental plate had come loose and lodged in his throat. But she could see the doctors performing CPR, their fists pounding on his chest and the dread filled her that he was having a heart attack. A player's wife sitting nearby remembers Sharon shrieking and then heading toward the field. Another wife ran with her. By the time she got out of the stands, an ambulance had pulled onto the sideline and Chuck was being loaded onto the stretcher. Vaughn saw Chuck's arm dangle limply off the side of the stretcher, the life likely gone from his body.
As Sharon jumped in the back of the ambulance, she could see her husband had turned blue and she was sure he was already dead. But she kept hope as the doctors kept pushing on his chest. She watched in a daze as physicians at the hospital thrust a needle in his arm. She could see the liquid emptying from the needle. It all seemed surreal. She felt as if she was hovering near the ceiling, looking down on the doctors who were ripping apart Chuck's jersey and tearing at his shoulder pads.
"It's like being in a time warp," she says. "You know you are there but you are floating in the ether. I don't know, what is it? Denial? Here I am 25, he's 28, and you think you can do anything you want to and you never consider the alternative, which is death. Death took place unexpectedly; you have a loss of consciousness. You are just floating."
Then at 5:41 p.m., three hours after the start of the game, they were telling her what she already understood. Her husband was gone. And then came the bitter reality of informing the world that the receiver who had just caught a 32-yard pass in a game that was televised through much of the Midwest was dead.
News spread fast. In Texas, Johnny Hughes was practicing with his company's flag football team when he was stopped by a man who blurted, "I'm sorry about your brother."
When Johnny asked the man what he meant, the man replied, "I'm sorry about your brother dying."
"I didn't have a brother die," Johnny said.
"Well, aren't you Chuck Hughes' brother?" the man asked.
The Lions, whose late-game drive stalled after Hughes was taken away, trudged into their locker room. After a few minutes the door opened and the players were bluntly given the news.
A few days later there was a funeral in San Antonio. Every team sent a representative. Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry came even though he didn't know the Hughes family. But there were so many football people there. Sharon barely recognized them. The league sent two executives. The entire Lions team came down on a charter flight.
Later that day, as the Lions took off for Detroit, one of the plane's engines lost 1/3 of its power. Vaughn remembers the pilot announcing they were going to try to make it to Chicago.
"Try?" Vaughn says the players asked themselves.
Eventually the pilot shut the engine down and said the plane was going to make an emergency landing in Omaha. And while news accounts say the plane wasn't in danger, the players – already overcome by Hughes' death and funeral – were shaken.
"When we landed in Omaha everyone wanted to kick out the windows and get off that plane as fast as we could," Vaughn said.
Another plane was found and the team flew home without incident.
On the day after Chuck Hughes died, a Detroit-area pathologist, Taisja Tworek, performed an autopsy on the player. One of the Lions' doctors sent a copy to Sharon the next year along with a letter explaining the report. It said one of Chuck's arteries was severely clogged and that a blood clot had broken loose – presumably from the hit on his last catch – and had become trapped in the artery, cutting off blood to the heart muscle. The report also mentioned "old scarring on the posterior wall of the heart," presumably a reference to the first heart attack Hughes was believed to have had.
Sharon is convinced that had her husband's condition been diagnosed correctly after the Buffalo game, he would be alive today. Several of the team's doctors said after his death they had run EKG tests and other exams but couldn't find anything to explain his chest and stomach pains. In 1972 she sued Henry Ford Hospital, insisting the doctors never should have let him leave with a fever and should have done a better job of detecting what was wrong with him. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount in 1974.
"I wish someone could have told him in September, 'Stop playing football, don't get that blood clot in your artery and just go play golf on the golf course and live your life,'" she says.
Though the Hughes family had a history of heart issues – both of their parents died young of heart problems – his siblings believe he would have left football if the first heart attack had been diagnosed. If he wasn't playing football he wouldn't have been hit in the Chicago game and the blood clot wouldn't have become lodged in his artery. They say he loved golf. Chuck's younger brother, Mike, says his brother played with Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino, and was good enough to play professionally.
When asked to define his legacy, Sharon and the Hughes family stop. The answer isn't simple. Maybe because it was a pre-cable television era and because Chuck wasn't a star, his death was quickly forgotten. His family members seem grateful to be contacted about him. They say they are thankful someone wants to write about him. Other than Haag, who has unearthed stories and information about his death that they didn't know, they have rarely been approached about their brother in the last 25 years.
Still, it is hard for them to explain what his life and death meant. Sharon told her son, Shane, countless stories about his father, constantly pulling out articles and photographs for him to see. But he was two weeks short of his second birthday when Chuck died. To the son who never knew his father, Chuck Hughes is the man in the photograph who never aged. Eventually, Sharon stopped showing him the pictures and telling the stories.
The family is certain that Chuck's death forced the league to install defibrillators in every stadium and changed players' perceptions about faking injuries at the end of games. But they and Haag suggest something bigger. They say it was the first time players began to think seriously about their health.
Several times, as a player, Vaughn lost consciousness after blows to the head. He even had special helmets made – one with padding on the outside and another with a gel you could pump inside to protect the skull – and yet he still found himself getting knocked out. He considered it a part of the job, the price of playing football.
Until the day Chuck Hughes died.
"For the first time in my life I thought of my wife and children," Vaughn says.
At the end of the season he saw a brain specialist who compared his concussions to martinis. "You have three and everything is OK and then the fourth knocks you out for good," the doctor said. Right then Vaughn knew he was done with football. He was 28, an aggressive defensive back who had been a solid punt and kick returner, but he no longer wanted to play.
"I was thinking about my wife and kids," Vaughn says. "They were more important to me than my football career. I didn't want to go the way Chuck went. I didn't want to die on the football field."
The man in the photo who will forever be 28 years old.
Arizona Cardinals – Another strong performance and near-miss by Carson Palmer.
Atlanta Falcons – It's been a bleak year for Matt Ryan, but Sunday was a bright spot.
Baltimore Ravens – Whenever the Ravens needed a big play Jacoby Jones was there.
Buffalo Bills – C.J. Spiller was fantastic in a heartbreaker for the Bills.
Carolina Panthers – It wasn't pretty but Cam Newton won another game with arm and feet.
Chicago Bears – If Chicago gets more games like Sunday from Alshon Jeffery, the Bears have a bright future.
Cincinnati Bengals – How could so many people have been so wrong about Vontaze Burfict?
Cleveland Browns – Sunday's loss wipes out another amazing day from Josh Gordon.
Dallas Cowboys – DeMarco Murray rumbled through the Raiders for three TDs.
Denver Broncos – Can we give the season MVP to Peyton Manning now?
Detroit Lions – The combo of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell doesn't get enough credit.
Green Bay Packers – Sam Shields had eight total tackles and an interception.
Houston Texans – Ben Tate rumbled for a quiet 102 yards.
Indianapolis Colts – Good thing for the Colts that Adam Vinatieri was on.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Cecil Shorts catches a rare game-winner for the Jags.
Kansas City Chiefs – Alex Smith played well in a tough loss.
Miami Dolphins – Through Dolphins chaos Ryan Tannehill has had some strong games.
Minnesota Vikings – This was vintage Adrian Peterson.
New England Patriots – Yet another great Tom Brady comeback win.
New Orleans Saints – Kenny Vaccaro was strong with a forced fumble on an awful night for the Saints.
New York Giants – Behold the revival of Justin Tuck.
New York Jets – Chris Ivory continues to be the one bright spot in Jets' offense.
Oakland Raiders – Nick Roach with two sacks and a forced fumble was a force Dallas couldn't stop.
Philadelphia Eagles – Where would the Eagles be without Nick Foles?
Pittsburgh Steelers – Even before his last play Le'Veon Bell gave a huge effort in Baltimore.
St. Louis Rams – Michael Brockers had two sacks for a quiet Rams defense.
San Diego Chargers – Keenan Allen had 106 receiving yards on a tough afternoon.
San Francisco 49ers – After being maligned for weeks, Colin Kaepernick had a fine game.
Seattle Seahawks – Lost in the defensive dominance is Russell Wilson's brilliant second year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Mark Barron had 10 total tackles.
Tennessee Titans – Zach Brown had seven solo tackles and a sack.
Washington Redskins – Nobody has been more valuable to the 'Skins over the years than London Fletcher.