BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
While the national perception of Detroit is the poor economy & for years, it was known as the Murder Capital, what people seem to overlook is Motown has always been a Super Sports Town.
In my lifetime, the Detroit Tigers, Pistons, Shock and Red Wings have won championships. Even the Arena Football League's Detroit Drive and the USFL's Michigan Panthers won titles in addition to the fact that the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans football, basketball, hockey and baseball teams have enjoyed success. To date, the Michigan Wolverines football program is still the all-time winningest in NCAA Division I.
Yet in this day and age, Detroit's national sports headlines will focus on the 0-16 Lions. Very few baby boomers will remember the accomplishments of Charlie Sanders, Lem Barney, Billy Sims and Barry Sanders. How many were alive when Barry Sanders played in his lone NFC Championship in 1991 when the Lions were hammered by the Washington Redskins 41-14 in the nations capital at RFK Stadium?
There is no doubt that the Ford Family has done a poor job giving the Lions fans much to cheer about. A 31-97 record the past eight years, an NFL record 24-game road losing streak and now this infamous 0-16 season, has earned the Lions airtime on the late night comedy show circuit, in addition to national ridicule on sports radio and television programs.
But while players like Erik Kramer, Chris Spielman to name a couple should have retired in a Lions uniform on their own terms, other athletes and a head coach didn't have that option.
I never thought on Oct 24, 1971 at Tiger Stadium that I would be a part of history for all the wrong reasons. As an eight-year old boy, I saw wide receiver Chuck Hughes, 28, die of a heart attack running a pass pattern against the Chicago Bears as Hall of Famer Dick Butkus would later signal for help as his fallen opponent laid on the field motionless. Hughes is the only player in NFL History to die on the field during a game.
As stunned as I was, I knew what was going on and asked my father Mike does this happen often? He quietly nodded his head and said no. He put his arms around me, and when we went to our Southfield, Michigan home, we watched the local news and received official word that Hughes died.
That night, I slept in his bed and had nightmares of that afternoon at the Corner of Michigan & Trumbull. I would later find out that my best friends, George Eichorn, Elia Nicholas and Gus Pantelides also attended this day to forget.
While the Lions may lack winning seasons and playoff victories, this organization doesn't lack life lessons.
On November 17, 1991., I watched starting right guard Mike Utley, 25 , suffer a severe spinal injury that was officially diagnosed as an injury to his sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae, against the Los Angeles Rams. Amazingly enough, the play was a normal contact play and it seemed like no big deal from my vantage point in the Pontiac Silverdome's Press Box. But the big downfall at the Silverdome was it was an artificial surface venue with cement beneath it, therefore, when the body took a big hit, it took a physical toll on the player.
Utley was carted off the field strapped on a stretcher. Yet he became a major inspiration after flashing the “Thumbs Up Signal.” But on this day, instead of watching the great moves Barry Sanders was making, it would be the last time Utley would walk because he was paralyzed.
As I think about this day, I'm amazed that we saw the replay on our monitors so many times, it seemed like such a harmful play that it was an injury that few would take notice of knowing it was a clean football play.
The Lions used Utley's injury to inspire them and they rolled to a seven-game winning streak and a berth in the NFC Championship Game.
Just when the Lions were dealing with the Utley injury, in that off-season, Erik Andolsek, their starting left guard was working in the yard of his Thibodaux, Louisiana., home on June 23, 1992, when he was struck and killed by a semitrailer truck that ran off the highway. He was 25.
Another incident I'll never forget was the passing of former Lion linebacker Toby Caston. I was covering the Detroit Lions overtime 20-17 win over the defending Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys on Monday Sept 19, 1994 at Texas Stadium.
At the Lions team hotel, I asked former executive Chuck Schmidt if he even felt his team had a chance to win this game. He told me that the team would be ready for the challenge and don't be surprised if we win this game. Low and behold, Detroit did prevail on this night and Schmidt was indeed correct.
After the win, Caston and I were talking outside the Lions lockerroom shooting the breeze and pleased with the victory. This is the greatest game I've ever attended and it still tops Super Bowl 43 when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals in Tampa!
But at approximately 4 AM the next morning central time, Caston, 29, was killed in an auto accident.
When I heard the news the next day, I was sick to my stomach and devastated! One minute I was enjoying a great Lions win talking to Caston and asking him if he was going to keep playing or stay retired, the next day, the game of football meant nothing compared to the game of life, and the man upstairs made Toby's decision for him.
On Dec 21, 1997, linebacker Reggie Brown, Detroit's first round pick, selected 17th overall from Texas A&M nearly died on the field the same day Lions running back Barry Sanders eclipsed the 2,000 rushing mark for the season.
The Utley injury made me aware of spinal injuries, but watching Brown sustain this spinal cord contusion while assisting on a tackle in a match-up against the New York Jets in the regular season finale at the Silverdome, reinforced the violent nature of football.
Brown did lay motionless on the turf for 17 minutes. He lost consciousness briefly. CPR saved his life. On this day, it felt like he'd be the second person in NFL history to die on the field wearing the same Honolulu Blue & Silver colors. I felt like I was living the Hughes nightmare all over again but this time I was old enough to understand what was going on.
Brown had emergency surgery after being transported to the hospital, which likely spared him from spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. This injury occurred 32 games into his NFL career while he was in his early 20's.
While I wasn't at a game when this tragedy occurred, I still haven't forgotten about the death of former Lions Head Coach Don McCafferty, who guided the Baltimore Colts to a Super Bowl V, 16-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys on January 17, 1971, suffered a fatal heart attack on July 28, 1974., while cutting his grass at his West Bloomfield home just prior to the beginning of training camp as he was trying to rebound from a 6-7-1 season. He was 53.
I was on a family trip in Traverse City when I heard the news on a local television station in upstate Michigan.
McCafferty replaced Don Shula as coach of the Colts after the all-time winningest coach in NFL history took over the Miami Dolphins. The Lions hired McCafferty on January 26, 1973.
Now the Lions are dealing with the Corey Smith boating tragedy when he and a pair of his fishing buddies died in the Gulf Coast of Tampa Bay, Florida. I saw Smith, 29, play in Charlotte, NC., in the Lions 31-22 loss to the Panthers on Sunday Nov 16th.
It's tough enough that the Lions had to deal with an 0-16 season and now they're reeling from the loss of their defensive end, taking the focus away from their scouting of the 2009 NFL Draft. No matter what people feel the Lions accomplished in the off-season, it's inevitable that Smith will be in the next Media Guide in “Memoriam Of” not a biography of what he did this past season. Even if he would have signed with another team, his lasting image now will be with the Detroit Lions, just like those mentioned in this story.
Does it take all of these scenarios to realize that these football players are human and that football is just a game? These individuals haven't had the opportunity to celebrate life to it's fullest because of their unfortunate fate.
For those Lions that have passed away, there will be an asterisk next to their name in the media guide with a footnote at the bottom of the page that says deceased.
But for fans, media, and their family members, there memories will seem larger than life.
I can only imagine how many more yards Barry Sanders would have gained in his Hall of Fame career if Utley and Andolsek's tragedies wouldn't have occurred and the lingering question remains, would their contributions have enabled the Lions to reach a Super Bowl? We'll never know.
On thing I do know, is that the Detroit Lions did the right thing when they retired Hughes No. 85 and honored him by naming an award in his name in 1997 to the “Most Improved Player.”
But I'll never forget that game as it finished in near silence and how today, this remains the most traumatic sporting & life event I've ever witnessed and have been a part of in 46 years.
At a young age, I learned that we're on this earth for a visit so we better live every day as if it were our last! The thing that Hughes knows is he can be thankful for the fact that he died doing what he loved to do and that's playing football.
One of my favorite sayings is "Morris Had Nine Lives, We Better Make The Most of the One We Have."This has served me well over the years both in my professional and personal experiences.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at Scottsports33@aol.com
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