Sharon Hughes stayed awake as late as she could Monday night, forcing her eyes open. The widow of the only NFL player to die on the field during a game, she needed to know that history was not repeating itself. She needed to hear that Damar Hamlin was still alive.
Hughes said she felt an immediate bond with Hamlin’s family watching the events unfold Monday. Hamlin’s mother was at the game and reportedly rode in the ambulance with him to the hospital in Cincinnati, which Hughes did five decades ago when her husband, Chuck Hughes, was whisked off a field in Detroit.
On Oct. 24, 1971, Chuck Hughes, 28, a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, took the place of an injured teammate in the fourth quarter of a game against the Chicago Bears. With the Lions down 28-23, Hughes caught a 32-yard pass — his first catch that season — and was tackled. Several plays later, with 62 seconds left in the game, he fell facedown to the ground, clutching his chest.
I knew something horrible had happened, because when they were rolling Chuck off the field, one of his arms fell down and his hand was flopping around back and forth, and I thought to myself, ‘Holy Christ, I think he’s dead,’” Bears defensive end Ed O’Bradovich told the Detroit Free Press in 2021.
An autopsy revealed that Hughes had undiagnosed heart disease and that a blood clot in a clogged artery had dislodged, possibly from a hit he took during the game. The autopsy also showed that it was most likely his second heart attack; the first seemed to have gone unnoticed.
Chuck Hughes had loved football since he was little, Sharon Hughes said, and she always supported him in his passion. She said she felt genetics played a bigger part in her husband’s death than his chosen sport.
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