For many players, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s on-field medical emergency on Monday was the first time they had ever witnessed such a serious health incident.
Yet the history of professional football is no stranger to such crises.
Since its earliest days, football has been a dangerous sport. From 1900 to 1905, at least 45 players died from football injuries, according to The Washington Post. Spurred on partly by President Teddy Roosevelt, football approved significant changes to the sport to cut down on injuries and deaths, including the allowance of the forward pass.
The sport has developed radically since then into a multibillion-dollar industry with significant padding, helmets and safety protocols – yet at its heart it remains a sport in which grown men smash into each other at full speed.
Players have previously died, been paralyzed or suffered life-threatening injury under the sport’s bright lights. Here’s a look at some of the most prominent medical emergencies of pro football’s modern history, from the spinal cord injury of Ryan Shazier in 2017 to the paralyzing hit of receiver Darryl Stingley in 1978.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury while making a tackle in a “Monday Night Football” game in December 2017.
In the first quarter, the Pro Bowl linebacker made a routine tackle and then fell and reached for his back. On the ground for several minutes, he flexed and moved his arms, but his legs did not move. Shazier was eventually placed onto a backboard, carted off the field and taken to the hospital.
Doctors performed spinal stabilization surgery days later, the team announced. The injury ended his career and left him partially paralyzed, but he relearned how to walk in rehab and later wrote a book about his recovery called “Walking Miracle: How Faith, Positive Thinking, and Passion for Football Brought Me Back from Paralysis…and Helped Me Find Purpose.”
“The way I look at it, God put us all here for a purpose,” Shazier said in 2020 in announcing his official retirement. “For 20 years he let me play football, and now it’s time for me to do what he wants me to do. I am going to step away from the game for a while and see what else life has to offer.”
In a game on September 9, 2007, Bills tight end Kevin Everett made a tackle on a second-half kickoff return and fell motionless to the ground with a serious spinal cord injury.
Everett was on the ground for 15 minutes as team medics worked to stabilize him, then was placed on a stretcher, put into an ambulance and driven to a nearby hospital for emergency surgery. The game then resumed.
The 25-year-old’s spinal cord was nearly severed from the hit, ending his career and leaving him paralyzed. Yet months later he was walking again, an outcome that may have been connected to doctors’ quick use of an experimental cold therapy treatment.
In a 2012 interview with the Buffalo Bills website, Everett said the hit ended his career but not his love of the game.
“Sometimes I catch myself lying back in my chair with my eyes closed tight just thinking about playing,” he said. “It’s something I can’t get over just quite yet, especially when I’m watching football. I was trying hard to block it out in the beginning, but it’s coming stronger now. I was blocking out the whole ‘not being able to play again,’ but I see it and I just come back to thinking about it. I’m still really in love with the game.”
The most recent death from a football-related issue did not come in a game but on the practice field, as teams prepared for the NFL season.
In August 2001, Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl offensive tackle Korey Stringer, 27, died from exertional heatstroke during a stiflingly hot training camp practice.
According to an ESPN article in 2021 looking back on the episode, Stringer showed signs of distress and was taken into an air-conditioned trailer to recover, but the trainers did not treat him for heatstroke. He became unresponsive and was taken to a hospital but died of multiple organ failure about 13 hours later.
His death pushed the NFL to develop protocols for treating heatstroke and led to the creation of the Korey Stringer Institute in 2010 that studies and works with groups to address the issue of preventing sudden athlete deaths.
In the final game of the 1997 season, Detroit Lions linebacker Reggie Brown, then 23, suffered a serious spinal cord injury following a routine tackle in the fourth quarter.
“Brown lay motionless on the turf for 17 minutes,” The New York Times wrote at the time. “He had stopped breathing and had turned blue and purple.”
Trainers and doctors performed CPR and Brown was placed on a backboard, onto a stretcher and into an ambulance, according to a 2017 article in the Detroit News.
The players regrouped and the game resumed.
At the hospital, doctors performed surgery to stabilize his spinal cord, the News reported. He survived, but the injury ended his playing career and he had to relearn how to walk in rehab. He told the outlet he still had pain and numbness from the injury.
“My injury was such a freak occurrence, a freak accident,” he said in 2017. “I’m more worried about driving in Houston than I am playing football. I face that on a daily basis.”
New York Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd, then 26, was partially paralyzed from a hit in a game on November 29, 1992.
In the third quarter, he crashed into a teammate’s chest and suffered a spinal cord injury. Trainers rushed to treat him and he was carted off the field, and the game then resumed.
After months of rehab, Byrd learned to walk again, but the injury ended his football career. He became a motivational speaker and author of the book “Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd,” which was also made into a TV movie, about his recovery from the injury.
In a 2012 interview with the Jets website, he said he still had issues stemming from the on-field hit.
“With a spinal-cord injury there are times that it’s very frustrating and progress can seem to be painfully slow. But as time goes on, I continue to get better and better with sensations, strength, stamina and all those things. With an injury I had 20 years ago, there’s still encouraging signs of recovery, so it’s a good thing,” he said.
Byrd died in 2016 in a vehicle crash.
Detroit Lions guard Mike Utley became paralyzed from the chest down after hitting his head on the artificial turf in the fourth quarter of a 1991 game, breaking his 6th and 7th cervical vertebrae.
While on the ground, he was able to move his arms and flashed a thumbs up gesture to the crowd. He was then put on a stretcher and taken off the field, and the game resumed.
The thumbs up gesture became the symbol of the Mike Utley Foundation, which works to find a cure to paralysis.
“A lot of people will wait for a cure, and they have passed. I will live for one,” Utley told ClickOnDetroit in 2021. “I had a goal, and I still do, of one day walking off Ford Field. It’s just taking me a little longer than I expected.”
Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes remains the only NFL player to die on the field during a game.
In the fourth quarter of a game on October 24, 1971, 28-year-old Hughes collapsed on the field as he headed back to the huddle for another play.
“Dick Butkus, Chicago linebacker, was the first to reach him and called for the Lions’ doctors from the sidelines,” The New York Times wrote at the time. “The stunning development sent Lions’ players from the team dressing room in tears. Some muttered, ‘He’s dead, he’s dead.’”
Team doctors and trainers rushed to try to resuscitate him and performed CPR, and he was then put into an ambulance and taken to a hospital. He was declared dead at the hospital shortly after.
The cause of death was determined to be a blood clot that became lodged in a hardened artery in his heart, which caused a fatal heart attack, according to the Detroit Free Press.
New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley was paralyzed from a brutal hit during a preseason exhibition game in 1978.
On a pass play over the middle, Stingley was crushed by Oakland Raiders safety Jack Tatum, a notoriously hard-hitting defensive player.
Stingley collapsed into a heap on the ground from the hit, which caused a broken vertebrae and a spinal cord injury. He regained some use of his arms but was wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life.
The hit was legal at the time but came to symbolize the brutality of the sport and laid the groundwork for expanding protections for wide receivers running over the middle of the field. The NFL now penalizes hits to the head or neck of a “defenseless receiver.”