Iconic Athletes Who Left Us Too Soon
| LAST UPDATE 08/09/2022
Professional athletes often give everything to achieve their goal of becoming the very best, but unfortunately, things don't always go as planned. Check out some of the world's greatest athletes, who sadly left us way too soon.
Seven-time All-Star catcher Thurman Munson played 11 seasons with the New York Yankees and was an MLB legend. When he wasn't on the field, the Yankees Captain often flew small airplanes with some of his friends.
But during a flight in August of 1979, Munson's plane crashed, and he sadly passed away. After the tragedy, his teammates were absolutely heartbroken, especially Graig Nettles, who revealed, "the whole season was just kind of lost."
NFL linebacker Derrick Thomas was a standout player for the Kansas City Chiefs. After being selected early in the 1989 NFL draft, he was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl during his first season and was named Rookie of the Year. Thomas continued to wow players, coaches, and fans and became First-Team All-Pro in his second season.
Derrick was an asset to Kansas City for 11 years, until one day in February of 2000, when he was involved in a car accident, which left him paralyzed, and unfortunately, he passed away days later. This was devastating news, as "he has given a lot to this city and this organization," said former Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham.
Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente, originally from Puerto Rico, played 18 seasons in the MLB as a right fielder. When he wasn't hitting home runs for the Pirates, he spent a lot of time doing community service in other countries, as he had an enormous heart and was always looking for ways to give back.
When flying to Puerto Rico in a cargo plane in December of 1972, the aircraft was loaded over capacity with relief supplies, and unfortunately, after a few minutes in the air, the plane exploded. Clemente's family, friends, and fans were devastated, and one of his friends called the incident the "night that happiness died."
WWE legend Eddie Guerrero was born into the sport, as his father, Gory Guerrero, was also a professional wrestler. Better known as 'Latino Heat,' Guerrero certainly knew how to win over the crowd and dominate the ring. He earned five WWE titles throughout his career, but sadly, his time in the ring ended far too soon.
In November of 2005, Eddie was found unconscious in his hotel room, and he passed away at age 38. "Eddie Guerrero loved this business, he loved it, he had a passion for it like no one else," said CEO of WWE Vince McMahon. John Cena also shared, "He was one of the most passionate individuals about everything he did."
After thriving as a cornerback at Oklahoma State University, Darrent Williams was picked in the second-round draft by the Denver Broncos in 2005. He became a crucial part of the team, but unfortunately, he only played one season. On January 1st, 2007, Williams lost his life after suffering a gunshot wound.
The 24-year-old was victim to a drive-by shooting after attending a New Years' Eve Party, and his friends, family, and fans were heartbroken. "All of us are devastated by this tragedy," said Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. "To lose a young player, and more important, a great young man such as Darrent Williams, is incomprehensible."
Lou Gehrig made history in Major League Baseball and in the medical field after a difficult diagnosis during his career with the New York Yankees. In 1938, he began regressing in the game, and after many tests, he was diagnosed with ALS, a disease with no known treatment.
Even while battling ALS, Gehrig told fans, "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," always maintaining a positive attitude. Sadly, the baseball icon passed away at the age of 38, and people have been raising money to find a cure for ALS in his honor ever since, even referring to it as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Columbian footballer Andres Escobar was at the height of his career in 1994 when the U.S. hosted the World Cup for the first time, and Escobar was proud to be representing his country in the games. The defender was known as "The Gentleman of the Field" because of his calm and respectful demeanor.
During a game in the World Cup, Escobar accidentally scored a goal on his own team, which led to the U.S. winning the match. When he returned to Columbia, Andres was shot to death, and there were suspicions that this had to do with his error in the World Cup.
Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke practically grew up on the slopes and was named Winter X Games champion six times during her career. "Sarah, in many ways, defined the sport," said Canadian Freestyle CEO Peter Judge. "For her, it's been about making herself the best she can be rather than comparing herself to other people."
In January of 2012, while training at Park City Mountain resort, Sarah crashed on the halfpipe and immediately went into cardiac arrest. Sadly, Burke suffered severe brain damage and passed away at age 29. Even though she's no longer with us, Burke's legacy will always remain on the slopes, as that was truly her home.
In addition to being a three-time All-American halfback and leading Syracuse University to the national championship during his sophomore year, Ernie Davis made NFL history. He was the first African American to both win the Heisman Trophy and get selected first during the NFL draft.
Davis was drafted by the Washington Redskins, but was then traded to the Cleveland Browns before the season started. Unfortunately, though, Davis was never able to play a game in the NFL, as he was diagnosed with leukemia, and put all of his energy into fighting the disease, and he sadly passed away in 1963.
Jose Fernandez was one of the MLB's most promising players after winning Rookie of the Year in 2013 while playing for the Miami Marlins. He earned himself a reputation as one of the league's most unhittable starting pitchers, and even after two injuries, he made a phenomenal comeback in 2016.
Fernandez was an asset to the Marlins, but in September of 2016, the 24-year-old lost his life in a boating accident. "He was one of the most exciting pitchers in the game," said Miami Herald reporter Manny Navarro. "He was the kind of teammate who was on edge in his seat in the dugouts cheering on his team."
Not only was Dale Earnhardt one of the most successful NASCAR drivers in history, but he was known as the master of intimidation during his races. His unique driving style won him seven NASCAR Winston Cup titles, and it was clear that this legend was never afraid to push the limits on the track.
In February of 2001, Earnhardt crashed into the wall during the final turn of a race. His injuries were too severe, and Dale sadly passed away in the hospital. "This is understandably the toughest announcement I've ever had to make," said NASCAR president Mike Helton, following the tremendous loss.
At the age of 21, Georgian Olympian Nodar Kumaritashvili was thrilled to be competing on his country's luge team at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, Canada. The sport is known to be rather dangerous, as competitors slide down a sheet of ice, so it certainly requires a level of bravery.
During a practice run, Kumaritashvili tragically crashed and was thrown from his sled. Unfortunately, the injuries he sustained were severe and he passed away. Authorities spent countless hours investigating what went wrong during Nodar's run, and the entire Olympic village and his fans back in Georgia deeply mourned the loss.
Ever since he stepped onto the field at Ohio State University, Korey Stringer was a force to be reckoned with. He helped lead the Buckeyes to victory and then was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 1995. This incredible offensive lineman spent six seasons playing for the Vikings and made the Pro Bowl in 2000.
In August of 2001, Stringer tragically suffered from heatstroke at training camp and passed away. He'll forever be remembered for his legendary performance on the field and his thoughtful and selfless qualities. He was always doing good in the community, including using his Pro Bowl check to support a youth football program.
In 1987, when the Boston Celtics had their fair share of incredible talent, they drafted Reggie Lewis to add a younger player to the mix. At the time, the team was made up of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and other icons; Things looked promising for Lewis. During his second season with the Celtics, Reggie became a star player.
During the 1992-93 postseason, Lewis was diagnosed with a severe cardiac illness, but he was determined to keep playing for as long as possible. In July of 1993, he collapsed during practice and went into cardiac arrest. Sadly, Lewis passed away shortly after, leaving his family, friends, and fans heartbroken.
NFL linebacker Marquis Cooper was loved for more than just his performance on the field. Aside from making fans proud during his time playing for the Vikings, Steelers, Seahawks, Jaguars, and Raiders, he impressed people with his positive attitude and constant vibrant smile.
Even after a tough game, Cooper maintained a level of optimism. In March of 2009, Marquis was in a tragic boating accident and lost his life at age 26. After he passed, sports reporter Derek Belt shared, "Cooper was a joy to talk with and one of the most memorable players I've had the fortune of meeting."
Canadian hockey player Dan Snyder was one of the Atlanta Thrashers' most promising players. After signing with the team in 1999, fans were sure that this young centerman would help lead the Thrashers to victory. Snyder played professional hockey until 2003, when one day, everything changed.
Snyder was in a traumatic car accident, and after being in a coma for six days, he passed away at age 25. The Winnipeg Jets, a Canadian professional hockey team, later created the Dan Snyder Memorial Award in Snyder's honor, for the player who showed incredible perseverance, dedication, and hard work without recognition.
Kobe Bryant dominated the court during his 20 year NBA career, all of which he spent with the L.A. Lakers. He was named the league's Most Valuable Player in 2008, won two Olympic championships, along with numerous other awards. The NBA legend retired in 2016, but that didn't make him any less of an icon or a role model.
In January of 2020, Kobe tragically lost his life in a helicopter crash, devastating his family, friends, fellow players, and fans. Countless celebrities expressed their sadness on social media, and a public memorial was held to honor his legacy, along with the other people who died in the accident, including Bryant's daughter, Gianna.
After graduating from Clemson University, Gaines Adams was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the fourth overall pick in 2007. He had an incredible first season in the NFL and was selected for the All-Rookie team. After a few seasons in Tampa Bay, Adams was traded to the Chicago Bears and was an essential player.
In January of 2010, Gaines suffered from a heart attack in his family's home and sadly passed away. "Gaines was an impressive kid with such a tremendous future in front of him," said ESPN analyst Jon Gruden. "He was a great teammate and well-liked by our coaches and all those who had the opportunity to be around him in Tampa."
Kirby Puckett spent 12 years as a center fielder for the Minnesota Twins and played in his first MLB All-Star Game in 1986. In 1987, he led the Twins to their first World Series victory since 1924. Kirby did it again four years later, and his stellar performance that year helped him earn six Gold Glove Awards during his career.
In March of 1996, Puckett suddenly lost sight in his right eye and was diagnosed with glaucoma. When none of the surgeries were successful, Kirby retired from baseball. His reputation suffered years later when he was charged with assault but was never found guilty. In 2006, he sadly passed away after having a stroke.
Professional fighter Sonny Liston always maintained a somewhat mysterious persona both in and out of the ring. He took on some of the world's greatest fighters, including Muhammed Ali, who he fought twice during his career. In January of 1970, Liston's wife, Geraldine, found him unconscious in their home.
Unfortunately, it was discovered that he'd died from heart failure and lung congestion a week earlier, but there were suspicions that there were other contributing factors. The film, Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion, was later created to honor Sonny's legacy.
Running back Joe McKnight was drafted by the New York Jets in 2010 and led the NFL in yards per kickoff return during his second season. He spent three seasons in New York, then moved on to Kansas City, and made his final move to the Canadian Football League, where he spent the rest of his career.
In December of 2016, McKnight's career came to a tragic end after being involved in a road rage incident; He passed away from a gunshot wound. Countless other athletes and friends expressed their love for Joe after his death. "Everyone loved Joe, and we are going to really miss him," shared NFL coach Pete Carroll.
At 19-years-old, Steve Prefontaine had already made a name for himself as a long-distance runner. While attending the University of Oregon, the collegiate athlete set multiple records, and he eventually went on to compete in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.
He was set to compete in the games again in 1976, but three years later, Prefontaine was involved in a tragic accident. A few hours after running a 5,000-meter race at his favorite track in Oregon, Steve was in a car crash and sadly passed away at age 24.
After being drafted as the fifth pick for the Washington Redskins in 2004, Sean Taylor became a crucial team member and spent four seasons as Washington's defensive back and safety. His unique combination of size, speed, strength, and agility contributed to Taylor's successful career.
He was even regarded as the prototype NFL free safety and named to the Pro Bowl after his 2006 season. In November of 2007, the NFL legend lost his life after he was shot in his home during an attempted robbery. "He lost his life defending and protecting his family," revealed Assistant State Attorney Reid Rubin.
Ever since his junior year of high school, Nick Adenhart was expected to become an MLB legend, and professional scouts were all over him. He was the top high school prospect in the country, but an elbow injury put him behind, so he played for a couple of years in the Minor League for the L.A. Angels of Anaheim.
He was brought up to the big leagues in 2008 but sent back down, and later came back to the Angels the following season when he truly thrived. A day after he pitched his best Major League game ever, Adenhart was in a fatal car accident. He showed a promising career, but sadly, Nick's life came to an end too soon.
During his career as a professional golfer, Payne Stewart won 11 PGA Tours. He took his first swing at age four, and earned his first major title at the 1989 PGA Championship, and continued to thrive on the course ever since. Unfortunately, though, Stewart's career tragically came to an end when he was 42.
In 1999, Payne lost his life in a plane crash, leaving fellow golfers and family members heartbroken. "Payne Stewart will be remembered for many achievements," reads his biography from World Golf Hall of Fame. "But Stewart had one of the most stylish swings of the modern era."
Canadian hockey player Luc Bourdon showed incredible talent on the ice from a young age and had high hopes for a career in the NHL. He played for the Vancouver Canucks and helped them earn gold medals in 2006 and 2007. However, Bourdon's career was cut short when he tragically passed away in a motorcycle accident in May of 2008.
"The reaction any time that events like this occur is obviously shock and sadness for a promising career that was just about to begin in the National Hockey League, and for Luc's family," said Canucks general manager Mike Gillis. While he certainly passed away too soon, Bourdon's legacy will live on forever.
MLB pitcher Roy Halladay spent 16 years on the mound during his professional career, playing for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies. He was one of Toronto's best starting pitchers and brought incredible skill to Philadelphia. Sadly, Roy passed away in November of 2017 due to a plane crash.
All of baseball was devastated by this loss, as he was practically loved by everyone. "A well-respected figure throughout the game, Roy was a fierce competitor during his 16-year career, which included eight All-Star selections, two Cy Young Awards, a perfect game, and a postseason no-hitter," said MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.
Adam Petty was born into the NASCAR family, and he followed in his father Kyle Petty's footsteps on the race track. Adam finished his first American Speed Association race at age 17 and certainly maintained his family's legacy. But during a practice lap in May of 2000, everything changed for the Petty family.
The 19-year-old crashed into a wall at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and he passed away instantly. After losing his son, Kyle shared, "This is what we do, this is how we live. This was our life, you have to keep going." Kyle also believed that NASCAR improved the cars' safety features for future races after the accident.
While playing football at the University of Florida, Aaron Hernandez became the first Florida tight end to win the Mackey Award and was named All-American. He went on to play for the New England Patriots for three seasons until he was arrested for first-degree murder in 2013 after his friend's deceased body was discovered.
After being sentenced to life in prison, Hernandez took his own life in April of 2017, and investigations were conducted to find out more about the former Patriot's thought process. Researchers at Boston University diagnosed Aaron with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, caused by repeated head trauma.
Croatian basketball player Dražen Petrović was one of the first European players to rise to stardom in the NBA. Before coming to the U.S., he started his professional career as a teenager and became one of Europe's biggest stars. After seeing his potential, the Portland trailblazers drafted Petrović in 1989.
He was later traded to the New Jersey Nets, and his NBA career started to take off. He was expected to thrive on this team until suddenly, his life came to an end far too soon. In June of 1993, Dražen died in a car accident in Germany. "I'll remember him as a cheerful guy who was always smiling," recalled Nets coach Chuck Daly.