The Horrifying Way A Football Fan Was Killed By A Flying Lawnmower

No two ways about it: Football is a violent sport. In 2021 alone, 20 professional football players at various levels passed away, based on data from the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research from the University of North Carolina. In the history of the NFL, though, only one player has died during gameplay: Detroit Lions receiver Chuck Hughes in 1971, as The Detroit News writes. Even then, Hughes' sudden passing was not caused by a brutal hit, but instead a heart-related incident caused by a blood clot in his artery.

As thousands gather to watch NFL games each week in stadiums all across the country, though, countless medical emergencies among spectators likely occur. In response, the NFL offers wide-ranging first aid options for fans, and significant scholarship has been dedicated to the subject, like the 1997 study "Emergency medical care for spectators attending National Football League games," published on the National Library of Medicine website from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. In 1979, though, one of the most sad and most bizarre NFL incidents took place when an NFL fan was killed by what looked like a flying lawnmower (via NBC Sports).

The incident happened at Shea Stadium

According to Snopes, the tragic death of an NFL fan from what appeared to be a flying lawnmower happened in 1979 at Shea Stadium. On that day, some 45,000 spectators gathered to watch the New England Patriots take on the New York Jets. Like today, there were halftime festivities planned at that game, and on this specific occasion the Electronic Eagles of the Radio Control Association of Greater New York staged a presentation. As part of the show the Electronic Eagles flew a number of R.C. controlled aircraft around the stadium, pulling tricks and maneuvers and appearing to engage in dogfights. 

Those aircraft were unusually shaped, and one even crashed on the field. One example looked like a lawnmower. As the aircraft flew around Shea Stadium, certain crowd members questioned the safety. As football fan Ray Warner, who was there that day, later told The New York Times, "They were sending those things right over the crowds. I had an aisle seat near an exit, and I had it in my mind that if it came near me, I would run. It seemed so stupid, so sick, to send this thing over these people."

The lawnmower-shaped R.C. plane crashed into the audience

As The New York Times elsewhere writes, the operator of the lawnmower-shaped aircraft in the halftime show lost control of the plane and it crashed into the audience, striking John Bowen and Kevin Rourke, who were 20 and 25 at the time. Rourke was not seriously injured, but Bowen was in critical condition. A witness to the accident said (via The New York Times) Bowen looked like he'd been "attacked by an ax."

As Snopes goes on to note, Rourke recovered from his injuries, but Bowen underwent surgery and later died from his injuries. Philip Cushman, who was flying the lawnmower-shaped R.C. plane that day said, "I just lost control, that's what it was." The sad death of NFL fan Bowen was ruled to be an accident. In 1981, The New York Times reported a $10 million damage suit filed by Bowen's father against the New York Jets, the Electronic Eagles, and Cushman.