Football is an inherently dangerous sport, and we’re routinely treated to reminders of that harsh reality thanks to the number of scary incidents that sadly unfold on the field on a regular basis during NFL games.
Anyone who watched Damar Hamlin collapse on the field during a showdown between the Bills and the Bengals in 2022 will never forget the stomach-churning sense of dread that washed over the stadium and the broadcast as first responders scrambled to revive him, although his story thankfully had a happy ending.
There’s also the equally terrifying moment that transpired when Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered the career-ending spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed, and while he never played another game, he was thankfully able to walk again after a grueling rehabilitation process.
We can only hope that Chuck Hughes will remain the only NFL player who’s ever died during a game, as the Lions wide receiver was declared dead after succumbing to a cardiac episode in 1971.
However, there’s also a notable figure in NFL history who passed away at a game more than 20 years earlier in the form of a former NFL commissioner who saw his life end the way he said he wanted it to.
Former NFL commissioner Bert Bell died while attending a game between the Steelers and the Eagles
Roger Goodell is the eighth person to preside over the NFL since the league was officially founded in Canton, Ohio in 1920; the legendary Jim Thorpe was the first person to serve as its president, and after the organization tweaked its internal structure in 1941, Elmer Layden became its first official Commissioner.
Layden’s tenure lasted for five years before he was replaced by Bert Bell, who played college football at Penn and occupied ownership positions with the Eagles and the Steelers before accepting the position in 1945.
Bell (who is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) is best known for instituting the NFL Draft, but he also exerted a ton of effort to insulate the league from the influence of gambling and is responsible for founding the first pension fund for players in conjunction with the NFLPA.
1959 was a particularly rough year for Bell, who suffered a heart attack shortly after the death of his wife Mara. While his doctor told the 64-year-old commissioner it would be in his best interest to stop attending games, he cemented his status as a Football Guy for the ages by purportedly responding, “I’d rather die watching football than in my bed with my boots off.”
Well, he certainly got his wish.
On October 11, 1959, Bell headed to Franklin Field in Philadelphia to watch the Steelers and the Eagles face off against each other. He declined the chance to sit in a luxury box in favor of heading into the bleachers near the end zone, but in the fourth quarter, he was rushed to a nearby hospital after suffering what would turn out to be a fatal heart attack.
Bell’s life was remembered at a funeral where every surviving NFL owner served as a pallbearer, and while it was obviously a tragedy, it seems like he went out exactly the way he wanted to.