Dick Butkus Did Not Kill Chuck Hughes

Dick Butkus Did Not Kill Chuck Hughes

No. He did not. Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears did not kill Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes. But, for many years, I thought that the ferocious middle linebacker of the Chicago Bears, who seemingly hit opposing players with an intent to kill, did fatally injure Hughes.

Chuck Hughes was the only NFL player to die on the football field.

It happened in 1971. Deep into October. I was 13 years old and all week long I was targeting my date with CBS-TV to witness the Bears play the Lions at Tiger Stadium.  The teams were still in playoff contention. The Bears had won three games and lost two. Like most Bears teams, they were built on defense and running the ball.

Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus staring down the Green Bay Packers offensive line at Wrigley Field.
Chicago, Illinois 12/14/1969

The Lions had won four straight games after losing their opener against the Vikings and there was a buzz about good they were becoming.

I was a huge Bobby Douglass fan and, because of injuries to Jack Concannon and Kent Nix, the third-string quarterback was going to start his first-game of the season.

My affinity for Douglass was born out of his first game as a starter in the NFL. It was, until this day, one of the best debuts in Chicago sports history. Douglass threw four touchdown passes in his; one of them a ball that flew 65 yards in the air, despite a broken wrist he had suffered earlier in the game. Watching the following video of Douglass’ amazing first NFL start reminds me of  the amazing talent he possessed.

Douglass’ defensive end frame – 6’4″, 225 pounds – and middle-linebacker frame-of-mind appealed to me. He was how a Chicago Bears quarterback should be constructed. I knew what was being written and said about Douglass: he  couldn’t consistently throw accurately, couldn’t master the playbook and couldn’t read coverages. But, I didn’t care. How can you dismiss that debut, that athleticism and that arm? (Being left-handed, like Douglass was also why he appealed to me.)

On top of that, the news all week was that Bears coach Jim Dooley, in an effort to save the season, and his job, moved into Douglass’s bachelor pad that week to operate on Douglass’ psyche. Dooley looked like a doctor, in fact, he considered studying for a degree in medicine when he was at the University of Miami in the 1950s. But, his football knowledge and athletic skills produced an impressive college football career (he intercepted four passes in the Gator Bowl) and a decent one as a pro with the Bears.

Dick Butkus

Jim Dooley had a 20-36 record as a head coach. He’s seen her with Gayle Sayers and Butkus

Old man George S. Halas took a liking to Dooley’s professorial ways and made him an assistant coach where he became an innovator of the game. Dooley is credited with being the first defensive coach to put five men in the backfield on passing plays, which is now considered the Nickel Defense.

When Halas retired from coaching, he named Dooley the Bears head coach. On that third week of October, Dooley, now the head coach for over three seasons and with a sickly 17-30 record, was going to somehow inject all of his football acumen on the slow-talking jock.

Over at Detroit, the Lions quarterback needed no such tutelage. Greg Landry was in his fourth professional season. He was the first quarterback taken in 1968 draft. Although his first two seasons as a pro were poor – he had a touchdown to interception ratio of 6 to 17 – by 1970 Landry was fulfilling his promise. That year, Landry fought Bill Munson for the starting QB job and by the end of the season he had found his groove in Motown, leading the Lions to their first playoff appearance in 13 seasons. By the time the Lions and Bears met in October of 1971, Landry was ascending into one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL (he would become a Pro Bowler later that year).  And, he was doing it in a manner that Douglass could potentially replicate.

Landry was the same height as Douglass and only ten pounds lighter. Landry was a first rounder from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, while Douglass was a second rounder from the University of Kansas. Landry, like every other quarterback in the NFL, threw with his right-hand. Douglass was the fourth left-hander in league history. Both quarterbacks could run the ball. In fact, the previous week, Landry rushed for 74 yards on five carries in a 31-7 shellacking of the Houston Oilers. Douglass would later break the single season record for rushing by a quarterback. At the time, I remember thinking they were similar, yet so different.

When game time began, the images on my 25″ RCA television set appeared to need adjusting. Everything looked gloomy. But no amount of tinkering with the brightness or contrast controls changed a thing. It was simply a gloomy day and old historic Tiger Stadium added some doom to the look. There was a rainy mist in the air and the temperature was in the 60s.

The first quarter rumbled by with the division’s typical black and blue style of football. Each team was seeing red as evidenced by the hitting, especially by guys like linebackers Dick Butkus and Mike Lucci.  At the end of the quarter, the Bears held a one-point lead with Don Shy scoring on a 21 yard rushing touchdown sandwiched between two Errol Mann field goals. On the touchdown, the Lions shifted their defense left, the Bears ran right and Shy took advantage of the blocking Chicago’s front six provided. Perhaps, the Lions were expecting southpaw Douglass to roll left on the first down play. Bad guess.

Early in the second quarter, Bobby Douglass struck. With seven guys pass-blocking, the Lions stunting and getting no where near the QB, Douglass hit wide receiver George Farmer, in stride, streaking down the right sideline for a 54-yard touchdown.

On the ensuing kick-off,  the Lions’ special team unit knocked, at least, four Bears’ players on their asses and Ron Jessie ran the pig back 102 yards for the touchdown. It was his second run-back for a touchdown of the year.

Douglass and the Bears did nothing on their next possession, but Landry and the Lions did. Behind some good rushing by running back Steve Owens, Detroit matriculated the ball down the field and Landry eventually threw a 16 yard touchdown pass to Larry Walton.

Right before halftime,  Coach Dooley, again, called a play with max protection for Douglass  and his student passed with a brilliant 15 yard touchdown to wide receiver Bob Wallace.

Four touchdowns in one quarter. Two of them passes from my hero, Douglass.

At this time, the name Chuck Hughes was never mentioned. He hadn’t played, unless he was on special teams. There’s no record that he did and I’ve looked at highlights of Jessie’s kick-off return TD to see if he was on the field, but I don’t see a number 85 anywhere.

Truth is not many people knew who Chuck Hughes was. The little known NFL wide receiver, joined the league in 1967 after a very successful collegiate career at Texas Western University where he was the school’s all-time leading pass catcher. He was described as not very fast or strong, simply a hard-working, smart football player who played with great passion for the game and to excel.

Drafted by the Eagles in the fourth round, Hughes saw little playing time in his three seasons at Philadelphia. He had a total of six catches in 38 games.

He joined the Lions in 1970 and surpassed that total by catching eight passes. There was some talk that Hughes could see more action the following year. But, when the fateful game started, Hughes had zero receptions in the two games he had played.

Perhaps, health was the reason Hughes underperformed. We would learn later that Chuck Hughes had actually suffered a heart attack seven weeks earlier when the Lions played their final pre-season game.  As expertly reported here by Yahoo sports reporter Les Carpenter (and with the help of Jeff Haag, who is working on a book about the tragedy), Hughes collapsed in the locker room after taking a series of hits to his ribs and side. Carpenter writes, “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 was evaluated for four days and was released without a proper diagnosis.  Because Hughes was 28 years old and in, seemingly, excellent physical condition, no one suspected that his complaints of chest pains were associated with a heart attack.

I wonder if doctors had known if Hughes, who was one of 13 children, had siblings with heart issues and that both his parents died of cardiac problems.

Hughes’ wife, Sharon, knew something was wrong with her husband, though. Carpenter writes, “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.” 

On the night before the Bears game, Sharon and her husband were at an afternoon family party. She could tell by his appearance and demeanor that he was not well. He kissed her goodbye and left to the hotel the team stayed at the night before home games. It was the last time they would ever kiss.  

Years later,  Lions players would tell Haag that Hughes spent the night vomiting. Whether it was ever reported to team officials is not known.  

The third quarter began and the defenses, probably cursed at by their defensive coordinators for the multiple touchdowns allowed in the second quarter, took control of the game. Lions kicker Errol Mann did boot his third field goal of the game and Detroit took a 23 to 21 lead, but the biggest play of the quarter was the last one when Greg Landry, rushed by only three Bears linemen, was harassed by defensive end Willie Holman, and threw an interception to Jimmie Gunn. Less than five minutes later, Bobbly Douglass, quarterback-sneaked the pig in from the one yard line and the Bears had a 28 to 23 lead to protect.

I wonder what was going through Chuck Hughes’ mind as the the clock ticked off the remaining minutes of the fourth quarter. Given his highly-competitive nature, he was probably yearning to get into the game, despite not feeling well. I recall exactly what I was thinking, though: Bobby Douglass is going to take us to the Super Bowl. He’s thrown two touchdowns and rushed for another. He’s outplaying Greg Landry and our defense will shut the Lions down.

On the next series, cornerback Bob Jeter, a former Green Bay Packer, making his first start for the Bears made a spectacular interception – Landry’s second of the game. But, the Lions would get the ball back.

I will never forget the next series of plays, although I have learned, I didn’t exactly see what I thought I had seen. And, in fact, while doing research for this story, there are many people, some of whom were in attendance, who remembered things differently. Whatever exactly happened doesn’t change the tragic outcome.

Trailing by five points and with under two minutes to go, Larry Walton, who had earlier scored on a touchdown pass, was out of the game due to an ankle injury and Chuck Hughes was finally in the game.

Landry wasted no time finding the 6 foot tall wide receiver who made a tumbling catch for 32 yards – moving the ball from the Lions 32 yard line to the Bears 36. He was tackled on the play, high and low, by Garry Lyle and Bob Jeter.  That tackle, thinks Hughes’ wife, Sharon, contributed to his death.

“I hit him high around the shoulder and Jeter hit him low”, a visibly shaken Lyle told the Chicago Tribune. “I don’t think we hit him in the head”.

Of the dozens of accounts I have read from fans in attendance and followers on TV, no one had any suspicion that Hughes was in trouble, but Richard Bak, who was at the game, and wrote about his memories, reports that a Bears cornerback covering him would later remark that Hughes’ eyes “looked kind of strange,” as they faced each at the line of scrimmage other a play later.

After the Hughes’ reception is where I fumbled the ball. The next play, is when I thought Dick Butkus killed Chuck Hughes – or to be more exact contributed to Hughes’ death. As I recall it, Landry dropped back and tried to hit Hughes again over the middle. Butkus separated the ball from the receiver with a brutish hit. Except is wasn’t Hughes.

Report after report I’ve read says the hit was on tight end (and future Hall of Famer) Charlie Sanders. Hughes was still in the game, suffering, but not from a hit by Butkus. For years, I’ve told people I thought Dick Butkus’ hit on Chuck Hughes contributed to his death.

I’m sorry, Dick Butkus. I’m very sorry.

I wasn’t the only one to stupidly make that attribution. If you can stomach the insensitivity of it, this video shows the hit on Sanders and plasters: DEATH HIT over the screen as the metal rock band Drowning Pool blasts its controversial song, Let The Bodies Hit The Floor.

But, most people who believe Dick Butkus killed Chuck Hughes , think so, not because they made the same mistake I made, but because of what happened on the play he collapsed.

On the following play, Sanders, miraculously still in the game, was targeted again by Landry. Knowing Butkus was in the vicinity, Sanders, like any man, dropped the ball.

Dropping to the ground, several yards away, and untouched by anyone was Chuck Hughes. Butkus has reportedly told Haak that they locked eyes just before the collapse and he then saw Hughes’ eyes roll back into his head. Butkus immediately sensed trouble and frantically motioned to the sideline for help.

Most fans thought that Butkus had hit Hughes. He’d been hitting everyone else during the game. And, it was an understandable mistake. There was Hughes lying on the ground and here was Butkus standing over him (a few yards away).

24 Oct 1971, Detroit, Michigan, USA — Original caption: Detroit Lions’ wide receiver Chuck Hughes lies on the field at Tiger Stadium, October 24, as the Chicago Bears’ Dick Butkus (#51) and two officials await assistance in the closing minutes of the Lions-Bears game. Hughes died within the hour at Ford Hospital of an apparent heart attack. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Butkus waves to the sidelines frantically and some fans thought he was taunting the Lions bench. It wasn’t out of character.

Some Bears players thought Hughes was simply trying to stop the game clock by feigning injury.

Richard Bak recalls Hughes twitching “uncontrollably on the soggy field.”

Two Detroit, trainers Kent Falb and Gary Tuthi, ran out onto the field. Then the two team doctors. Then, another doctor from the stands.  And, what is not disputed by anyone in attendance, Tiger Stadium quickly became silent.

United Press International reported that Lions team physician Dr. Edwin R. Guise said Hughes, “was unconscious when we arrived on the field.” And that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardiac massage were administered on the field.

Watching on TV, I sensed the worst. Just like a lot of people at Tiger Stadium did.

Responding to Richard Bak’s vivid recollection of the event, Lions fan Steve Harms recalls being at the game when he was 12 years old. He writes…

“With my line of sight from high in right field, the stretcher carriers blocked my view of the stretcher and the attendants around him…….but did see something (a) 12 year old will never forget….as he was being transported, to the ambulance, not too far out from the Tiger s dugout….his left arm fell from his torso and dragged on the ground. It was the kind of scene you watch in an old cowboy movie…..the bad guy gets shot, falls on the table…..then his arm falls and hangs limply. I know most people there noticed that happen, I swear there was a collective sound that shows up when you want to scream and don’t….you just can’t keep it all inside.”

Bak, Harms and several other accounts recall hearing the eerie echoes of the ambulance sirens bouncing off Detroit’s buildings as it approached Tiger Stadium.

Sharon Hughes was at the game. By the time she arrived beside her husband on the field the ambulance was on the sideline. Carpenter, for Yahoo.com writes, “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.”

Three hours after the start of the game, Chuck Hughes was pronounced dead.

I learned about Hughes’ passing at the start of the evening’s newscast.

I was even more shocked at how the media treated the story. There seemed to be very little coverage. Perhaps, I missed it. What I did know is that for the first time in my life I had witnessed someone die.  This wasn’t Cowboys and Indians dying on a TV show. Or a cop shooting a bank robber in a movie. This was a football player dying on the football field.

And, I thought Dick Butkus played a role in his death.

How stupid of me.

Sharon Hughes sued the Henry Ford hospital for $21 million, claiming the doctors there should have done a better job of detecting what was troubling her husband when he stayed there for four days prior to the season. In 1974, the suit was settled for an undisclosed amount. The Hughes had a child, who was about 18 months old at the time of the football player’s death. Rich Sorrells responds to another blogger’s recollection of the incident:

“Chuck was my uncle and I was 11 at the time of his death. His son has grown up, gotten his college degree and is doing very well.”

An autopsy revealed that Hughes’ arteries were severely clogged and that a blood clot had broken loose.

You won’t find video of Chuck Hughes death on YouTube or anywhere else. After its initial airing, CBS Sports never showed the collapse and NFL Films never released their coverage. Perhaps that is part of the reason why people don’t talk about Chuck Hughes and his untimely death; not unless you are one of the 54,518 fans in attendance or one of the million or so fans who, like me, saw it on TV a long time ago.

The Bears lost their last five games, averaging under six points a game and Jim Dooley was fired by George Halas as soon as the season ended.

Dooley fell into depression and almost drunk himself into an early death, before his good friend and former Bears legendary quarterback, Sid Luckman, helped him out and talked Halas into bringing him back in an administrative position.

Bobby Douglass will forever be my most disappointing Chicago sports athlete. He played several more years. His best, and most infuriating, was in 1972 when he set an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback. He may have also set a record for errant throws and poor decisions. He finished his football career with the Packers, throwing four passes. One of them was for a touchdown. The football Gods have some sense of humor. Douglass tried his hand at baseball, too. That, too, was a disaster.

Greg Landry went to the Pro Bowl in 1971. But, he never played as well as he did that season. Never lived up to the lofty expectations of a first round quarterback. He, ironically, finished his career in Chicago as quarterback for the USFL’s Chicago Blitz. He later had limited success as an offensive coordinator with the Bears.

Dick Butkus was terribly shaken by Hughes death. In his book, Stop-Action, Butkus wrote,

“When they carried Chuck Hughes off the field I knew he was dead. I thought, if I had to go, that’s the way I’d want to go, right on the field, because there is nothing else I want to do. That guy died right. But, I started thinking that this could happen to anyone, at any time. I said a prayer for Chuck Hughes. Our Father who art in heaven… I never thought of the words like that before… I said a prayer for all of us. Hail Mary full of grace… It was the first time I ever spoke those words.”

Butkus stayed in Detroit to attend a mass for Hughes on the following day.  He was greeted warmly by the Lions players and staff and thanked for sharing in their grief. But, days later, he picked up a magazine and he was furious. He told the Miami News, “Russ Thomas the General Manager says I ought to be banned from the game. Joe Schmidt (Lions Coach), Ed Flanagan (team center), and even Mike Lucci were bad-mouthing me.”

The vitriol came in the mail, too, as Butkus received dozens of letters from fans telling him he would get his for killing Hughes. Years later, Butkus decided he would no longer talk about the subject.

And, then there’s Tiger Stadium. That old sports cathedral also met with a sad end. After its usefulness as a venue for professional sports died, it becomes more and more of an eyesore and repeated attempts to demolish it were finally successful in  2009, despite passionate attempts to preserve the field.

At it’s place now is a baseball field with weeds growing.

It’s on that field where two teams battled bravely in a football game. A man died of a heart attack. Thousands of Detroit Lions fans in attendance wept openly. And, a boy, watching on TV, several hundred miles away, learned there is something more important than football. Life.

Chuck Hughes, Detroit Lions wide receiver,July 19,1971 file photo.(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

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Aldo Gandia

Aldo Gandia

Among my career highlights I have produced two films while in high school that received nationwide attention; leaned out of a helicopter over the Gulf of Suez at the age of 20 to shoot movies of oil rigs; won an Emmy award for a sports special and another for a kid's fitness show; and led a team of very talented creative professionals to produce break-through corporate communications.

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