Al Lucas, a lineman for the Los Angeles Avengers, died Sunday afternoon after sustaining an apparent spinal cord injury while trying to make a tackle early in the Arena Football League team's game at Staples Center, officials said.
Lucas, 26, was injured on a kickoff return five minutes into the game against the New York Dragons. He was pronounced dead at California Hospital Medical Center in downtown Los Angeles after attempts to revive him at the arena and hospital failed.
He is the first player in the league's 20-year history to die during a game. A few National Football League players have died shortly after games, but Detroit Lion receiver Chuck Hughes, who suffered a heart attack in the fourth quarter of a 1971 game, is believed to be the only one to die during a game.
Avenger players and staff, as well as Dragon players, were informed of Lucas' death after the game, creating a tearful scene in the corridors outside the locker room, with players and employees leaving the arena dazed by the news.
"I just wish this was a bad dream," Avenger receiver Tony Locke said. "I want it to be over."
The 6-foot-1, 300-pound Lucas had lowered his head just as he hit ballcarrier Corey Johnson and blocker Mike Horacek. Replays appeared to show Horacek's knee hitting Lucas' helmet. Lucas fell to the ground and remained motionless.
As Avenger players knelt in prayer near their bench and about 11,000 fans looked on, paramedics attended to Lucas for 10 minutes, then immobilized him and removed him from the field. He was treated at the arena for a half hour before being taken to the hospital, a team spokesman said. "Al Lucas suffered a presumed spinal cord injury and was brought to California Hospital where attempts to revive him were unsuccessful," Dr. Luga Podesta, the team's physician, said in a statement.
Avenger owner Casey Wasserman said in a statement: "The thoughts and prayers of the entire Avenger organization are with his wife and family."
Team officials said they waited to release the information until they notified Lucas' relatives, who were not at the game. Lucas, who was married with a daughter, lived in Macon, Ga., where he coached football at Northeast High School during the off-season.
Teammates and friends were devastated by the sudden tragedy.
"You see a player on the ground, you realize that could be any of us laying there," Avenger running back Lonnie Ford said, wiping away tears. "My heart goes out to his wife and kid and brothers. I just can't explain how I feel."
Arena league Commissioner David Baker was attending his son's football scrimmage at USC and raced to Staples Center when he heard that a player had been seriously injured.
Baker, Wasserman and Avenger Coach Ed Hodgkiss met privately at halftime. They learned of Lucas' death early in the second half, according to a source close to the team who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"It's a grief that I'm not sure can be expressed in words," Baker said. "Al was one of those guys that really loved arena football. People who love the game loved him. We're heartbroken and our sympathies and thoughts and prayers go out to his family. It puts the game in perspective."
Chris Jackson, who played with Lucas on the Avengers last season, said he received updates throughout the day from his wife. She attended Sunday's game, which was televised locally.
"We used to go to Bible study together," said Jackson, now playing for the AFL's Georgia Force. "It's just a terrible tragedy. Something like this is completely out of our minds as a worst-case scenario. A season-ending injury or career-ending injury, but never this. Never, never this."
About 11,000 Americans are hospitalized for spinal cord injuries each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While vehicle accidents are the biggest cause of spinal cord injuries, sports and recreational activities cause about 18% of the cases, according to a fact sheet on the agency's website.
Lucas played in college at Troy State in Alabama, where he was the NCAA Division I-AA defensive player of the year as a senior in 1999. He spent the 2000 and 2001 seasons with the NFL's Carolina Panthers, appearing in 20 games. After a season playing in Frankfurt, Germany, he was signed by the Arena Football League's Tampa Bay Storm.
The 17-team springtime league is often a last stop for college players hoping to catch on in the NFL, or former NFL players whose careers have faded. Salaries typically range from $50,000 to $80,000 -- far less than the NFL minimum of $230,000.
After helping Tampa Bay win the AFL's ArenaBowl championship game in 2003, he joined the Avengers in 2004 and was "the moral leader of the team," Locke said.
A former teammate said Lucas made a lasting impression during his short NFL career.
"You definitely would never forget a guy like that," said Carolina defensive lineman Mike Rucker.
Rucker recalled that one time a skinny receiver came through the locker room and Lucas shouted, "Get that man something to eat, man." The remark became the defensive line's catchphrase that season.
"He was a great dude, always playing around, always a kid at heart," Rucker said.
Lucas maintained that sense of humor with the Avengers and had many admirers among his teammates.
"He was the guy everyone went to," Locke said. "He was the first guy I met when I came out here. He cared about everybody."
Times staff writers Sam Farmer and Gary Klein contributed to this report.