As the 80s band Cinderella told us - sometimes you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. The athletes we know and love bleed like the rest of us, and when their time is up on this earth we struggle to comprehend that these freak incidents happen to the young, talented and wealthy. They are only human after all.
Whether it’s through an undiagnosed disease, a random accident on the road or in the air, or a result of a viscous murder, the end result of losing someone doesn’t heal the scars any quicker. In some cases we can consider ourselves fortunate that we had the chance to witness their whole careers and it’s not until after they retire that the cruel hand of fate shows itself.
It is often the people we lose incredibly young that we despair the most. Athletes like Jasper Howard and Ben Wilson had their whole lives ahead of them and more than likely would have gone on to set records in the NBA and NFL respectfully. For a myriad of different reasons, they are no longer here and the best we can do as fans is preserve their memory.
Death is the most difficult subject to confront, but honoring those we came to love and enjoy is important. Perhaps there are other athletes lost before their time who deserve the recognition, but these are the top 20 who left us way too soon.
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20 Bill Masterton
Many high profile deaths are a result of bad fortune or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then there are tragedies like the one that occurred to Bill Masterton, a 29-year old elite hockey player who died from a massive head injury in 1968. Playing in the NHL for the Minnesota North Stars, Masterton was a two-time NCAA All-Star rising through the college ranks at Denver. He had established himself in the big time and were it not for proper helmet protection, he might be with us today. Not wearing head protection isn’t even considered for a second now and it’s because of the loss of Bill Masterton.
19 Junior Malanda
One moment a young footballer is in the back seat of a car on route to the airport to a training camp, the next people are sending tributes and messages of love to his family and friends. Junior Malanda was a highly rated youngster in the Wolfsburg ranks, but that all came crashing down last January when a car accident ended it all for the Belgium midfielder. Excessive speeds and wet conditions were blamed for the crash, although the details seem redundant given the loss of one of Europe’s most promising prospects in recent times. The outpouring of emotion from the soccer community told it’s own story.
18 Ben Wilson
Ben Wilson was tipped to be the next big thing in basketball and were it not for a shooting near his school, who knows if he would have fulfilled that huge potential. The 17-year old from Chicago, Illinois happened to be the father of a love child with girlfriend Jetun Rush and when he went after her, he ran into a Calumet High School student sporting a caliber pistol. Rather than moving on, reports emerged that he engaged in a confrontation and no less than one day before the start of his first season basketball season, Wilson was shot and killed.
17 Jonah Lomu
A rare kidney disease acted as the quiet killer for the greatest name in rugby union history last month. The unexpected death of the Kiwi legend at the age of 40 culminated in a day of mourning not only for New Zealand as a nation, but the rugby world at large. The haka tribute from a number of his former All Blacks teammates at Auckland’s Eden Park showed the esteem he was held in and such was his dominance in the sport, the NFL were desperate for him to ditch rugby and join the American revolution. Fortunately we’ll always have the highlights to look back on, a career of which we will never see again.
16 Drazen Petrovic
One of Croatia’s finest shooting guards was tragically lost at 28-years of age during a car accident in 1993. Petrovic’s career started with local club Sibenka before moves to Cibona, Real Madrid, the Portland Trail Blazers and the New Jersey Nets saw the 6ft 5 player rise through the ranks from Eastern European obscurity to the glitz and glamor of basketball’s benchmark competition, the NBA. During a downtime trip with his girlfriend, he decided to skip a flight and drive back to Croatia via the German roads. A large truck that swerved across 3 lanes of traffic hit Petrovic’s car and he died instantly, with partner Klara Szalantzy suffering serious injuries.
15 Jerry Collins
Another All Black rugby player taken way before his time. The big, bustling number 8 was enjoying time playing in France before a shocking crash took the life of his wife and himself as he held onto his baby inside the car. It was the final brave act that saved the life of daughter Ayla and the tragedy ended the career of one of the hardest hitting Kiwi forwards in modern rugby history. 2015 was a bittersweet year for New Zealand rugby, winning the World Cup but losing two of their greats far too young.
14 Chuck Hughes
Heart failure on the field was something no NFL fan had seen before, nor want to see since. Chuck Hughes collapsed on the pitch from a blocked coronary artery playing for the Lions against the Chicago Bears at Tiger Stadium in 1971 and the black and white images from that day remain vivid in the memory. The 28-year old wide receiver had a family history of heart disease but it wasn’t until the game had got underway that Hughes had shown any signs of distress beforehand. Unfortunately by the time doctors knew, it was too late.
13 Sarah Burke
Sarah Burke was a serial gold medalist on superpipe events and an absolute beast on the board. The 29-year old Canadian freestyle skier announced herself in the 2005 Ruka halfpipe event, taking out the gold at just 22. After becoming one of the leading names in the industry, she decided to take a training session on the superpipe out in Utah. When an innocuous fall occurred on the pipe, she was lifted to a hospital in Salt Lake City where she was placed into a coma. Due to the irreversible brain damage and lack of oxygen to the brain, Burke never regained consciousness.
12 Joe Roth
The University of California had something special on their hands in the mid 1970s, a young quarterback prodigy named Joe Roth who was on course to make a big impact in the NFL. The All-American 21-year old played through the 1976 season before doctors discovered a melanoma. He would die just 3 months at the conclusion of the season, ending what could have been a life lived in football stardom. To commemorate his legacy, the Cal Football program retired his number 12 jersey to preserve his memory.
11 Senzo Meyiwa
Perhaps not a household name in the global sporting context, but try telling that to Orlando Pirates fans in South Africa. In 2014 their 30-year old international goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa was senselessly killed during an altercation when two men entered his house with his girlfriend present. As every suspect fled the scene before police officers could identify them, Meyiwa was rushed to a Johannesburg hospital but could not be saved. The murder highlighted the plight of ongoing poverty and violence still prevalent in South African townships that continue to this day.
10 Antonio Puerta
Spanish soccer club Sevilla produces a lot of great domestic talent. Their serial titles in the Europa League is testament to this and in 2007 they knew they found another talent in local boy made good, Antonio Puerta. Playing as an attacking wingback for the club at home to Getafe, the defender collapsed on the field and only 3 days later he was pronounced dead. The player suffered a cardiac arrest and was lost to the game forever. Teammates and fans struggled in the aftermath, seeing a young man fall to his death in front of their eyes.
9 Ed Sanders
In 1954 the science around concussion in boxing was far removed from what it is today. An Olympic gold medal winner in Helsinki 1952 in the heavyweight division, Ed Sanders rose through the amateur ranks before putting in an incredible display winning 5 consecutive fights to take out the title. As a young man and with a promising professional career ahead of him, Sanders was floored from a simple combination against Willie James during a fight in Boston of 54, never coming back to consciousness. An autopsy revealed excessive bleeding in the brain prior to the blow and if they discovered it beforehand he might have been saved.
8 Payne Stewart
Payne Stewart might not have been a PGA legend, but anyone who followed the tour in the 1980s and 1990s knew a lot about the player. His 11 tour wins culminated in 3 majors, taking out the last in the 1999 U.S. Open only months before tragedy struck. Stewart was heading back home to Florida via a stop-off at Dallas on a Learjet, until a loss of cabin pressure reportedly killed all on board from hypoxia where no one was conscious to control the plane. The resulting crash had no survivors. Payne Stewart was 42.
7 Len Bias
What an amazing record for a man so young. A two-time winner of the ACC Player of the Year, ACC Athlete of the Year in 1985 and a two-time first team All-ACC induction in 1985-86. Widely considered the best basketballer never to have had the chance to grace the NBA, Len Bias had superstar written all over him. One poor choice would change all that. A cocaine overdose resulted in heart failure and the college champion would never fulfill the enormous potential he had for the game. An incredible waste.
6 Jasper Howard
The boy from Miami with the Hollywood good looks and a smile to die for. Jasper Howard excelled at the University of Connecticut Huskies as a cornerback, gradually improving to the point where he racked up 11 tackles in a single game. One night hanging out with friends on campus, Howard was fatally stabbed to death in 2009. His killer would get an 18-year sentence but his friends and family would have the rest of their lives to think what could have been of this talented 20-year old.
5 Derrick Thomas
Derrick Thomas wasn’t so much promising as he was decorated. The 10-year Kansas City Chiefs defensive end set a record for 7 sacks in a single game and in 2000 he had done more than the majority of footballers could ever dream of. All of a sudden a serious car accident which killed one passenger and injuring Thomas put the player in hospital. When the doctors were transitioning him from the bed to therapy, he rolled his eyes back and died on the spot. A blood clot had emerged from the damage suffered in his lower body.
4 Robert Enke
When news leaked that German international goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide in 2009 at the age of 32, few could actually believe it to be fact. It brought to light that depression does not discriminate on circumstance or wealth, as Enke suffered silently before stepping in front of an express train in Germany to end his life. The German Bundesliga as a competition with his club at the time Hannover 96 struggled to deal with the aftermath, rocking the sport for a few months. Ronald Reng’s biography A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke in 2011 remains one of the most haunting and prevalent pieces of writing in sports history, detailing the mental downfall of a truly talented sportsman.
3 Phillip Hughes
At 25 years of age, Phillip Hughes had the world at his feet in November 2014. Playing his way back into form for his adopted state side South Australia, Hughes was a certainty to feature for Australia in their summer series against India. A bouncer from New South Wales seamer Sean Abbott struck Hughes just below the helmet on the neck, similar to where Holly Holm kicked Rousey for her TKO win. The blow caused a hemorrhage and the golden boy of Australian cricket never regained consciousness. The death created shockwaves for the game of cricket and since then inventors have designed a new helmet to protect that sensitive part of the body previously left exposed.
2 Pat Tillman
How could anyone turn down a million dollar per season contract in the NFL to fight a war in the Middle East? Pat Tillman’s heroic and selfless decision cost him the ultimate price when it was reported that Afghan militia forces in the field of battle killed him. The 27-year old athlete was a rising star in college as a safety, so much so that the Arizona Cardinals tabled an official $3.6 million over 3 years for his services. When 9/11 occurred, it changed Tillman’s priorities and when the news broke of his loss, it hit Americans hard. They say that the military is the nation’s best and brightest and for Pat Tillman, that was certainly the case.
1 Ayrton Senna
It’s the death caught on camera and a moment in sports that people struggle to comprehend even to this day. The Brazilian legend had a stellar career throughout the 1980s and 1990s, taking multiple titles and winning the hearts and minds of racing fans around the globe. His status in 1994 had never been higher and when his car hit the barrier in the San Marino Grand Prix that year, most were expecting that he’d jump out the side and brush off his bumps and bruises. But the 34-year old never did, unable to recover from the severe skull fracture and brain injuries sustained from the crash.
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