Surprisingly, only one man has ever died on the field during an NFL game. I didn’t know that morbid fact until Monday night, when I looked it up after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed in terrifying fashion during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bills said overnight that Hamlin had suffered cardiac arrest on the field before his heartbeat was restored; he remains in critical condition at a Cincinnati hospital.
The man who died was Chuck Hughes, a 28-year-old wide receiver for the Detroit Lions who had a heart attack while running back to the huddle during a would-be game-winning drive in 1971. He collapsed to the ground and was tended to, of all people, by Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, one of the most vicious players in NFL history.
It is instructive — to understand the nature of football, the way its players and fans and executives respond to the potential mortal peril of its inherently violent nature — to learn how the teams and the league handled Hughes’s death when it happened: They kept playing. They not only kept playing, it’s clear from a contemporaneous account of the incident, but it didn’t even occur to anyone to stop. “We thought we had him when we got it [his heart] going again,” said the team doctor, who had rushed on the field to revive Hughes. That was the only consideration at the time: Get his heart going and get him off the field so the game could resume. And resume it did, as Hughes lay dying in the locker room. The Lions’ drive stalled and they lost the game, but the notion that the shock of Hughes’s collapse might have had something to do with a decline in play wasn’t even treated as a possibility in the postgame recaps. An NFL Films highlight package from the game mentioned Hughes’s death only in a passing, “oh yeah, by the way” fashion.
That’s what NFL culture was and for the most part still is. And that’s why Monday night actually represented some progress. What felt different this time, different than what we’ve been trained and accustomed to see in the NFL over several decades? Everybody — well, almost everybody — stopped, took a step back, and thought about something other than football. The players, visibly stricken at watching one of their own being given CPR on the field, knelt and prayed as the ambulance took Hamlin off the field. The star quarterbacks Josh Allen and Joe Burrow, who 15 minutes earlier were desperately trying to outscheme each other in what was undeniably one of the most important games of the season, consoled one another and made it clear, along with their coaches, there would be no more football played on Monday. Fans in the stands were respectful and patient, and they even comforted one another. A toy drive Hamlin started weeks ago for his hometown received more than $3 million in donations from fans watching at home. ESPN’s coverage was sort of incredible, with broadcasters delivering devastated, painfully honest, and raw commentary.
Of course, a central reason for the rareness of this response was the nature of the injury itself. From the moment Hamlin went down, it was apparent that something unusual had happened; nobody could recall a similarly wrenching scene in recent memory. And yet, it was easy to imagine a different reaction to it just a few years ago, before we all knew just how dangerous football was. (Not that this knowledge has dented the game’s popularity in the least.)
The NFL obviously did the right thing by postponing the game, and I’m not sure the decision was ever really in question. On TV and certainly on Twitter, the league faced criticism for waiting an hour to finally call things off. But while I’m loath to cut Roger Goodell much of a break for anything, those complaints have more to do with the inherent impatience of social media than cold-blooded NFL heartlessness. There were initial reports that the league had imposed some sort of five-minute “cooling-down period” ahead of restarting the game, but both the NFL and the Players Association, along with Bills and Bengals coaches, denied such instructions were given out. The fact is that an NFL game, particularly a Monday Night Football game that carried critical playoff implications with one week left in the season, involves countless and disparate moving parts that have to be accounted for. Being perhaps 15–20 minutes late with an official postponement announcement does not strike me as the mortal offense it might have seemed on Monday night — though it remains to be seen how, when, or even if the NFL decides to restart the game (it’s not happening this week), and that decision very well may open the league up to more condemnation. But I’m not sure it messed things up as much as everyone was screaming it did Monday night.
So the real takeaway was that just about everyone involved with the incident responded to it: They thought about the player rather than the game. This is unusual, in every aspect. Football is a dangerous sport in which players are inherently disposable, in which dozens of players suffer brain injuries every week, in which contracts are not guaranteed, in which life expectancy for players is a full seven years fewer than baseball players. The entire economic structure of the sport is constructed around the games (and television inventory) being completed as scheduled, one of the many reasons the NFL was so aggressive in playing its regular slate on time in the middle of the pandemic. Football is the show that must always go on.
But on Monday night, everybody stopped, focused on one man, and thought about what mattered and what didn’t. It seemed obvious that they had to stop the game, for Hamlin, for his teammates, for all of us. But for most of football history, it wouldn’t have been obvious at all. Monday night was a deeply emotional moment that (almost) everyone involved handled with grace and compassion. And that’s different. That’s progress.