Monday’s NFL game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bill was postponed after Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field. But in a similar situation 51 years ago, after a Detroit Lions receiver collapsed on the field from heart failure, the NFL finished the game after he was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
On October 24, 1971, the Lions were playing the Chicago Bears in Tigers Stadium in Detroit. Chuck Hughes, 28, who had starred in college at what was then Texas Western College, entered the game in the fourth quarter as a replacement for an injured player. Hughes then caught a crucial 32-yard pass as the Lions, down 28-23, were driving toward a winning score late in the fourth quarter.
Three plays later, as Lions quarterback Greg Landry threw a pass dropped in the end zone by tight end Charlie Sanders, Hughes started running back to the huddle. But he collapsed at about the 20-yard line and began having convulsions.
Bears Football Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker Dick Butkus frantically alerted the officials and the sideline, prompting the Lions’ and Bears’ doctors and trainers to attempt to save Hughes. He was taken to Henry Ford Hospital, where he was pronounced dead 50 minutes after the game.
The game continued after Hughes was transported away. It was later discovered that he suffered from undiagnosed and advanced arteriosclerosis, and that he died of a coronary thrombosis. He was survived by his wife Sharon Leah, and their almost 2-year-old son, Brandon Shane.
Interviewed in 2013, Sharon Hughes, then 68 and serving as a bus driver and librarian, recalled how she loved her husband’s smile, saying, “He was confident, that boy. … He was gorgeous to me.”
“The players used to say he was a friendly, Western kind of guy,” Sharon added. “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.”
Seven weeks before he died, in the Lions’ final preseason game against Bills, Hughes had collapsed in the locker room after the game and was taken to Henry Ford Hospital, but doctors thought he had an injury to his spleen, lung or kidney. He reportedly left the hospital with a fever.
In 1972 Sharon Hughes sued Henry Ford Hospital; the suit was settled for an undisclosed amount in 1974.
Hughes set records at his college which still stand; among them are the most all-purpose yards in a single game, 401 in 1965, and the most yards per reception for a single game, 34.9, also in 1965, which is also an NCAA record.