Professional athletes show up on the field, the track or the basketball court and give their all. For many of them, it’s not all about the money. It’s about playing their heart out to appease their fans and to hopefully win the championship trophy. Many sports fans see athletes as invincible. But despite being strong and physically fit, athletes aren’t immortal. Freak accidents occur, pre-existing conditions can take a toll on their bodies, and they aren’t protected from being the victims of heinous and deadly crimes.
We can all remember where we were when he heard that Florida Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez had died in a boating accident. And even if you weren’t born when Walter Peyton passed away, you probably still watch his highlight reels with sadness. When a talented athlete’s life is cut short, we can’t help but to mourn the loss as if we really knew them.
No matter how many deaths we read about in the news, it doesn’t lessen the blow and the sadness we feel when another great sports star has lost their life.
Keep reading to see our list of 15 shocking athlete deaths that rocked the sports world.
15 Len Bias
Len Bias was the number 2 pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. The young University of Maryland basketball player had a lot of talent, and the rising star had many people convinced that he was going to make it big in the league. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to play in his first NBA game.
Less than 48 hours after being drafted into the league, Bias was found dead in his dorm room. The cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia resulting from an overdose of cocaine. The 22-year-old not only left behind family and friends, but he left behind a legion of University of Maryland fans, as well as NBA fanatics who were looking forward to seeing him on the court next to fellow Bean Town great, Larry Bird.
His death rocked the sports world, and many wonder to this day what impact Bias would have had on the game. With the talent he displayed on the court during his college years, there’s no doubt he would have been a Hall of Famer in the NBA.
14 Tim Richmond
Back in the 80s, NASCAR drivers were all about having a good time. It was like a non-stop party full of booze and women, and Tim Richmond was the leader of the pack. He once stumbled drunk across the stage during driver introductions prior to a race. He had a plastic cup in his hand, and his uniform was unzipped to expose his belly button. Following the race, he probably walked off with two beautiful women underneath each arm. It was the Tim Richmond way, and it earned him the nickname “Hollywood.” He was a star on and off the racetrack, and no one ever thought his reign would come to an end.
In 1986, just after a race at Pocono, Richmond fell ill. Rumors circulated that he had contracted HIV, and those rumors were confirmed at the time of his death, but it was much worse than expected. Richmond’s HIV had advanced to AIDS. He was just 34 years old.
Following his death, it was rumored that 90 drivers and NASCAR personnel underwent HIV testing. His family held a press conference saying the young driver had contracted the virus from an “unknown woman,” but they had no idea who she could be.
13 Dale Earnhardt Sr.
The NASCAR world was rocked once again by another untimely death. This time, it was Dale Earnhardt Sr. who would leave the game and countless adoring fans behind. In the 90s and 2000s, You couldn’t mention NASCAR without mentioning Earnhardt’s name. He was practically the face of the sport. He had seven Winston Cup Series championships under his belt, as well as 76 career victories. He was the fastest driver on the track, and his experience led him to maintain his position at the top of the game.
But accidents on the track are bound to happen - especially at the high rate of speed that the cars are going. Even the most skilled driver can have a lapse of judgement that can prove to be deadly.
On February 18, 2001, Earnhardt was competing in the Daytona 500 when he crashed on the fourth turn of the final lap and was killed. He was 49 years old.
12 Nick Adenhart
Major League Baseball has experienced many losses throughout the years, and each one is just as shocking. In 2009, Nick Adenhart, the starting pitcher of the Anaheim Angels, was a passenger in a vehicle that was driving down the street in Fullerton, California. A red minivan ran through a red light and smashed into the car Adenhart was riding in. The driver and passenger in Adenhart’s vehicle were pronounced dead at the scene. Another passenger survived but suffered internal decapitation. The driver of the minivan fled, but was later arrested and sentenced to 51-years-to-life for driving under the influence and murder. Adenhart was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was later pronounced dead at the age of 22.
The Angels organization and fans were shocked and saddened by the loss. The team wore a black patch over their hearts with Adenhart’s number 34 on it for the remainder of the season in honor of him.
11 Reggie Lewis
The Boston Celtics suffered another loss back in 1993. Reggie Lewis had a brief career, but his last seasons on the court was notable. He averaged 20 points per game, and he was selected for the All-Star game in 1992.
Lewis was at an off-season practice session at Brandeis University in Massachusetts on July 27, 1993 when he collapsed on the court. It was later discovered that he died of sudden cardiac arrest. Being that he was only 27 years old, many suspected his condition was due to cocaine use, but an autopsy did not find that drug abuse was a factor in his death.
Lewis had shown symptoms of heart issues prior to his death. He had collapsed during the opening game of the Celtics’ first-round playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets. It was later discovered that he had a structural heart defect that is the common cause of most young athlete deaths.
10 Steve McNair
Steve McNair’s July 4, 2009 death not only rocked the sport’s world, it left many unanswered questions to this day. McNair was a quarterback, and in his 12 year career, he only played with two teams: the Houston/Tennessee Oilers/Titans and the Baltimore Ravens.
McNair had charisma on and off the field. Following his death, many sports fans were given a peek into a side of his life that many never knew existed.
McNair was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds, alongside the body of his mistress, Sahel "Jenni" Kazemi. Their bodies were found in a condominium in Nashville that was rented by McNair.
The former quarterback married Mechelle McNair in 1997, but he had been romantically linked to Kazemi. On the night of his death, Kazemi was experiencing financial issues. She was “stressed” about paying bills and said that her chest felt heavy. McNair tucked his kids into bed and headed over to the condo to check on Kazemi.
He fell asleep on the couch and was shot twice in the body and twice in the head. Kazemi had one gunshot to the temple. The deaths were ruled a murder-suicide.
9 Pat Tillman
Pat Tillman gave up his NFL career as an All-Pro defensive back with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army. He turned down a $3.6 million dollar contract and headed off to Iraq to help America invade the country in 2003. In 2004, he was deployed to Afghanistan were he was later killed.
The mystery surrounding his April 2004 death has led to a lot of controversy. The Army initially told his family he was killed while courageously running up a hill to protect his fellow Army Rangers. The family didn’t believe this version of events, and after a few weeks, the Army changed their story and said Tillman had really been killed by “friendly fire.” The former NFL player had been accidentally shot by a fellow solider. To this day, many believe he was actually murdered.
An investigation was opened into his death, and Tillman’s passing is still considered one of the most controversial friendly fire killings in our history.
8 Cory Lidle
Cory Lidle had been in the league since he was drafted by the Mets in 1997. He was then acquired by the New York Yankees during the 2006 season. If there was one thing Lidle loved more than baseball it was flying airplanes.
On October 11, 2006, Lidle was piloting a plane with his instructor, Tyler Stranger, over the city of Manhattan. They lost control after a gust of wind sent their plane careening into a skyscraper on East 72nd Street. Both Lidle and Stranger were killed in the plane crash. Lidle was 34-years-old at the time of his death and he left behind his wife Melanie and their son Chris.
News of his death shocked his team and sports fans. The league held a moment of silence for the pitcher. The following season, Lidle’s widow and his son threw out the first pitch at Opening Day at Yankee stadium.
7 Lyman Bostock
With just one week left in the 1978 season, Lyman Bostock was visiting his uncle in Gary, Indiana. The two men met up with a woman Bostock had tutored in the past named Joan Hawkins. When Hawkins and her friend Barbara Smith asked the men for a ride, they agreed. They began driving, and a car pulled up alongside them with Smith’s estranged husband, Leonard Smith, behind the wheel. Leonard had ben keeping an eye on them the entire time, and he believed Barbara may have been cheating on him with Bostock. He opened fire into the car, shooting Bostock in the head. Bostock was taken to a hospital where he died. He was just 27 years old.
Later, Leonard said the gunshot was solely intended for his estranged wife, but he accidentally struck Bostock.
In his four-season career in the MLB, Bostock was a .311 hitter with 23 home runs. Following his death, his team the California Angels wore a black armband in his memory.
6 Walter Payton
Walter Payton was one of the best running backs in the NFL. He played for the Chicago Bears for 13 seasons, and he earned the nickname “Sweetness” from players around the league. The nine-time Pro Bowl player once held the record for career rushing yards, carries, touchdowns, all-purpose yards and yards from scrimmage. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993, and soon thereafter, rumors about his health began to circulate.
When he would make an appearance in public, the media would ask him about his weight loss and the gaunt look in his face. He hid his illness for years, until he finally made the announcement that he was battling bile duct cancer. When he made the announcement, he was asked if he was scared and he replied, “Am I scared? Hell yeah, I’m scared. Wouldn’t you be scared?” He died in 1999 at the age of 45.
5 Darryl Kile
On June 22, 2002, the St. Louis Cardinals were doing their pre-game warmups to get ready for a matchup against the Chicago Cubs. But there was one person noticeably missing from the field: pitcher Darryl Kile.
Team personnel made their way to the hotel where the team had been staying during their time in Chicago, and they gained entry into Kile’s room. There, they found the right-handed pitcher in bed, dead from a heart attack. He was just 33 years old.
The team made the news known to the public, and a tearful Joe Girardi, who was the catcher for the Cubs, gave the announcement to the media. He told them the game had been cancelled, but he didn’t give a reason why. Girardi said on camera it was a “tragedy in the Cardinal family,” but no one knew just how bad things were until Kile’s death was later announced.
His number 57 jersey was placed in the dugout for the remainder of the season as the team played in his memory.
4 Sean Taylor
When a player dies from natural causes, it’s a sad day in the sports world, but when an athlete is killed in a gruesome murder, it’s even more shocking.
Sean Taylor was an All-American safety for the Miami Dolphins, and his talents on the field helped the team win the Super Bowl in 2001. Sure, he had his issues off the field, but he was making positive changes in his life, and his teammates and the Dolphins organization were happy with the new direction his life was taking.
On November 18, 2007, Taylor’s house was burglarized while he was away. Intruders pried open a window to gain entry into the home. They went through a desk and his safe, but police didn’t specify if anything was stolen.
A week later, on November 26, burglars entered his home again. This time, Taylor was there recovering from a football injury. He was shot in the upper leg by one of the suspects. The bullet hit and severed his femoral artery. His girlfriend hid underneath the bed with their 18-month-old daughter and called 9-1-1 from her cell phone.
Taylor was airlifted to a Miami hospital where he underwent surgery. He lost a massive amount of blood and was in a coma. He later died at the hospital at the age of 24.
3 Junior Seau
Junior Seau was a beast on the field. The linebacker forever changed the game with his passion and his work ethic. He was well-known, well-respected and one of the most-liked players in the league. His accolades are unmatched. He was a 10-time All-Pro and 12-time Pro Bowl during his 20 season career. He was also inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2015. Sadly, he wasn’t here to celebrate the occasion.
When news spread that Seau had died just three years after retiring from the league, sports fans were shocked. But what was more shocking was the cause of death: suicide.
On May 2, 2012, Seau was found with a gunshot wound to the chest. It was later discovered that he had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a chronic brain injury that has been found in other deceased NFL players. He was 43 years old.
His family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL, alleging they conducted “acts or omissions” to conceal the risk of repeated hits to the head.
2 Oscar Taveras
The St. Louis Cardinals experienced another loss from their squad back in 2014. Oscar Taveras was signed to the Cardinals when he was just 16. By the time he got his chance to play in the MLB, he was ready to show the team why they called him "El Fenómeno" (Spanish for "The Phenomenon") in his hometown of the Dominican Republic.
In his MLB debut, he hit a home run at his second at-bat, but the promise he displayed on the field was cut short on October 26, 2014. Taveras and his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, were driving down a freeway in the Dominican Republic in his red Chevrolet Camaro. He lost control of the car, and it ran off the road and hit a tree. They were both pronounced dead. He was 22-years-old.
The league held a moment of silence in Taveras’ honor just moments before Game 6 of the World Series.
1 Jose Fernandez
Jose Fernandez played his entire career with the Florida Marlins, and the team’s fans just couldn’t get enough of his charisma and his electrifying presence on the field. In his last major league game on September 20, 2016, Fernandez pitched eight shutout innings in a win over the Nationals. He struck out 12 batters and allowed only three hits with no walks. He was just 24, and he had many seasons ahead of him. But his career was cut short in the early morning of September 25, 2016.
Fernandez and two friends were involved in a boating accident off the coast of Miami Beach. Their boat was traveling at a high rate of speed when it hit a probing jetty. All three men were killed on impact. Fernandez suffered blunt-force trauma to the head and torso, including a skull and jaw fractures.
When news was announced that Fernandez was one of the victims of the crash, the entire world fell silent. Investigators confirmed Fernandez was not driving the boat, but he had alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of his death. He left behind a girlfriend who was pregnant with their first child.
Sources: CNN, ESPN, CBS News
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