While they seem like larger than life figures, professional athletes are more like us than we’d like to imagine. As fans, we’re used to seeing them on television or in person making spectacular plays and showing off great skill that, to us, look so completely unattainable that it makes them seem – for lack of a better word – invincible. But the sad truth that hit fans and athletes alike is that they’re as human as we are. That point is only made clearer when news of a sports figure passing on reaches the public’s ear.
Every year it seems like there’s always one great athlete who passes on. Usually they’re an all-time great from an older era of their respective sport. While it’s sad, you’d expect someone who’s a little older in age to pass away at one point and while it might be sad, the news is hardly unexpected. However, there are those times where the news of an athlete’s passing comes down as a huge shock. That’s when a young athlete passes away. Anytime a young man dies, regardless of their profession, it comes as a shock to all who knew him. When a pro athlete dies in their prime, it’s seen as a tragic waste of what could’ve been a potentially great career.
Out of all the great athletes who’ve left this world too soon, this list will focus on those who were right in their respective primes when they passed. Out of all the potential what-if scenarios in sports, be it trades, early retirements or free agency signings, the death of a young star proves to be the most frustrating. Some of these men died due to freak health conditions, others because of automotive accidents. Regardless of the reason, their deaths were tragic and left an impact on the sports world that is still felt to this day.
In honor of these great athletes here are the top 15 athletes who died in their prime.
15. Pelle Lindbergh
Though his career only lasted five years, Pelle Lindbergh made an impact in the league during his short tenure as an NHL goalie. His career with the Flyers saw him named the goalie for the 1983 NHL All-Rookie team and he was also the first European to win the Vezina Trophy in 1985. That same year, Lindbergh left the Flyers facility after a team gathering. Sometime after leaving, he was killed in a car accident while driving intoxicated. At the end of the 1985-86 season, he was posthumously voted to that year’s All-Star team and was honored by the Flyers when they named their annual most improved player award after him.
14. Hank Gathers
Hank Gathers hadn’t even yet made it to the NBA but was showing tremendous potential at the collegiate level. He’d become only the second player in NCAA history to lead all other collegiate players in rebounds and points in the same season. He and Layola Maymount were looking to go far into the playoffs. And with the way Gathers was playing, there was no reason to bet against them. However, tragedy soon ensued on the court as Gathers fell to the floor after an alley-oop. He’d died on the court. The condition is known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart irregularity that affects the muscles inside the heart. It’s one of many heart related incidents that would take the lives of numerous young athletes.
13. Lyman Bostock
Everyone loves a good underdog story and Lyman Bostock was just that. A 26th round pick in the 1972 MLB draft, Bostock had made it to the majors as a member of the Minnesota Twins. In 1976, he’d become a full time starter for the Twins and would go on to post a .311 career batting average in his short four year career. In 1978, after a loss to the Chicago White Sox when he was with the California Angels, Bostock was killed. Shortly after getting in the car, he was killed by a shotgun blast fired in a misguided jealous rage.
12. Drazen Petrovic
Drazen Petrovic was one of the first European players to find great success in the NBA. Petrovic helped break down the stereotypes that Europeans couldn’t compete with the level of talent found at the NBA level. He was a six-time European player of the year and won two silver and one bronze medals as a member of the Croatian and Yugoslavian Olympic teams. He joined the NBA in 1989 and would become one of the leagues fastest rising starts, averaging 22.3 points per game in 1993. While traveling in Europe during the 1993 offseason, Petrovic’s car was struck by a semi, killing him instantly.
11. Chris Henry
Early on in his career, Chris Henry got more coverage for his trouble with the law than his talents on the football field. But as he calmed down, the focus shifted to his abilities as a receiver. In Cincinnati, the third round pick had earned himself a spot behind star receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh as the slot receiver. However, Henry’s career was tragically cut short after a freak accident in 2009, when Henry had died due to head trauma. The injury was sustained after he’d fallen out of the bed of a truck driven by his fiancé during a domestic dispute.
10. Ernie Davis
Ernie Davis was a star at Syracuse, wearing the storied number 44 while with the team. He dominated at the collegiate level and is still considered to be one of the greatest running backs in the history of college sports. He is also remembered for being the first African-American athlete to win the coveted Heisman Trophy, which he won back in 1961. Drafted in 1962 by the Washington Redskins as the first overall selection in that draft, Davis was soon traded to the Cleveland Browns. The team already had Jim Brown and with the addition of Davis looked like they would have one of the most explosive backfields the game would ever see. Sadly, Davis’ career was cut short before it even started. He was diagnosed with leukemia a few months after he was drafted and died soon after.
9. Len Bias
Next to automotive accidents and freak medical conditions, drugs stand as another devastating reason as to why some great young athletes die so young. Considered to be a top candidate coming out of college, Len Bias was drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics in 1986. A dominant presence at Maryland, he’d dominated all throughout his career and won the 1986 ACC Player of the Year award. Compared by many to NBA great Michael Jordan, Bias was set to make huge waves in the pros. But just 48 hours after he was drafted Bias was found in his dorm room dead. He’d died of a cocaine overdose while celebrating what seemed to be a bright career in the NBA.
8. Antonio Puerta
Here is an example of another promising career tragically cut short by a freak medical condition. While young, Antonio Puerta was steadily making a name for himself as someone who could come up big in the clutch for his team. In his first year with Sevilla FC, Puerta scored a monumental game winning goal to beat Schalke in the 2006 UEFA Cup semifinals. The next year he once again came through for Sevilla, scoring on a penalty against Espanyol in the 2007 UEFA Cup Final. Then, three months later, he collapsed on the field during the team’s season opener. He was carted off and died three days later. It was later found to have been a form of heart disease that had caused him to die.
7. Darrent Williams
In two seasons with the Denver Broncos, Darrent Williams had established himself as a key member of their secondary. A starter halfway through his rookie season, Williams posted six interceptions – two of which he’d returned for touchdowns – in just two years in the NFL. But in 2007, Williams was killed during a drive by shooting sometime after the New Year. Though not one of them, Williams was driving with several others who’d allegedly been involved in an incident with some gang members earlier that night. Williams was struck in the neck and almost died instantly, not making it to the hospital.
6. Dan Snyder
Another underdog story tragically cut short, Dan Snyder went undrafted in 1999 but managed to find a spot on the Atlanta Thrashers. Snyder then proceeded to spend the next few years improving his game as a junior player up in Canada. He was regarded by many to be a great team leader and managed to play in 49 games during his short tenure in the NHL. But his dream would be cut short after he and teammate Dany Heatley were involved in a brutal car crash. Heatley – who was driving – survived the incident but Snyder wasn’t as lucky.
5. Sean Taylor
Despite having only played in the NFL for a few seasons, Sean Taylor had established himself as one of the most dominating presences in the defensive backfield. The fifth overall pick in the 2004 draft earned two Pro Bowl selections and was on his way to becoming one of the league’s elite defensive players. But while at his home in Florida, Taylor was shot in the leg during a botched robbery attempt. The bullet pierced his femoral artery causing significant blood loss and subsequently his death soon after being rushed to the hospital.
4. Salvador Sanchez
Considered by many to be one of the greatest Featherweight boxers of all-time, Salvador Sanchez met a tragic end at the very peak of his boxing career. Having won the WBC Featherweight title at the age of 21, Sanchez went on to successfully defend it 10 times over a two year period. To that point, he’d put up a record of 44-1-1 with 32 of those wins being by knockout. But he was killed in a car accident a while after his last fight in 1982 while driving in Mexico. In 1991, he was honored by being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
3. Pat Tillman
Pat Tillman is considered by many as an American hero. As a member of the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman was an All-Pro defensive back and was poised to be one of the leagues finest at that position for the next several years. But it seemed that the NFL was no longer in Tillman’s plans when he turned down a contract in favor of enlisting in the United States Army. Having fought in both Iraq, Tillman did his country proud. But in 2004 was shockingly killed by a still controversial friendly-fire incident.
2. Reggie Lewis
A bright future seemed to be ahead Reggie Lewis after he’d earned his first career All-Star selection in 1992. The Boston Celtics small forward had 20 points per game in his final two years in the NBA and was looking like his best years were ahead of him. But during a 1993 team practice, Lewis fell to the ground in an event that was eerily similar to the death of Hank Gathers, which had happened just a few years prior to Lewis’ death. While some sources initially assumed it to be drug related, there were no drugs found during the autopsy. It was just a freak heart condition.
1. Jerome Brown
An energetic teammate as well as a dominating presence inside the defensive line, Jerome Brown was one of the key players on a Philadelphia Eagles team that a few months prior to his death were looking to make a Super Bowl run. In five years, Brown had established himself as a rare combination between pass rusher and run stopper. He’d put up nearly 30 sacks in his career and, along with Reggie White, was the lifeblood of the Eagles defense. But in 1992 Brown – along with his 13-year old nephew – were killed in an automobile accident. Brown had lost control of his car, killing the two of them immediately. He is remembered as being one of the most feared defensive linemen of his time and could’ve possibly ended up as an all-time great had his career not been tragically cut short.
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