Fifty years ago Sunday, the NFL saw its worst possible nightmare play out on the field at Tiger Stadium. For every week before, and every week since, the men and women who run the league ought to say a silent prayer that it has never been repeated. Because when you think about it every week before, and every week since, could have yielded a similar tragedy.
Chuck Hughes was 28 years old that afternoon, a backup receiver for the Detroit Lions. On the surface he seemed as he was: an extraordinarily fit athlete, bulletproof, eager and willing to absorb the rough-and-tumble laws of NFL game days.
It was a mild afternoon in Detroit. The Bears, 3-2 on the season, had just taken a 28-23 lead on the 4-1 Lions in the fourth quarter. The Lions took possession. Larry Walton, one of Detroit’s starting receivers, busted up an ankle as the Lions tried to start a game-winning drive late in the game. Into the game trotted Chuck Hughes.
It was Hughes’ fifth year in the NFL. The Eagles had drafted him in the fourth round out of Texas-El Paso in 1967, and he’d caught six passes for a total of 68 yards in three years in Philadelphia. Traded to the Lions in 1970, he’d caught eight balls his first year as a Lion. Most of his time was spent on special teams. He’d yet to catch a ball in the ’71 season.
That changed immediately. Lions quarterback Greg Landry found Hughes for 32 yards, setting up the Lions at the Chicago 37-yard-line. The crowd started to stir. Hughes was clobbered on the play — tackled by two Bears defenders, one high, one low — but rose quickly and jogged back to the huddle.
A couple of plays later, Landry tried to hit tight end Charlie Sanders in the end zone but the pass was broken up. Hughes, serving as a decoy, had broken his route short at the 15-yard line. As he headed back to the huddle, his eyes locked briefly with Dick Butkus, the Bears’ fearsome middle linebacker.
A second later, those eyes rolled back in Hughes’ head.
He collapsed to the turf, clutching his chest.
In the moment, the Bears thought he might have been faking an injury, which in those days was a not-uncommon practice. But it was Butkus who instantly realized this was no gamesmanship. He frantically began to wave for medical attention. Hughes’ arms were at his side, his helmet turned sideways. Trainers and doctors from both teams ran to Hughes’ side, as did an anesthesiologist who’d been attending the game as a fan.
Hughes was removed from the field on a stretcher — an image captured, hauntingly, and printed in hundreds of newspapers the next day. He was hustled into an ambulance. His wife, Sharon, joined him there, saw his arms hanging limply, saw that he had turned a sickening shade of blue. Doctors at the hospital frantically tore off Hughes’ jersey and his shoulder pads.
At 5:41 p.m., Hughes was pronounced dead.
“It’s like being in a time warp,” Sharon told reporter Les Carpenter in 2013. “You know you are there but you are floating in the ether. I don’t know, what is it? Denial? Here I’m 25, he’s 28, 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.”
An autopsy was performed, and it said one of Hughes’ arteries was 75 percent clogged and that a blood clot had broken loose — presumably from the hit on his last catch — and became trapped in the artery, cutting off blood to the heart muscle. It also showed that he’d likely had another heart attack — earlier in the season, Hughes had been hospitalized for four days with what was diagnosed as a spleen injury.
Hughes’ death permanently affected the players on the field that day. There have been other terrible injuries. There has never been another death on the field. It is not something football players want to ponder as they violently collide with one another dozens of times per game. But they understand the dangers. They understand the potential consequence.
Fifty years ago Sunday, all of that played out on a mild, muggy day in Detroit. May that never happen again.
It is hard to calculate all the lives Dick Vitale has made better through his tireless charity work through the years, notably through the Jimmy V Fund for cancer research. It’s time for that karma to bounce back and help him now, as he fights his own cancer battle. Dickie V isn’t just one of the great characters in sports, but one of the great people. He’s worth rooting for.
Monday marks 35 years since Mookie Wilson’s grounder trickled through Bill Buckner’s legs. Recently, at their home in Bamberg, S.C., the entire Wilson family watched that moment together for the first time.
“My girls were 2 and 4 in 1986,” Mookie said, “so they never saw me play. We watched the film together, and they saw their dad was a part of Mets history. It was a nice moment to experience as a family.”
The Islanders do realize that these games count, right?
You may or may not have noticed that a certain team from St. Bonaventure, N.Y., snuck into the AP hoops rankings this week (at No. 23) for the first time in more than 50 years. That is the last I will speak of that certain team from St. Bonaventure, N.Y., for a while (EDITOR’S NOTE: I tend to lie a lot about this subject).
Whack Back at Vac
Richard Siegelman: Though it has annoyed the heck out of me for 30-plus years, I hope that before Steve Somers does his last WFAN “Schmooze,” he gets the chance to utter his 10 millionth “And again …”
Vac: Anyone who does something as long, and as well, as Mr. Somers has at the FAN since Day 1 deserves all the accolades he has coming between now and his final sign-off.
Dick Schlott: As a Knicks fan who goes back to the days of Sweetwater, Tricky Dick and Harry the Horse, this is one fun team to watch. Maybe a superstar short of a championship, but a team that will give its all every game with an outstanding coach!
Vac: What the Knicks needed most of all was to give their fans an immediate buzz to be excited about. If nothing else, they have done that.
@ucfdk: People forgot what New York is like with a good Knicks team. Nothing in New York sports compares to it. Not the Yankees or the Giants. It’s a basketball town and their basketball team finally came back.
@MikeVacc: As I was saying …
Robert Lewis: The new Yankees mission statement should be the following: “Be competitive, make the playoffs, charge the fans astronomical prices for everything, make oodles of money, and if we don’t make or win the World Series … oh well.” That’s a far cry from: “World Series or bust.”
Vac: I never thought I’d miss the hyper-confident, hyper-arrogant, hyper-bulletproof version of Yankees fans but … I really do miss them.