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Detroit Lions fans have suffered for years. In the last two decades, the team has managed to make the playoffs just three times. In 2008, the Lions became the first NFL team with the dubious distinction of finishing a 16-game season without a single win. While losses are painful enough, the Lions organization has dealt with heartbreaking pain in the form of horrific, life-altering injuries to its player multiple times in the franchise’s history. Here’s a look back at the devastating injuries.

Detroit Lions linebacker Reggie Brown — 1997 

Reggie Brown played linebacker at Texas A&M and was the 17th overall selection of the Detroit Lions in the 1996 NFL draft. After a rookie season in which Brown started 10 games, the second-year linebacker started all 16 games for a Lions squad that was vying for a spot in the playoffs.

In the final game of the season and late in the contest, Brown dove in to tackle New York Jets running back Adrian Murrell on what appeared to be a standard running play. Replays showed Brown wrapping his arms around a diving Murrell while the crown of his helmet simultaneously crashed into the back of a falling Jets lineman, Lamont Burns.

Brown collapsed to the ground. His teammates called for him to get up. He couldn’t. Worse, he was unable to breathe. Within seconds, Brown was unconscious. Lions team physician Terry Locke quickly responded to the dire situation and immediately began performing CPR. Within minutes, Brown was on a stretcher headed to the hospital. He fell in and out of consciousness for hours. The next day doctors performed emergency surgery that fused two vertebrae that had been displaced. 

After a couple of weeks in the hospital, Brown shocked those attending a press conference when he got out of his wheelchair and slowly walked to the podium. Today, Brown still has side effects, but more importantly, has full function of his extremities. He and his wife own and operate a charter school in Texas. 

Detroit Lions lineman Mike Utley — 1991

Mike Utley was an offensive guard taken by the Detroit Lions in the third round of the 1989 NFL draft out of Washington State. In Utley’s first two seasons in Detroit, he saw limited action due to various injuries including fractured ribs and a dislocated shoulder.

In 1991, Utley’s third year, for the first time in his career, his health was never an issue, and he started every game that season. On November 17, 1991, against the Los Angeles Rams, Utley was battling against Rams defensive lineman David Rocker. Early in the fourth quarter, on what appeared to be a routine play, Utley and Rocker were locked up hand-fighting. As Utley finished up his block, Rocker slid to the side and pulled Utley, who fell to the ground, the crown of his helmet striking the unforgiving artificial turf of the Pontiac Silverdome.

A hushed silence fell over the crowd as Utley lie motionless for minutes. After medical officials placed him on the stretcher and wheeled him toward the tunnel, Utley gave a thumbs up to the crowd indicating movement in his hands. He had suffered a severe injury to his sixth and seventh vertebrae that left him paralyzed from the chest down. 

Today, Utley is very active in promoting the Mike Utley Foundation, which has a mission to financially support treatment for spinal cord injuries, to encourage through education and adopting a rehabilitative lifestyle for the spinal cord injured, and a public awareness of spinal cord injuries.

Detroit Lions receiver Chuck Hughes — 1971

Chuck Hughes
Detroit Lions’ wide receiver Chuck Hughes lies on the field at Tiger Stadium.

Chuck Hughes was a wide receiver originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth round of the 1967 NFL/AFL draft before making his way to the Detroit Lions in the 1970 season. 

After a moderately successful season in 1970, Hughes saw limited playing action during the 1971 season until the sixth game of the season, when his fellow receiver, Larry Walton suffered an injury. In the game’s closing minutes, Hughes caught a 32-yard pass, his first catch of the season. 

With just over a minute left in the contest, Hughes ran his route on a play but the pass went to another receiver. On his way back to the huddle, near the 20-yard line, Hughes fell to the ground clutching his chest. Bears linebacker Dick Butkus motioned frantically as the receiver’s body began twitching with convulsions. 

Team doctors and trainers rushed to help Hughes and an ambulance hurriedly drove him to Henry Ford Hospital. He was pronounced dead shortly after 5:30 PM. Hughes had suffered a heart attack. Several days later, head coach Joe Schmidt and the entire Lions team attended Hughes’ funeral in San Antonio. Hughes left behind his wife, Sharon Leah, and son Brandon, who was just shy of his second birthday.

In memory of the Detroit Lions player, the Lions retired Hughes’ number 85.