NFL Player-Turned-Doctor Nate Hughes Is Battling COVID-19 on the Front Lines: ‘You Just Hope You’re Prepared’

After they retire, many NFL players go into coaching or broadcasting. Others enter professions where they can help people, like the medical field. During COVID-19, the world is witnessing an even greater need for doctors. Former NFL wide receiver Nate Hughes became a doctor after he retired. Now, he’s on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, doing what he can to minimize its effects. Here’s his post-NFL story.

Nate Hughes’ short NFL career

Nate Hughes of the Detroit Lions runs through the passing drills
Nate Hughes of the Detroit Lions doing passing drills | Leon Halip/Getty Images

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Hughes was an undrafted free agent coming out of Alcorn State. Originally signed by the Browns in 2008, Cleveland released him later that year. The wide receiver signed on with the Chiefs’ practice squad, but they released him. Hughes signed with the Jaguars that November. In Jacksonville, he saw his only regular-season action, playing in eight games in 2009 (five receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown).

Hughes spent the 2010 season on injured reserve, then the Jaguars waived him. In 2011, the Lions claimed the journeyman, who was waived in September 2012, ending his nondescript NFL career.

Why Hughes went into medicine

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Hughes was only 27 when he retired from football. He still had an entire life ahead of him, and he turned to medicine. A USA Today profile of Hughes tells us he grew up learning about the profession from his father, a nurse anesthetist. In second grade, Hughes was tasked with writing down what he wanted to be as an adult. He scrawled down a pro football player and a doctor — lofty goals but achievable as it turns out.

Hughes pursued a nursing degree in college. While on NFL rosters, he volunteered at hospitals in his free time. When the league had its lockout in 2011, he became a full-time nurse. Soon after, Hughes and his wife discussed starting a family, which was when he decided to completely pivot toward the medical field.

Nate Hughes battles COVID-19 on the front lines

Hughes graduated from medical school in 2019. Now, he’s completing residency while training to become an anesthesiologist. COVID-19 has made his residency tougher than he planned. At the start of the pandemic, he was at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. In the summer he moved to New Jersey to complete his residency at Rutgers.

As for COVID-19, Hughes says the scariest part to him is not knowing when a surge of cases might pop up. “You know it’s coming,” he explained to USA Today. “You just hope you’re prepared and hope everything’s in waiting, to help take care of people.”

Hughes says working in the medical field during this situation is “tough” because he wants to do whatever he can to keep himself from getting the virus to limit the potential to spread it to others. That worries him because “it appears so late that you don’t really know if you’ve been infected or if you’ve infected someone else.”

Along those lines, Hughes’ biggest concern about his personal health is not that he’ll catch the virus while at work, but if he will have it and be asymptomatic, possibly spreading it around unexpectedly. It got to the point where he limited the time he spent with his three children while in Mississippi, even having them stay with his parents a few hours away.