Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Impossible Not To Think Of Chuck Hughes In The Aftermath Of Herrion's Death

We still don't know what ultimately killed young 49'ers offensive lineman Thomas Herrion. Maybe he was too obese. Maybe toxicology tests, the results of which won't be available for several weeks, will shed some light on the mystery. An autopsy conducted in Denver proved inconclusive.

Herrion, as you know, was on the field during the team's final 91-yard drive just before the end of the game against the Broncos in Denver. He collapsed and died minutes after returning to the lockerroom, which means he came very close to being just the second man to ever die on an NFL field.

The only one, of course, is Lions receiver Chuck Hughes. It is impossible not to think of Hughes now, especially for people like me who actually remember the whole sickening thing happening at Tiger Stadium.

Hughes' death is still the only on-field fatality in NFL history

Actually, I wasn't there -- I was listening on the radio. But it was no less stark to hear announcer Bob Reynolds, his usually excited voice somber, describing the scene of Hughes lying motionless on the grass as team doctors tried futilely to pound his heart back into rhythm. It was at the end of a Lions' loss to the Bears.

Hughes' cause of death was known within 24 hours. He had a heart condition, which he was born with and was undetected in team physicals, causing him to, in the words of a doctor, "Have an old man's heart in a young man's body." Chuck Hughes never had a chance, as it turns out, to live a long life, whether he was a football player or not.

Herrion, listed at 6'3" and over 300 pounds, apparently had no heart condition. He was, as far as anyone knew, in typical football player shape, although he was a very large man. But there are hundreds of very large men playing pro football; what made Thomas Herrion any more at risk? Perhaps we will know more in the weeks to come.

I don't know the exact number of men who have played professional football, but it surely must be in the tens of thousands. Yet only four -- Hughes, Herrion, JV Cain and Korey Stringer -- have died either on the field of play or during practice or in a lockerroom. So while Herrion's passing is a tragic story, I don't think it necessarily means that pro football players are dangerously obese and at risk of similar fates, as has been suggested by some doctors.

Like Hughes, Herrion was a little-known, young player trying to etch out whatever playing time he could. Now he will forever be linked to the receiver from Texas El-Paso in another way, as part of a tiny category of football-related fatalities. It is a horrible development, Herrion's death, and I only hope it doesn't share something else in common with Hughes' demise.

The night before Hughes' death, the receiver and his wife got into a horrible fight at a team function. They both slept in different locations -- Hughes at a team hotel and his wife at home. Neither apologized. So the last time Sharon Hughes spoke to her husband, the words were angry and hurtful. She revealed in an interview years later that her husband's death was almost unbearable because of the hateful argument the night before the fateful game.

I pray for Herrion's family's sake that there are no similar circumstances that would make his passing any more difficult to deal with than already is.

By the way, the last pass thrown Chuck Hughes' way in that game against the Bears on October 24, 1971 was a brilliant 25-yard catch that kept the Lions' late drive alive. So at least there's that.

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