ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Sunday night’s collapsing of professional football player, Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin, brought sport safety to the minds of all. Closer to home, though, the event brought Abilenians back to mind of Chuck Hughes, an Abilene High grad who went on to play for the Detroit Lions. By 1971, memories of Hughes turned painful as he, from then on, would be known as the only player in the National Football League (NFL) to have died on the field.

Big Country Athletic Hall of Fame

“Chuck was just a fun-loving guy,” remembered Beverly Ball, who taught and coached at Abilene High while Hughes was a student there. “He did a great job for Abilene High School (AHS).” 

Ball told KTAB/KRBC she remembered Hughes as an excellent athlete, and as cheer sponsor, she was able to see him quite a bit in school.

After Hughes graduated, Ball said everyone kept up with him as he played football in college, and eventually went pro. 

“Everyone was kind of watching his team as they played each weekend,” Ball said. 

That is, until tragedy hit, when Hughes collapsed during a football game. 

Chuck Hughes as an Abilene Eagle (1962 AHS yearbook)

“He was the only player to ever die in an NFL game,” revealed chairman of the Big Country Athletic Hall of Fame, Al Pickett. Pickett said Hughes collapsed because of cardiac arrest. 

Hughes’ collapse was on the forefront of these fans minds as they watched Damar Hamlin’s collapse in his game against the Cincinnati Bengals over the weekend.

“It immediately brought back that memory,” Picket said. “And that’s kind of why we have the [Big Country Athletic] Hall of Fame to remember the great accomplishments, and even the sad things that happen.”

One of Hughes’ high school friends, who wanted to remain anonymous, said even he, too, was thinking about his friend.

“Usually, they give you the thumbs up, but they didn’t give the thumbs up,” the friend reflected on Hughes’ passing.

While people on social media continued to say that an event like Damar’s collapse had never happened before, this friend said all he could think about was that Lions-Eagles game in October 1971; “They never mentioned Chuck Hughes.”

It was a difficult situation for Ball, as well, as she said in congruence, “They kept saying there had never been anything like this on the field, and I thought, ‘Yep. We had an Abilene High Eagle do that.'”

Big Country Athletic Hall of Fame

Although it is a difficult memory, some Abilenians say they’re choosing to remember the good instead.

“He’s one of over 220 people that we inducted in the Hall of Fame that went to high school in this area,” said Pickett. 

Hughes’ picture has been in the Big Country Athletic Hall of Fame since 2013, because Pickett was so fascinated by his story. 

As for Hamlin, he is still listed in critical condition at a Cincinnati hospital.