Athletes have always had a special place in the public’s hearts. They’re not just heroes on the field, they can be role models in many ways. True, too many of them fail to live up to that image but seeing the way they go out and win championships can be impressive. Fans invest so much in athletes, care for them, cheer them on and love them a lot. They back them despite flaws and continue to support them even in retirement. In many ways, an athlete can become almost a family member for a favorite team. And thus, when they die, that’s a massive blow that hurts a lot.
Most of the time, it’s a legend passing on, as with Arnold Palmer and Muhammad Ali earlier this year. It hurts but it’s their time, they had a long life and it can be handled. But sadly, too many athletes have died at the height of their influence. Not just a few dying earlier than they should but many right at the cusp of a career. Some had a great legacy already and thus their deaths hurting. Others, the loss is because of what could have been, years of great play gone and a career snuffed far too short. Whether a freak accident, a massive tragedy or even a death during play, they have occurred numerous times in history and hit fans hard. Some shine even bigger as the world of sports is packed with many cases of athletes taken in terrible ways. Here are 15 of the most tragic athlete deaths and why they meant so much to so many.
15. Ray Chapman
The 1920 baseball season was marked with many big events such as Babe Ruth joining the New York Yankees. There was also how the Black Sox scandal erupted to destroy the careers of men like “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and cost the White Sox the pennant. It also featured the only time in MLB history a player died directly because of an on-field injury. An eight-year veteran for Cleveland, Chapman was one of the most popular and well-regarded men on the team, his great play offset by a good humor and a great family man. On August 16, the Indians were playing the Yankees as pitcher Carl Mays threw a scuffed-up ball with Chapman failing to get out of the way. Struck right in the head, Chapman made it a few steps before collapsing. He seemed okay but just twelve hours later was pronounced dead at a New York hospital. Mays was devastated, haunted for the rest of his life despite how even the Indians acknowledged it was a terrible accident and never blamed him. Chapman’s death would affect his team majorly as they were so pushed by his memory that they would end up winning the first World Series in Indians history. The celebration was a bit muted but many an Indian claimed they could feel Chapman’s spirit with them and how his death still echoes for many Cleveland fans.
14. Jose Fernandez
The newest entry on this list which doesn’t make it any easier. Born in Cuba, Fernandez underwent three prison terms before finally defecting in 2008. Settling in Tampa, he soon got into baseball and developed a fantastic arm that had serious power and skill to it. Drafted by the Miami Marlins, Fernandez became an instant standout, 12-4 with 2.19 ERA in his very first season, earning him Rookie of the Year honors. The following two seasons were rougher due to surgery but Fernandez was getting back into the groove in 2016, including hitting in a game winning run. He was one of the Marlins’ biggest stars, adopted as a hero by Miami’s Cuban population who turned out majorly at home games to cheer on one of their own. At only 24, most believed Fernandez would have a long and prosperous career ahead of him. Thus, it was shocking not just to baseball fans but the entire sports world when he was reported killed with two friends on September 25th in an overnight boating accident. The Marlins canceled their planned game and immediately retired his number 16. The shockwaves are still being felt in Miami at the loss of a young star just on the cusp of his life and how unfair the game can be.
13. Pat Tillman
His death has still been marked in massive controversy which has sadly outshone his life. After breaking out in Arizona State, Tillman was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals and soon establishing himself as a tough safety who was a great defensive player. A true patriot, Tillman was deeply affected by the 9/11 attacks and in May of 2002, made headlines by turning down a major contract to join the Marines. Many cited him as a great hero just for this choice but it took a new dimension on April 22, 2004 when Tillman was reported killed in action. He was decorated highly in his death with the Silver Star, Purple Heart and more. Controversy erupted when it was revealed that rather than an enemy ambush, Tillman had been the victim of friendly fire and the military covered it up. Whatever the circumstances, it still meant that Tillman passed before going back to the NFL, who honored his sacrifice as an athlete who proved he put his country before a great career.
12. Florence Griffith Joyner
There have been a lot of contenders but no one has yet to challenge Griffith’s title of “the fastest woman on Earth.” After making major victories in the World Championships in the 1980s, Griffith erupted at the 1988 Olympic Games. She not only won three gold medals but her records in the 100 and 200 meter have never been challenged, let alone broken. “Flo-Jo” also became a star thanks to her great style, her lush dark hair, painted nails and colorful outfits making her a winner for endorsement deals. Despite allegations of performance drugs, Griffith maintained she was clean her whole career and did a great job in retirement helping teach younger athletes. Which was why it was so shocking when on September 21st, 1998, Griffith died in her sleep at only 38 years old. She had kept quiet how she’d suffered from seizures and one finally hit fatally. To lose a woman still in the prime of life was a true shock and a shame that like everything else in her life, Griffith had to race to her death too fast.
11. Payne Stewart
In his days as a golfer, Stewart was well regarded for two things. First, his great skill as a player, always with a keen eye to hit the ball and doing well at that. Over his career, he won 11 major tournaments, including two U.S. Opens. Stewart was also well regarded for his unique style, his fantastic outfits a throwback to golf’s “golden age,” ivy caps, patterned pants, knickerbockers and more. Stewart on the course was always a sight to engage fans who loved seeing what outfits he would come up with next. On October 25, 1999, Stewart was riding high after winning his second Open when he boarded a private Learjet to Houston. For reasons yet unexplained, the cabin lost pressure, knocking out everyone on board. The plane continued on autopilot, no communication with it and U.S. fighter planes seeing it circle aimlessly. Millions watched on TV as it continued, helpless to change its fate. Finally running out of fuel, the plane crashed in a field in South Dakota, killing Stewart and five others. It was a major loss to the golf world but many had to note that if anyone was to going to go out in his own style, it would have to have been Payne Stewart.
10. Marshall University
There have been some tragedies in college football involving one or two young players killed. But there has never been anything like this before or since. While they weren’t a huge school, Marshall University had a dedicated following and its football program was one of the best regarded of the 1960s. The Thundering Herd were making some push for a divisional title in 1970 when they boarded a plane in North Carolina for the return trip home. On November 14th, the plane crashed due to bad weather, killing all 75 people on board. The players, coaches, assistants, all wiped out in one go in what remains the single biggest tragedy affecting any team in U.S. history. Marshall canceled its football program for over a year and their journey to rebuilding it was chronicled in the movie We Are Marshall. For so many fans, that tragedy more than any triumph is what this school is most famous for.
9. Hank Gathers
College basketball is an intense sport, so much pressure on so many young guys but it’s not something you’d expect to have an on-court tragedy. Hank Gathers had showed fantastic promise at USC before transferring to Loyola Marymount. He was soon striking out, leading the NCAA in both scoring and rebounding thanks to coach Paul Westhead’s “run and gun” offensive push. As he entered his senior year, Gathers was being cited as a must-get for NBA teams, scouts eagerly awaiting the chance to draft him. In late 1989, Gathers collapsed at a game and it was discovered he had a heart murmur. Surgery was offered but Gathers didn’t want to miss the rest of the season and elected to just take a few games off. He also made the fatal decision to not take the proper medication, feeling it affected his play. On March 4th, 1990, Gathers collapsed on the court during a televised game with Portland just after a dunk. He was raced to the hospital but pronounced dead at only 23. His team dedicated the rest of the season to him and made it all the way to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Many would criticize Westhead for not doing enough to help Gathers and pushing him on but others say it was just a terrible tragedy that robbed the basketball world of what could have been one of their greats.
8. Thurman Munson
In 1977, after 13 mostly horrible years, the New York Yankees finally got back on top as World Series champions. A key reason was George Steinbrenner boosting them by signing major talent and while you had plenty of egos like Reggie Jackson and Billie Martin, one man kept the team on track. Munson had joined the Yankees in 1969 when they were still in the basement and was soon a star of the team, voted Rookie of the Year. The tough catcher was the inspiration for the team, keeping them on target and balancing the ego battles with good play and a desire to win. Named team captain, Munson was cited as the reason the Yankees won three straight American League titles and back to back World Championships. In 1979, the team were still going strong and cited as favorites for a fourth straight AL Pennant. Slumping a bit, Munson was still regarded as a hero to Yankees fans when he decided to take a private flight on August 2nd. Coming in for a landing, Munson’s plane came in too long, clipping trees and crashing onto a highway. Munson was killed instantly, a shockwave to fans as the Yankees played the next day with an eight-minute standing ovation to their tribute to their late captain. His number 15 was retired instantly and many a Yankee fan has noted how Munson’s death seemed to kick off another massive slump for the team that would last over a decade. To so many, Munson was the heart of the Yankees and his passing put the team in a bad spiral.
7. Owen Hart
There have been enough tragic deaths in wrestling to fill its own list. But Owen Hart just seems so much more worse than others. Even Bret Hart has openly said that Owen was the best of the Hart brothers in terms of athleticism, fantastic as a ring worker and high-flying skills. He was a shining bit of the last days of Stampede Wrestling to put him on the map. His early work in WWE was rough with bits like the Blue Blazer and bad tag teams. But his feud with Bret in 1994 elevated Owen, not just in main event work but also a great promo style as a hated heel. He would hold the tag team and Intercontinental titles, feeling a loyalty to WWE to the point he elected to stay after the Montreal Screwjob. Owen was also massively loved behind the scenes as a prankster and a fun presence.
On May 23rd, 1999, Owen was ready to face off against the Godfather at the Over the Edge PPV. Floating down, the idea was for Owen to come on a cable and land awkwardly in the ring. Somehow, the clasp got caught in his costume, causing it to open early and Owen crashing 30 feet into the ring. Despite the work of paramedics, he was declared dead at the hospital and the decision to continue the show remains controversial. The next night’s RAW was marked by massive tributes to Owen with wrestlers breaking character for tearful talks on Owen and all in-ring action dedicated to him. His death would rock the Hart family hard but his legacy remains as one of wrestling’s brightest talents, making his loss all the worse.
6. Roberto Clemente
From his childhood in Puerto Rico, Clemente loved baseball. He started playing in the streets, then in high school and showed a fantastic skill in his country’s leagues that got him attention in the majors. In one of their worst moves, the Dodgers let Clemente go, feeling him too raw. The Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have that problem and drafted Clemente who showed terrific promise. He had to take a break in 1958 for military service but when he returned in 1960, he helped drive the Pirates to the World championship. Over the next decade, he would be the star of the team, a 15-time All-Star, 12-time Golden Glove, 4-time batting champion and MVP in 1966. He reached his high point in 1971 as he helped the Pirates to another World Series victory and named Series MVP. Clemente was also a hero to the minorities of Pittsburgh who cheered him on and he became an icon of the city.
In December 1972, Nicaragua was hit by a massive earthquake. Always eager to aid in charity work, Clemente flew down to aid in efforts and bring attention to the relief work. Knowing that corrupt officials would steal the relief packages, Clemente chartered his own flight on December 13th. Sadly, the plane, suffering mechanical failure and overloaded, would crash off the coast of Puerto Rico. Clemente’s body was never found but it was accepted there was no way he could have survived the crash. The Pirates were rocked hard by the loss and Baseball Hall of Fame fixed their bylaws to allow Clemente to be inducted the very next year. It seems oddly fitting Clemente would die so close to his homeland and his passing has marked his standing as an icon of the Steel City.
5. Manchester United Tragedy
In British soccer (which they call football), Manchester United has been one of the most iconic clubs ever. It’s not a sporting team, it’s a British institution with a fanbase that puts a dozen U.S. teams to shame. In the 1950s, Manchester was on a fantastic roll, winning back to back English League titles and ready for a third in 1958. Their team was packed with some of the most talented players alive at the time, terrific skill and many believing they would have legendary careers in front of them. With only 14 games left to play, they were just six points behind as the club faced a Serbian team in a European Cup match. On February 6, the team nicknamed the “Busby Babes” boarded a private plane to head back to England but had to stop in Munich to refuel. With a heavy snowstorm hitting the area, the team would have been better off staying overnight but instead the captain decided to take off. The plane hit a massive pile of sludge that caused it to crash upon take-off, a wing torn off and the plane smashing into a house. Of the 44 passengers, 23 were killed, including half of the Manchester team. It was a devastating blow in so many ways as Manchester naturally collapsed in the standings and it would take over a decade for them to get back to winning. Of course, the loss of their glory is secondary to fans to the loss of so many young talents snuffed out in a stupid crash.
4. Dale Earnhardt
His name remains legendary in racing circles. “The Intimidator” was well known for one of the best men in NASCAR, a fantastic driver whose skills left opponents in the dust. Over the course of his career, Earnhardt won 76 major races, including the Daytona 500. He is tied for the most Winston Cup championships with seven and his famed number 3 car was always a sight to get fans cheering. On February 18, 2001, Earnhardt was pushed as the favorite in the Daytona 500 as he tore it up in the track. Going into the final lap, Earnhardt smacked into Ken Schrader and smashed into the wall of the Speedway. As teammate Michael Waltrip won the race, medics and crew raced to the car as it became clear something was wrong. The crowd was hushed as Earnhardt was pulled out and raced to a hospital, the crowd refusing to leave for hours until word came. When it did, it was the worst imaginable: Earnhardt had died instantly in the crash, the man who’d survived so many wrecks unable to get out of this one. It cast a shadow on the entire racing year as fans mourned him. His son, Dale Jr., has kept up his father’s great legacy but the loss of one of NASCAR’s greats at a great race is one of the biggest tragedies in racing history.
3. Walter Payton
For 13 seasons as a Chicago Bear (where he only missed a single game), Walter Payton was perfection. A fantastic player, he could run like no one’s business, shrugging off hits that would bring anyone else down, stop on a dime, leap over tacklers and even pass the ball like a QB. His career hit its height in 1984 as he broke the record for the most rushing yards and then was part of the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl season. Retiring in 1987, Payton was easily elected to the Hall of Fame and regarded as one of the most loved players in the league. Payton was also hailed for his charity work, his wonderful attitude and why he was nicknamed “Sweetness.” He was an incredible presence known for his amazing speed. Which is why it was so heartbreaking that his death could be so agonizingly slow.
In early 1999, people were surprised to see Payton in public looking like he’d lost a ton of weight. At first brushing it off, Payton finally announced he had liver cancer. He spent the next several months promoting organ donation and doing more work to bring attention to the movement. Payton didn’t reveal that his condition was far more serious and a transplant wouldn’t have helped. He died on November 1, the entire Windy City in mourning with thousands attending his funeral. The NFL would honor him as well as his legacy still remembered but many feel it’s not right such a great man could pass in such a painful way.
2. Lou Gehrig
It still strikes how young he was. In 1923, Lou Gehrig signed with the New York Yankees and quickly established himself as one of the best stars of the team. A fantastic first baseman, he set a record for consecutive games played (over 2100) that would stand for decades. “The Iron Horse” was the backbone of the Yankees, incredibly popular and sparking them into the dynasty fans would know, a two-time MVP who led the team to six World championships. As the 1939 season began, fans and writers were surprised at how listless Gehrig looked, none of his usual power and skill. Feeling constantly tired out, Gehrig went for a checkup at the Mayo Clinic. He was soon forced to reveal he had ALS, a disease still rare at the time which was pretty much a death sentence. Gehrig kept his duties as captain but was unable to play as the baseball world was rocked by the idea he was dying in the prime of his life. This led to the powerful event at July 4th at Yankees Stadium where Gehrig was honored by the team, many of his old teammates coming out to celebrate his life. Taking to the mic, Gehrig made the famous “luckiest man in the world” speech that had grown men sobbing. Just two years later, Gehrig passed and the baseball world mourned one of its greatest stars taken to a disease that now bears his name.
1. Len Bias
He remains perhaps the greatest “could have been” in NBA history. Maybe even all of sports. At Maryland University, Bias was raw only to transform into one of the best college players around. He was an All-American who led the Atlantic Coast in scoring and NBA scouts were falling over themselves boasting of him as a superstar in the making. Naturally, the NBA 1986 Draft had Bias going high, picked second by the Boston Celtics. The Celtics were coming off a championship and it was assumed with Bias, they would be truly dominant. He was charming, funny, joyful when he accepted his Celtics jersey and cap and sports pundits were already predicting his fantastic career and Reebok was ready to sign him to a multi-million dollar contract.
Less than 48 hours later, Bias was found dead of a cocaine overdose in his dorm room. It was a shockwave throughout the sports world, the idea that a man about to take it to the big time passing like this utterly stunning. It truly changed how cocaine was viewed as just a “recreational” drug, the dangers it possessed. The Celtics were stunned as much as anyone and retired his never-used #30. Many a sports writer has wondered at what might have been had Bias lived, the fantastic games he could have had, his rivalry with Michael Jordan and much more. His death remains a horrible loss and the career that could have existed the most tragic part of it all.