NFL Player Died on the Field and Everyone Went on Playing

You’ve heard of course about all the long-term dangers of playing professional football. And in the old days, the sport was much more dangerous than it is now—back in 1905, 18 players died, most of them high school students. And yet in the history of the NFL, only one player has died on the field. 

It was Chuck Hughes from the Detroit Lions, who died at 28 on October 24, 1971. For the first three quarters of their game against the Chicago Bears, Hughes was on the sidelines.

With 10 minutes left on the clock, he came on to the field, replacing a (non-seriously) injured player. With two minutes left, he caught a pass. Then with 62 seconds left, he collapsed.

Some Bears players (by their own later admission) thought Hughes was faking an injury to get an extra timeout, and they started yelling and swearing at him. He was not faking. A team of doctors attempted CPR, then they took him off the field on a stretcher. Doctors would continue to try reviving him at the hospital, but the guy was dead.

And so play resumed. We’re not blaming the other players here: None of them cared about the outcome of the game at this point, so they just ran out the clock for the remaining minute.

The Bears had been ahead 28 to 23 when Hughes went down, and they maintained that lead now because no one tried to score. Still, it’s crazy that that final minute played out, right? Nothing in the rules said you call a game early when a player dies, so they had let the clock wind all the way down. 

Hughes did not die thanks to any kind of head injury. He had a heart attack, since one of his arteries was almost fully clogged right before his death.

Exertion triggered the attack, instead of impact with another player. His family did not blame the sport of football but rather a hospital that should have diagnosed his condition earlier. They sued the hospital for $21.5 million and won an out-of-court settlement. 

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