BlogNFL Tragedies: Has a Player Ever Died in a Game?

NFL Tragedies: Has a Player Ever Died in a Game?

Tuesday, July 23, 2024


Football is a game that is cherished by millions, but it has its dark moments. Beyond the excitement of touchdowns and victories, there are also some heartbreaking stories. 

From legendary player Chuck Hughes’ tragic demise to Damar Hamlin’s heart problem, the NFL has seen its fair share of tragedies. 

Let’s have a closer look at the history of NFL fatalities and injuries, and explore the measures being taken to improve player safety and prevent future tragedies.

Deaths on the Field

From players dying from injuries or medical conditions either on the field or shortly after playing. Here are some of the most notable cases:

1. Chuck Hughes (1971) 

Chuck Hughes was a talented NFL wide receiver, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Detroit Lions from 1967 to 1971. Despite an injury in 1971, he continued to play.

Tragically, during a game against the Chicago Bears on October 24, 1971, Hughes collapsed and died from a heart condition at the age of just 28.

2. Mack Lee Hill (1965) 

The Kansas City Chiefs present the “Mack Lee Hill Award” annually to the team’s top rookie. The award honours Mack Lee Hill, a talented fullback who passed away in 1965 after knee surgery. Hill was nicknamed “The Truck” by his teammates.

He led the league in yards per carry in both 1964 and 1965. However, his career was cut short when he suffered a knee injury against the Buffalo Bills late in the 1965 season.

Despite his reluctance, Hill underwent surgery, but complications arose. His body temperature soared to 108 degrees, possibly due to an adverse reaction to the anesthesia.

He suffered convulsions and tragically passed away approximately 90 minutes after surgery.

3. Stone Johnson (1963) 

Stone Johnson was a renowned athlete and Olympic sprinter whose football career ended in a devastating accident. During a preseason game, a kickoff return went horribly wrong, leaving him with a broken neck.

No ambulance was present, and Johnson was forced to wait 20-30 minutes for medical help to arrive. Just 10 days later, he passed away, leaving behind a legacy of athletic greatness. 

4. Howard Glenn (1960) 

Glenn Howard played football for the New York Titans (now the New York Jets) in 1960. After a tough game in Houston, he collapsed from the heat.

His teammates thought he had just overheated, but it was much worse. Without a team doctor, Glenn’s condition got worse, and he died soon after.

Glenn likely hurt his neck during the game but kept playing. If he had gotten medical help sooner, he might have survived.

His story is a sad reminder of how important it is to get medical help right away when someone is hurt.

5. Stan Mauldin (1948) 

Stan Mauldin was a war hero and football star. He flew 35 bombing missions and helped the Chicago Cardinals win the 1947 championship.

In 1948, before facing the Philadelphia Eagles, Stan complained of a headache, and after the Cardinals’ victory, he felt dizzy. As the clock struck midnight, he collapsed in the locker room, and just an hour later, he was gone.

Mauldin suffered a massive coronary occlusion, and his death was a sudden blow to his teammates and fans.

6. Dave Sparks (1954) 

Dave Sparks played for the University of South Carolina and kicked off his NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers in 1951.

After serving two years in the U.S. Army, he joined the Washington Redskins, showcasing his skills on a struggling team.

Tragedy struck after a loss to the Cleveland Browns, when Sparks collapsed during dinner with a friend, complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath. He died before help arrived.

His autopsy revealed an undiagnosed heart seizure, which doctors said would have been survivable with medical attention.

7. J.V. Cain (1979) 

J.V. Cain was a talented tight end for the St. Louis Cardinals who died on July 22, 1979, during a training camp practice.

Cain had become the team’s starting tight end in 1976 and was known for his impressive skills on the field.

His sudden death was caused by a congenital heart condition, which shocked his family, teammates, and the entire football community.

8. Korey Stringer (2001) 

Korey Stringer was a talented Vikings player who died at 27 from heat stroke during a tough practice in 2001. He was a star tackle and his death shocked the team and fans.

Stringer was a dominant force on the field, earning Pro Bowl honors in 2000 and showing great promise for the future.

His tragic death led to a significant change in the NFL’s protocol for handling heat-related injuries. The league began using cold tubs to cool down players, aiming to prevent similar tragedies.

9. Thomas Herrion (2005)

Thomas Herrion was an offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers. He collapsed in the locker room after a preseason game against the Denver Broncos on August 20, 2005.

After that, he tragically passed away despite medical efforts. An autopsy later revealed that Herrion died from a heart attack caused by ischemic heart disease, with significant blockage in his right coronary artery. He passed away at just 34 years old.

Injuries on the Field 

1. Ryan Shazier (2017) 

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal cord injury in 2017, which abruptly ended his promising career. While making a routine tackle, Shazier collapsed, clutching his back, and lay motionless for several minutes.

Despite flexing his arms, his legs remained still, a chilling sign of the severity of his injury. He was rushed to the hospital, where he underwent emergency spinal stabilization surgery, leaving him partially paralyzed.

Shazier defied the odds, relearning how to walk in rehab, and even penned a book, “Walking Miracle,” about his remarkable recovery. With faith, positivity, and passion guiding him, Shazier found his purpose beyond football.

Announcing his official retirement in 2020, he humbly acknowledged, “God put us here for a purpose… For 20 years, He let me play football; now it’s time to see what else life has to offer.”

2. Kevin Everett (2007) 

On September 9, 2007, Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett suffered a spinal cord injury during a game against the Denver Broncos. While making a tackle on a kickoff return, Everett fell to the ground, motionless, and lay there for 15 minutes.

The medical personnel worked to stabilize his neck and spine. He was eventually placed on a stretcher and rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. The spinal cord injury was severe, leaving him paralyzed and ending his football career.

However, thanks to quick medical attention and an experimental cold therapy treatment, Everett made a remarkable recovery, regaining the ability to walk just months later.

3. Reggie Brown (1997) 

Detroit Lions linebacker Reggie Brown suffered a spinal cord injury during a routine tackle in the final game of the 1997 season.

The 23-year-old lay motionless on the ground for 17 long minutes, his body turning blue and purple as he struggled to breathe.

Medical personnel sprang into action, performing CPR and rushing him to the hospital for emergency surgery to stabilize his spinal cord.

Though Brown survived the ordeal, he was unable to continue his football career. He faced a long journey in rehab, relearning how to walk and coping with chronic pain and numbness. 

4. Dennis Byrd (1992) 

In a heart-stopping moment on November 29, 1992, New York Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd’s life changed forever.

During a game, he collided with a teammate, suffering a spinal cord injury that left him partially paralyzed.

As trainers rushed to his aid, the game continued, but Byrd’s football career was finished. After months of rehab, Byrd learned to walk again.

He transformed his experience into a powerful message, becoming a motivational speaker and author. His inspiring story was even adapted into a TV movie.

5. Mike Utley (1991) 

Detroit Lions guard Mike Utley’s life took a dramatic turn on the field in 1991. During a game, he suffered a massive injury, hitting his head on the artificial ground and shattering his 6th and 7th cervical vertebrae.

This left him paralyzed from the chest down. Yet, even as he lay on the ground, Utley showed incredible resilience, he moved his arms and flashed a thumbs up to the crowd. This gesture became the symbol of his unwavering determination.

That iconic thumbs-up inspired the Mike Utley Foundation, which is dedicated to finding a cure for paralysis. His courage and perseverance continue to inspire many young players and football fans to date.

6. Darryl Stingley (1978) 

The New England Patriots wide receiver, Darryl Stingley got injured during a preseason game in 1978.

He was hit by Jack Tatum, a safety for the Oakland Raiders, and the impact left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life.

The hit was legal at the time, but it was a brutal reminder of the physical toll of football. The incident led to changes in the rules to better protect players, with the NFL now penalizing hits to the head or neck of a “defenseless receiver.”

Stingley passed away in 2007 at the age of 55, with his quadriplegia and spinal cord injury contributing to his death. 

7. Damar Hamlin (2023) 

Damar Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills, suffered a devastating medical emergency during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

With 5 minutes and 56 seconds left in the first quarter, Hamlin went into cardiac arrest, leaving players and staff in shock.

He received immediate medical attention on the field and was rushed to the hospital, where he spent time in the ICU. Hamlin was released from the hospital in January 2023 and has been recovering since.

In April 2023, doctors cleared him to play football again, and he reported making significant progress. 


In looking back at NFL history, we’ve seen both highs and lows. From heartbreaking losses like Chuck Hughes and Korey Stringer to inspiring comebacks like Ryan Shazier and Kevin Everett.

The sport has a history of serious injuries and even deaths, especially in its early days. This led to changes like the introduction of the forward pass to make the game safer.

But through it all, there’s progress. Players like Damar Hamlin and Mike Utley’s injuries have shown us that the NFL is taking steps to keep its athletes safe.

As we remember those we’ve lost and cheer on those who’ve overcome, let’s keep pushing for a safer game. Football’s future is bright when its players are protected.



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