Death is difficult and sometimes comes without warning. One day a person is alive and the next… Losing someone with vast talent is a tragedy, and with no warning it can be devastating. Specifically, athletes cut down in their primes, leaving families and legions of fans to mourn and ask why. These are athletes in their primes with lives cut too short by death.
Just missing our 15 taken too early is Steve Prefontaine, the Olympian runner who died in a car crash prior to the 1976 Summer Olympics. Pelle Lindbergh (NHL) and Dan Snyder (NHL) also died in car accidents. Darrent Williams was a promising NFL defensive back, just two years into his professional career when he was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Do you know the odds of making it to the NFL? Really, really hard, yet those odds are still better than getting killed in a drive-by, that’s just bad luck. Finally, NASCAR driver Tim Richmond, a noted playboy and 13-race champion on the racing circuit was diagnosed with AIDS, dying in 1989, just two years after his last victory.
It’s difficult when an athlete is taken early – what will be their legacy? How will teammates and fans react? Losing an athlete in their prime is an emotional rollercoaster that in some cases takes years to get over.
The end comes in many ways and many are covered here. In addition to car crashes and heart conditions we’ve got overdoses, a plane crash and even an athlete killed while protecting his country. Here are 15 athletes that died during the prime of their careers.
15 Thurman Munson AGE: 32 (June 7, 1947 – August 2, 1979)
The cause of Munson’s early demise was a plane crash. The crazy thing is that this isn’t the only plane crash to cut down a baseball player in his prime on the list. Munson was the catcher and also captain for the New York Yankees. In his career Munson was highly decorated, winning Rookie of the Year, three Gold Gloves, appearing in seven All-Star games and in 1976, winning the American League MVP. Most importantly, he had a great handlebar mustache. Oh, and Munson’s Yankees won back-to-back World Series in 1977 and 1978. As captain (and one of the great Yankees) he was beloved by fans in New York and to some it is still shocking the sudden way he passed.
Despite being a Yankee, Munson loved where he grew up, in the state of Ohio. It was there he took flying lessons so that he could travel back and forth more often to be with his family.
14 Ernie Davis AGE: 23 (December 14, 1939 – May 18, 1963)
Heralded as one of the all-time great college running backs, Davis was well known both on and off the field during his time at Syracuse University. Known as “The Elmira Express,” during his sophomore season Davis led Syracuse to an undefeated season and national championship. He followed that up two years later as a senior, becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman trophy.
In the 1962 NFL Draft, Davis was the overall number one pick by the Washington Redskins, and then later traded to the Cleveland Browns. Remember, at the time being traded to Cleveland was a good thing; there was a time they had a good football team, one that included the legendary Jim Brown. Unfortunately he never played a down in the NFL due a diagnosis of Leukemia. The NFL was very close to having a Cleveland Browns backfield with both Jim Brown and Ernie Davis running the ball.
13 Salvador Sanchez AGE: 23 (January 26, 1959 – August 12, 1982)
Boxing is a brutal sport. I mean, you are hitting each other and trying to knock each other out. Your next fight could be your last fight, which comes with the territory when you enter the world of boxing. Salvador Sanchez is looked back on as one of the all-time greatest featherweight boxers, winning the WBC featherweight title at the tender age of 21. Sanchez would go on to defend his belt ten times over the next two years.
A month after his tenth title defense Sanchez was on his way to Santiago de Queretaro, Mexico when he was killed in a car accident. In 1991 Sanchez was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The most telling statistic was that after his passing the next three champions were all previously beaten by Sanchez. He also went 4-0 (all knockouts) against four members eventually inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
12 Hank Gathers AGE: 23 (February 11, 1967 – March 4, 1990)
Gathers' death was shocking and unsettling for many. In 1990 Gathers collapsed and died on the basketball court, during the quarterfinal of his team’s league (WCC) tournament.
As a college basketball player, Gathers really had it all. Playing for Loyola Marymount, he led his team, conference and the whole NCAA league in both points and rebounds. He was only the second player to ever accomplish this. Gathers' play was predicting an amazing March Madness performance as well as projecting him as a successful NBA player.
With big plans for the NCAA tournament, Gathers' life was cut short when he collapsed after an alley-oop pass, officially dying from a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This condition has taken the lives of many athletes over the years, but rarely is it on such a public platform. Loyola Marymount continued on their charge without Gathers, making it to the Elite Eight and dedicating their run to the late star.
11 Reggie Lewis AGE: 27 (November 21, 1965 - July 27, 1993)
It was only three years after the Hank Gathers tragedy when Reggie Lewis collapsed during a practice with the Boston Celtics. It was the same fate, taken early from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that was detected a few months prior to his death. Drafted in 1987, one year after gathers, Lewis gradually improved his game. In his final two seasons before his death with the Celtics, Lewis had scored over 20 points a game and in 1992 even got selected to his first All-Star game.
The Celtics have a rich history of championships as well as devastation. In 1986 Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose and there were rumors that this was also a factor in Lewis’ death. However, after an autopsy was performed he was found clean, there were no signs of any drugs in his system. In 1995 the Boston Celtics retired Reggie Lewis’s jersey where it now hangs with the other Celtic legends.
10 Dale Earnhardt AGE: 49 (April 29, 1951 – February 18, 2001)
Given his aggressive style on the race track, it’s not that surprising that Dale Earnhardt died on the fourth turn of the final lap at the 2001 Daytona 500. In fact, although at the time it didn’t make sense how this could happen, it now seems somewhat fitting that this is how he would go out; the final lap of one of the biggest races in the world. The actual reported cause of death was a skull fracture suffered from the crash.
Winner of seven Winston Cup Series championships, Earnhardt’s decorated career included 76 NASCAR wins. Known as The Intimidator due to his aggressive racing style, he was a fan favorite and a hated (but respected) rival among other racers. Earnhardt’s Hall of Fame career was literally left on the track, creating a spooky setting (some would say haunting) for the Daytona 500 at the fourth turn, especially on the final lap.
9 Drazen Petrovic AGE: 28 (October 22, 1964 – June 7, 1993)
Petrovic was one of the original European basketball players to find success in the NBA. Now it’s common to have players drafted from other countries, but prior to Petrovic this was not common. Petrovic made the transition to the NBA in 1989, becoming one of the game’s best scorers, peaking at averaging over 22 points a game in 1993. The following off-season Petrovic was killed in a car accident when traveling home to Croatia. He was riding in a car in Germany when a semi-truck went over the Autobahn median and crashed into the car.
To this day Petrovic is remembered as a trailblazer, as first a six-time European Player of the Year and then as the one who proved European players can succeed in the NBA. In addition to his professional accolades, Petrovic also won two silver medals and one bronze medal in the Olympics, competing for Croatia and Yugoslavia. Petrovic was close to Vlade Divac who has stayed in the NBA and is now an executive with the Sacramento Kings.
8 Nick Adenhart AGE: 22 (August 24, 1986 – April 9, 2009)
Stories like the death of Nick Adenhart make you question whether there really is a plan or if everything is just a collection of random events, including death. Nick Adenhart was a Major League Baseball pitcher for the Anaheim Angels. In his first season, the night of his first start, he was killed by a drunk driver while riding with friends not far from the stadium.
Adenhart's climb to the pros was inspiring. In high school, he was a blue chip prospect, expected to go in the first round, but then he blew out his arm in his final game. He went on to get Tommy John surgery and rehabbed quickly, eventually getting drafted and then making it to the big leagues only to have his dream cut short by a drunk driver. Note: Two hours after the accident the driver took a breathalyzer test and still had a BAC of .19 – way over any legal limit (again, two hours after).
7 Sean Taylor AGE: 24 (April 1, 1983 – November 27, 2007)
Man, the Washington Redskins really don't have a lot of luck, do they? In 2007, during a “botched” robbery attempt, Taylor was shot in the leg. He suffered significant blood loss and died the next day. At some point, maybe it’s time to accept karma and just change your team nickname already.
An All-American safety at Miami, Sean Taylor was a key part of the Miami Hurricanes' 2001 National Championship. After a decorated college career at Miami, he was drafted by the Redskins with the fifth overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. The only question mark was related to Taylor’s decision making off the field (seems like this is a common thread among all Miami alumni), but he made great progress here. It didn’t take long for Taylor to prove his worth, earning respect as a great defender and two trips to the Pro Bowl. His career was just peaking when he got shot in the leg and died.
6 Darryl Kile AGE: 33 (December 2, 1968 – June 22, 2002)
The story of an underdog is always inspirational, and anyone that knows Kile’s climb from 30th round draft choice to Major League All-Star appreciates how hard it was when he died suddenly in 2002.
Most players drafted in the 30th round don’t do much and almost never make it to “The Show.” Kile went on to be selected to three All-Star teams, had a no-hitter and won 20 games in a season. In his last game he went seven and two-thirds innings and won the game by the score of 7-2 over the Anaheim Angels. In the game he only gave up one run.
Four days later Kile didn’t show up for a scheduled pre-game workout. He was found in his hotel room, dead. The cause was later found to be a heart attack. His team rallied around his spirit the remainder of the season, dedicating each win and achievement to him.
5 Len Bias AGE: 22 (November 18, 1963 – June 19, 1986)
Most of the deaths on this list have been accidental, malicious or health related. For Len Bias it was self-inflicted, dying from a cocaine overdose in 1986. Who exactly was Len Bias? He was the big man on the Maryland campus, dominating in every way. One way to sum it up is this: Some compared Bias to Michael Jordan only with a larger frame (and maybe even more potential). Bias was named the 1986 ACC Player of the Year and was the number two draft pick, selected by the Boston Celtics. Less than 48 hours would pass before Bias would be found dead in his dorm room of a cocaine overdose.
The NBA was already starting to clean up their cocaine problem, but this was a reminder that there was still a lot of work to do. It also spilled into how drugs and sports were viewed across the country. Len Bias was the poster boy for how drugs can ruin your life to the point of death.
4 Lou Gehrig AGE: 37 (June 19, 1903 – June 2, 1941)
You know you are famous when you are diagnosed with a disease and they decide to name it after you (note: the renaming was years after he passed away). In 1939 Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis a.k.a. ALS a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Nicknamed The Iron Horse, Gehrig was one of the greatest first baseman in the history of the game. He played in 2,130 consecutive games (even though he was often injured). His streak ended due to his disease, not allowing him to play at his high level any longer. When he retired, it was at Yankee Stadium where he gave his famous “Luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech.
Gehrig was part of six Yankee World Series teams, won two AL MVP awards and even won the Triple Crown, a feat of leading the league in home runs, runs batted in and batting average.
3 Roberto Clemente AGE: 38 (August 18, 1934 – December 31, 1972)
What makes the death of Roberto Clemente so gut wrenching is that it was sudden (plane crash) and that the plane was headed to Nicaragua where he going to help earthquake victims. This was very much in line with what Clemente represented: one of the greatest players to ever play major league baseball as well as one of the greatest humanitarians to play in the big leagues.
At the young age of 20 Clemente came from Puerto Rico and would go on to play in 15 All-Star games, win 12 Gold Glove awards and lead his team to two World Series championships. In 1971 he was the MVP of the World Series. Less than a year later he died in the plane crash.
Clemente projected an image of a role model, something that no longer exists. It’s important to remember Clemente, as both the baseball player and kind, giving human being he was.
2 Pat Tillman AGE: 27 (November 6, 1976 – April 22, 2004)
Pat Tillman was an All-Pro defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals. At the age of 25 he turned down a multi-million dollar contract to enlist in the Army. Tillman would be killed during combat in Afghanistan.
Tillman was involved in the first invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then went to Afghanistan in 2004. It was here he was killed during a friendly fire drill that continues to be controversial to this day (initial reports said he was killed by enemy fire). You have to go all the way back to the Vietnam War to find a professional football player killed in combat. Regardless, there is no better role model in sports than Tillman. He put his country before playing a game in which he was adored and could make millions of dollars; a true American hero.
Today, there are several foundations and activities (most prevalent is the Pat Tillman foundation) that support Tillman and his heroics.
1 Jose Fernandez AGE: 25 (July 31, 1992 - September 25, 2016)
Star Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez is the latest athlete to have his life cut down during his prime. He was killed in a boating accident in 2016 near Miami Beach, Florida at the young age of 25. In addition to his young age, his story is one of inspiration and also sadness due to his early demise.
Fernandez was born in Cuba and made three attempts at defecting, all unsuccessful. It wasn’t until 2008 that he finally made it to Florida. In 2011 he was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the draft. He won Rookie of Month twice and then won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. By 2013 he was an All-Star, then he got injured and then once again returned as an All-Star in 2016.
Before his All-Star season ended he died in the boating incident. The Miami Marlins plan to retire his number to honor him.