An unsettling number of high-profile individuals passed away in 2016. Among a seemingly endless array of icons, David Bowie, Nancy Reagan, Prince, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, Gordie Howe, Arnold Palmer and Muhammad Ali died last year. In a Newsweek article titled “The Great Celebrity Death Epidemic Of 2016,” the renowned periodical tried to identify why so many classic-rock figures expired in rapid succession.
“I think it’s more sad coincidence than anything else,” says Jem Aswad, a Billboard senior editor.
“The average life expectancy of a lot of people who were big in the ’60s and early ’70s—it’s getting to be that time. They’re all hitting their 70s. [And] given the era, there were a lot of drugs and a lot of cigarette smoking and being a touring musician performing every single night takes its toll on you. Lemmy (Motörhead’s frontman) was the most unapologetic rock-and-roll-lifestyle person you’ll ever see. More so than Keith Richards. That generation in particular—the hard living combined with aging—of course we’re gonna see more [music deaths].”
Removed from rock ‘n’ roll, and in addition to megastars Howe, Palmer and Ali, the sports world prematurely lost two prominent athletes last autumn. Miami Marlins ace José Fernández was fatally injured in a September 2016 boating accident while operating a watercraft with alcohol and cocaine in his system. Approximately three months after the 24-year-old Fernández lost his life, Heisman trophy winner and former NFL running back Rashaan Salaam took his own life at the age of 42.
“The Buff Family (the University of Colorado Buffaloes) has lost an outstanding young man and a great Buff today,” Colorado athletic director Rick George said in a statement. “We are heartbroken for Rashaan and his family and our thoughts and prayers are with them at this very difficult time.”
Although not nearly as widespread as 2016, let’s remember 15 athletes who sadly left us this year.
15. GEORGE ‘THE ANIMAL’ STEELE
WWE Hall of Famer George “The Animal” Steele succumbed to kidney failure at the age of 79 on February 16. Born William James Myers in Detroit, the 6-foot-1, 290-pound Steele debuted in 1967 as one of wrestling’s most unforgettable heels and retired in 1988 as a comically beloved babyface. In the immediate aftermath of his death, a handful of notable grapplers used social media to praise Steele as a man and performer. Among those grapplers, Hulk Hogan and Triple H paid tribute to Steele.
“George”the Animal”Steel,RIP my brother,only love,only grateful. HH,” tweeted Hogan.
A few hours after Hogan’s farewell, Triple H lauded Steele’s uniqueness and ability to enliven any crowd.
“George Steele was a one of a kind performer who could make fans smile or boo…and his competitors laugh or cry,” tweeted Triple H.
14. JAKE LAMOTTA
International Boxing Hall of Famer Jake LaMotta died due to complications from pneumonia at the age of 95 on September 19 in Aventura, Florida. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound Lamotta (83-19-4, 30 KOs), a former world middleweight champion who earned a unanimous decision victory over Sugar Ray Robinson in October 1942, was famously portrayed by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s film “Raging Bull.” Although brimming with testicular fortitude inside the squared circle, LaMotta was a coward outside of the ring who was an admitted rapist, serial domestic abuser and armed robber. Despite his thuggish existence, LaMotta’s seventh wife, Denise Baker, raved about her late husband.
“I just want people to know, he was a great, sweet, sensitive, strong, compelling man with a great sense of humor, with eyes that danced,” Baker told TMZ.
13. AARON HERNANDEZ
Aaron Hernandez was found guilty of first-degree murder in April 2015 and sentenced to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, Massachusetts. Prior to being convicted for shooting Odin Lloyd to death, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Hernandez was indicted for the July 2012 double homicide of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado. After six days of deliberations, the disgraced New England Patriot was exonerated for the pair of slayings on April 14. Less than a week after receiving a not-guilty verdict, Hernandez hanged himself in his prison cell on April 19 at the age of 27.
In a letter sent to his fiancée shortly before committing suicide, Hernandez wrote, “I told you what was coming indirectly! This was the Supremes, the Almightys plan, not mine!”
Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Susan Garsh was required to vacate Hernandez’s conviction because he passed before his appeal was heard.
12. CORTEZ KENNEDY
Legendary Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy passed away at the age of 48 on May 23 in Orlando. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Kennedy, an eight-time Pro Bowler who won the 1992 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, was a Seahawk throughout his 11-year career.
“(Cortez) always had a smile on his face. There was no arrogance about him at all. Not at all,” said Dennis Erickson, who coached Kennedy at the University of Miami and in Seattle.
“He wouldn’t think he was as good as he was. … He was just a great young man. He was one of the closest guys I’ve been around in coaching. I was close with his family and he was close with my family and we kept in touch all these years. It’s hard to describe him. They don’t make them like him anymore.”
11. BOBBY ‘THE BRAIN’ HEENAN
Bobby “The Brain” Heenan is frequently lauded as history’s premier professional wrestling manager. The 6-foot, 190-pound Heenan, born Raymond Louis Heenan in Chicago, premiered as a rassler in 1965 in the Indianapolis-based WWA promotion. However, “The Brain” became an industry icon when he trashed his wrestling trunks in the late 1960s and concentrated on managing in-ring talents. Heenan, who advised a distinguished list of performers including André the Giant, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, King Kong Bundy, “Ravishing” Rick Rude and “King” Harley Race, was diagnosed with throat cancer in January 2002. Nearly 16 years after his initial diagnosis, Heenan died on September 17 in Largo, Florida.
“The news of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s passing today gutted me,” wrestling announcer Jim Ross wrote on Twitter. “I loved our time together. No one ever did it better than the Wease.”
10. Y.A. TITTLE
Groundbreaking signal-caller Y. A. Tittle passed away at the age of 90 on October 8 in Stanford, California. A balding quarterback who wore antiquated high-topped shoes, the 6-foot, 190-pound Tittle played for the San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants and Baltimore Colts. Most memorably, after being deemed shopworn by San Francisco’s executives, a 34-year-old Tittle was traded to the Giants in exchange for guard Lou Cordileone in August 1961. Tittle promptly led Big Blue to three consecutive National Football League championship games.
“For all Y. A.’s bumpkin ways, I suspect the city saw in him a reflection of itself,” wrote former Giants star Frank Gifford. “He was somebody who had come from somewhere else, who’d been gotten rid of, and a lot of New Yorkers can identify with that.”
9. ROLLIE MASSIMINO
Fabled college basketball coach Rollie Massimino lost a long battle with lung cancer at the age of 82 on August 30 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Massimino, a three-year starter for the University of Vermont men’s basketball team, won 816 games as a college coach. Most memorably, in what is widely regarded as one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history, Massimino led a middling Villanova University team over a powerful Georgetown Hoyas squad to capture the 1985 national title.
“We just thought if anybody was going to beat cancer and never die, you just thought it was going to be coach Mass,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
“We watched him really struggle at the end, so it’s nice that he went peacefully and with his family. But it’s a big void in this Villanova basketball family because his presence was just so powerful. It impacted current players, current coaches, all his players, the players that came before him, coaches before him. He was just larger than life.”
8. DON BAYLOR
Journeyman slugger and respected manager Don Baylor died at the age of 68 on August 7 following a 14-year fight with multiple myeloma. Baylor, a three-time Silver Slugger Award winner who was named the 1979 American League MVP, retired following 19 seasons in November 1988. Seven years after retiring as a player, Baylor earned National League Manager of the Year honors in 1995 with the Chicago Cubs.
“Today is a sad day for our game,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement.
“Don used power and speed to earn American League MVP honors with the Angels in 1979 and contributed to three straight pennant winners in a great 19-year Major League career. He then became the first manager in Rockies history, guiding them to their first postseason in just their third year of play. Throughout stints with 14 different Major League teams as a player, coach or manager, Don’s reputation as a gentleman always preceded him.”
7. RED MILLER
Fiery coach Red Miller died due to complications from a stroke at the age of 89 on September 27 in Denver. Miller, a standout player for Western Illinois University’s football program, replaced John Ralston to become the Denver Broncos’ coach in January 1977. Before hiring Miller, the Broncos were an inept organization that was widely mocked. The mastermind behind the storied Orange Crush defense, Miller swiftly revolutionized the Broncos’ culture and guided his 1977 squad to Super Bowl XII. Although Denver lost 27-10 to the Dallas Cowboys, the Broncos were never again deemed a laughingstock.
“Our deepest sympathies go out to Red’s entire family, especially his wife, Nan,” Broncos President and CEO Joe Ellis said in a statement. “Red was a beloved member of the Broncos’ family. He left a great impact on this franchise by laying the foundation for our championship tradition and was so proud to be part of our first Super Bowl team 40 years ago.
6. GENE ‘STICK’ MICHAEL
Without the brilliance of Gene “Stick” Michael, the New York Yankees’ dynasty in the 1990s may have never existed. With owner George Steinbrenner suspended and unable to interfere with day-to-day operations, Michael acquired Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, David Cone, Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill between 1991 and 1995.
“Gene Michael was not only largely responsible for the success of the Yankees organization, but also for my development as a player,” said Jeter, who Michael drafted sixth overall in 1992. “He was always accessible and willing to share his personal knowledge as well as support. He will be greatly missed.’’
5. DARREN DAULTON
Approximately four years after being diagnosed with cancer, beloved Philadelphia Phillies catcher Darren Daulton passed away at the age of 55 on August 6 in Clearwater, Florida. Daulton, a three time All-Star and 1992 Silver Slugger Award winner, was the inspirational leader of the Phillies’ 1993 World Series squad.
“Darren was a true leader of men,” Phillies chairman emeritus Bill Giles said in a statement.
“The Phillies would not have gone to the 1993 World Series without his leadership. In addition to being an outstanding clubhouse leader, he was also a fighter. He battled through five knee operations to become an All-Star. I really enjoyed watching him for 14 years in uniform. Darren was a super human being. His teammates loved him. I loved him like he was one of my own. In fact, he called me ‘Uncle Bill.'”
4. ARA PARSEGHIAN
Alongside Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian is a part of the “Holy Trinity” of Notre Dame football head coaches. Parseghian, who competed as a halfback and defensive back for the Cleveland Browns, was hired in December 1964 to lead a slacking Fighting Irish program. Over 11 seasons in South Bend, Parseghian went 95-17-4 and directed the Irish to the national championship in 1966 and 1973. Parseghian, a two-time Football News Coach of the Year winner, passed away at the age of 94 on August 2 in Granger, Indiana.
“Notre Dame mourns the loss of a legendary football coach, a beloved member of the Notre Dame family and good man — Ara Parseghian,” Rev. John I. Jenkins said. “Among his many accomplishments, we will remember him above all as a teacher, leader and mentor who brought out the very best in his players, on and off the field.”
3. ANTHONY YOUNG
Jinxed hurler Anthony Young died from an inoperable brain tumor at the age of 51 on June 27 in Houston. Young, who pitched for the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, is infamous for losing a record 27 consecutive starts. However, in actuality, Young was a solid performer on the mound who was undone by the Mets’ pathetic offense.
“A.Y. took a lot of kidding about his losing records,” former Mets infielder Doug Flynn said in the statement. “But he was the victim of some bad luck during the streak. He knew inside that he was a better pitcher than his numbers.”
2. JAMES HARDY
Wide receiver James Hardy took his own life at the age of 31 on June 7 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Hardy starred for the Indiana Hoosiers’ football squad and was a first-team All-Big Ten member in 2007. After departing Bloomington, the Buffalo Bills selected Hardy with the 41st pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Following the 2010 campaign, Hardy never played in another regular season game and he finished his career with 10 receptions for 96 yards and two touchdowns.
“Lately, I would see him every day, or I would talk to him every day,” said Hardy’s mother, Jeanie Summerville.
1. FAB MELO
Former Syracuse University lockdown defender Fab Melo died of natural causes at the age of 26 on February 11 in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, Brazil. The 7-foot-1, 260-pound Melo, the 2012 Big East Defensive Player of the Year, declared for the NBA Draft following his sophomore season and was chosen 22nd overall by the Boston Celtics.
“It’s so hard right now, so hard to believe. It’s a sad, sad day. He was a really good kid, and it’s not fair that he will be defined by one thing: a 10-page paper,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said, noting a plagiarized paper Melo submitted in college. “He worked his tail off to become a really good player and was a nice kid.”
Melo’s mother found his lifeless body.
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