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Tyji Armstrong, a mother’s love, and the meaning of sports

On Oct. 18, 1992, the mother of Buccaneers tight end Tyji Armstrong suffered a heart attack at Soldier Field while watching her son battle the Bears, dying soon after. WCG historian Jack M Silverstein reflects on the impact the death had on him as a young sports fan.

Buccaneers tight end Tyji Armstrong in 1994. His mother died Oct. 18, 1992 after suffering a heart attack at Soldier Field while watching Armstrong’s Bucs battle the Bears. (Photo by David Kadlubowski, Tampa Tribune, via

As a sellout crowd at Soldier Field cheered the Bears against the Buccaneers on September 26, 1993, one seat in the northeast corner remained empty. A ticket was purchased for section 26, row 19, seat 38, but no one sat there. The seat was draped only with a wreath of Bird of Paradise flowers.

The display was in memory of Annie Armstrong, the mother of Buccaneers tight end Tyji Armstrong, who had suffered a fatal heart attack there one year earlier, October 18, 1992, and died later that day. She was in town from Michigan with family to watch her son.

After that, every time Armstrong played at Soldier Field, he purchased the ticket for that seat, along with the other eight next to it for the Armstrong clan there that day. As NFC Central rivals, the Bucs and Bears played twice a year. Indeed, Armstrong bought that seat and laid out flowers in 1993, 1994 and 1995. He did it again in 1996 with the Cowboys and in 1998 with the Rams.

And indeed, at some point in each TV broadcast, or at least for those Bears-Bucs games, the announcers discussed Armstrong and his mother. They showed the empty seat. They showed the flowers.

“When we left (Chicago last year), I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to come back every year,’” Armstrong said in September of 1993, leading up to his first game back at Soldier Field after his mother’s passing. “I try not to think about it. I just hope I don’t freak out.”

In the midst of an NFL game, there were not a lot of reasons to put the camera on Armstrong. The 6’4, 260-pound tight end caught only 16 passes his first two years combined, grabbed 22 in his third year and 15 for the remainder of his NFL career. He spent his time in Tampa as TE2. He scored three NFL touchdowns, one per season from 1992 to 1994. He made more news for fines and fights than catches and highlights.

That anonymity made his story more striking. If he was a star, he would be discussed at length for any number of plays, to which the announcers would at some point add his mother’s story as a veritable footnote.

Instead, the broadcast would halt and the cameras would find him and the announcers would tell the story of October 18, 1992.

This was a family reunion for the 1992 3rd round pick, his mother and other family members coming in from Michigan to see Tyji play. Before the game, he spoke and laughed with his mother. She had raised him, and he’d always been closer with her than his father.

“He was there financially, but from a father-son standpoint, he was never there for me,” Armstrong told the Tampa Bay Times in August of ‘93. “Basically, I grew up in a one-parent family.”

With his father’s death before the 1992 draft, and with only four half-siblings, Armstrong called his mother “the only family I considered I had.”

Just after halftime of that ‘92 Bears-Bucs game, the 51-year-old Mrs. Armstrong clutched her chest. Paramedics arrived, and word made it down from the stands to Buccaneers head coach Sam Wyche, who then had the task of telling this 22-year-old rookie that his mother was being rushed to an ambulance. Upon receiving word in the third quarter, Armstrong changed out of his uniform and followed the team doctor through the tunnels of Soldier Field just in time to see his unconscious mother loaded into an ambulance.

He rode with her to Mercy Hospital at 2525 N. Michigan Avenue. She was pronounced dead there at 2:53 p.m.

As a rabid, middle school-aged Bears fan, I always took note of these moments when announcers told Armstrong’s story. They were jarringly different than the general tone of any typical televised sports game. Which is not to say that the pall of daily life didn’t seep into broadcasts. In the unending thirst for sports human interest stories, that was actually fairly common.

This could be anything from announcers discussing the impact that the Yugoslav Wars had on Vlade Divac to Brian Urlacher or Brett Favre playing after the passing of a parent to a team recovering from the untimely death of a teammate.

And yet, all of these instances were framed in an athletic context. “How will a grieving Urlacher rebound against the Saints following his mother’s death?” “Can you believe Favre threw four TDs the night after his dad died?” “The Comets are rallying around memories of their fallen teammate Kim Perrot.” And so on.

The Armstrong story was different. It had no athletic connection. It was a human story, first and last. And it was present. Immediate. Active. The empty seat. The flowers. With every Bears-Bucs game of that era, the stands of Soldier Field bore the mark of Annie Armstrong’s life and death. Those games carried both the specter of mortality and the spirit of eternity. Pain and love. Heartbreak and hope.

This was made more memorable by the otherwise colorless Bears-Bucs games of the era. From the ‘83 season to the first game of ‘96, the Bears and Buccaneers met 27 times. The Bears won 23. We swept the series every year from ‘83 to ‘88, winning 12 straight games. After Tampa swept us in our flukey-bad 1989 campaign, we ripped off runs of four- and five-straight wins against the ever-doomed Buccaneers.

The scores were lopsided too. We held Tampa under 10 points nine times, and held them at or below two touchdowns another nine times. We dropped 40 on them thrice. The day Annie Armstrong died, the Bears won 31-14. The day her son placed that wreath on that seat for the first time, the Bears won 47-17.

There would be so much more to discuss other than Armstrong if he played for a strong team of the era — the 49ers, Giants, Washington — or if he played for a deeper rival, like the Packers.

Instead, the one-sided nature of the bi-annual meetings made the flowers on the late Mrs. Armstrong’s seat a reprieve from both the series’ banality and the sport’s brutality. I of course watched nearly every Bears game with my family when I was growing up. Suddenly, once per season, the sport I loved brought me a message of true life-and-death perspective. Even at that age, I was aware enough to empathize with the pain of this man I’d never met who played for a team for which I did not root.

Even at that age, I was grateful for the perspective borne of that reprieve, a newfound understanding of why we root and what matters most.

“She wasn’t conscious when I got to her under the stands,” Armstrong said in the 1993 Tampa Bay Times interview. “But thank God we talked before the game. We laughed and joked. We were really tight. I really don’t know if she knew I was there (in the ambulance), but I knew she would want me to keep going on no matter what.”

This Sunday, the Bears host the Buccaneers for only the fifth time since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002 and re-aligned the divisions, sending the Bucs to the newly formed NFC South and free of our twice-a-year bond. I don’t know if Tyji Armstrong will be watching this game. I know he’ll be thinking of his mother. That makes two of us.




Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.