We sometimes forget that athletes are people just like us, so when they pass away, it can be a little overwhelming. Professional athletes are superheroes, in a sense, and it doesn't seem right that they can be pronounced dead during their career. But more than 150,000 people around the world die on any given day, so eventually it becomes a numbers game.
Unfortunately the sporting world has lost some big names in recent years, players at the peak of their career. Jose Fernandez, for example, was already one of baseball's best pitchers and on his way to potential greatness with the Miami Marlins before he was killed in a boating accident on Sept. 25. He wasn't the only young player to die in recent years, but he was one of the more prominent names. While the deaths of other athletes might have lasted a day in the sporting news cycle, Fernandez's tragic death continues to resonate throughout the news.
Here's a list of 15 athletes that passed away while still playing the game they love. We wholeheartedly wish we could still watch them in action.
15 Andres Escobar
This is one of the more tragic deaths in pro sports history and was directly related to an incident on the pitch.
The late Columbian defender accidentally put the ball in his own goal during a World Cup matchup against the United States, which resulted in a 2-1 upset defeat. That type of moment was definitely embarrassing, but has occurred to some of the greatest of all-time.
As if losing the game and putting the ball in his own net wasn’t enough, Escobar ultimately lost his life because of it. Following a night out, Andres was murdered by three men who shot the soccer player to his death. His funeral was attended by more than 120,o00 people and his legacy lives on today.
14 Rob Bironas
Rob Bironas was a very dependable kicker for the Tennessee Titans before his death in 2014. The Louisville, Kentucky native spent nine seasons as the Titans kicker, converting on 239 of 279 of attempted field goals.
Months after Bironas' final season with the Titans, he was involved in a fatal car accident in which he was recorded driving twice the legal speed and had a blood alcohol level of .218%, well over the legal limit of .08%. The crash was so violent that the police report listed Bironas was found with his "upper body twisted with knees (both legs) pressed against his torso." The cause of death was listed as blunt force trauma and Bironas' neck was also broken in the accident. Two people called 911 prior to the accident to alert police that Bironas had confronted them in road rage incidents.
13 Jovan Belcher
The story of former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher's death is a tragic, unsettling story. Belcher, an undrafted University of Maine alum, worked his way up to becoming a big part of the Chiefs defense prior to his death in 2013.
Belcher showed up to the Chiefs' practice facility on December 1st, 2013 and thanked the team's General Manager and coaches for trying to get him help. "I appreciate everything you all have done for me with trying to get help ... but it wasn't enough. I have hurt my girl already and I can't go back now," Belcher told the Chiefs staff. Earlier that morning, he had shot his girlfriend, and mother of his child, ten times and left her to die with his own mother and child in the house.
12 Len Bias
A star out of the college ranks, many basketball pro scouts labelled Len Bias as the biggest thing to come out of the draft since Michael Jordan, before he was selected second overall by the Boston Celtics in 1986. Sadly, fans would never get to see the beloved college star player as he suddenly passed away shortly after getting picked in the draft.
It was later revealed that his death was the cause of a cocaine overdose. Bias collapsed in his dorm at 6:30 AM and it was too late by the time the paramedics showed up. His memorial service was attended by 11,000 people and his death is still discussed today over three decades after it transpired. It's one of the biggest, and saddest, “what if’s” in NBA history.
11 Sergei Zholtok
The majority of players on this list died during their playing career, but Latvian hockey player Sergei Zholtok represents the rare case of a player dying during a game. After spending 11 seasons and 588 games in the NHL split between the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, and Nashville Predators, Zholtok returned to Latvia to play for Riga 2000 in 2004.
He left the bench in an early November game in his first season with the Latvian team and soon after collapsed and died in the dressing room. At the time, his death sent shockwaves throughout the hockey world, though signs of health trouble presented themselves the year prior. He played only 11 regular season games in 2003-04 with Nashville, missing time due to dizziness and fatigue. He was also diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat.
10 Nick Adenhart
Nick Adenhart was just at the beginning of a potentially-promising career when his life was taken from him in April of 2009. After three forgettable starts in 2008, Adenhart made the Angels out of spring training as a 22-year-old the following season. In his first start, the California native allowed seven hits in six scoreless innings. The next day, however, Angels players were shocked as they learned about the death of their promising rookie pitcher.
Adenhart was a passenger in a vehicle that was blindsided by a minivan which ran a red light the night after his first start. Two other people were killed in the crash. The driver of the minivan, Andrew Thomas Gallo, was charged with three counts of murder, three counts of vehicular manslaughter, felony hit and run, and felony driving under the influence of alcohol.
9 Joe Kennedy
Lefty Joe Kennedy spent seven seasons in the MLB with five different teams before he died following the 2007 season. The Florida native was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the eighth round of the 1998 draft and broke into the league as a starting pitcher in 2001, compiling a 7-8 record in 20 starts. He had a career 4.79 ERA through 908 2/3 innings over the course of 222 appearances.
In November of 2007, Kennedy was in Florida for a wedding when he awoke early in the morning and collapsed while leaving the bedroom. He was taken to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead later that day. The cause of death was hypertensive heart disease, a condition that can cause the heart to stop beating.
8 Dan Snyder
Dan Snyder was a fringe NHLer but looked to have secured a full-time job with the Atlanta Thrashers for the 2003-04 season after scoring 10 goals in 36 games the year prior. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old was killed just days before the start of the season. Snyder was the passenger in a Ferarri driven by teammate Dany Heatley during training camp. Heatley lost control of the car on a narrow, two-lane highway at 80 miles per hour, causing the vehicle to spin off the road and smash into a brick and wrought iron fence. Snyder was ejected from the car and died in hospital six days after the crash.
Heatley avoided jail time by agreeing to plead guilty to four of the six charges against him. He was sentenced to three years of probation and had to deliver 150 speeches about the dangers of reckless driving.
7 Oscar Taveras
Oscar Taveras would have turned 24 in June and likely been in the prime of his career patrolling the outfield for the MLB's St. Louis Cardinals. Prior to the 2014 season, the Dominican was rated as the as the third highest prospect in the league by MLB.com and Baseball America. He played 80 games for the Cardinals in the 2014 season and while his numbers weren't staggering, it was clear he had all the physical tools to become a big-time Major Leaguer.
Sadly, Taveras was killed in a car crash in October of 2014 that also claimed the life of his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, as well. His Chevrolet Camaro struck a tree in the Dominican Republic and both Taveras and Arvelo were pronounced dead while receiving care at a nearby hospital. An affable young player, Taveras' death was announced during the Game Five broadcast of the 2014 World Series.
6 Geremi González
Geremi González's death is the ultimate example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A veteran of six MLB seasons, the right-handed pitcher compiled a 30-35 record, 4.93 ERA, and 1.44 WHIP split between the Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, and Milwaukee Brewers. He was on the mound in 2003 for Tampa Bay when Sammy Sosa's bat exploded and exposed cork in the middle.
Just two years after his last MLB appearance in 2006, while he was still playing in Japan, González was struck by lightning and killed on a Venezuelan beach. He was just 33 when he died.
5 John Kordic
John Kordic's death highlights the struggles of being an enforcer in the NHL. The Edmonton native who won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens played 244 games in the NHL from 1985-92 and scored just 17 goals, but collected 997 penalty minutes, including a career high 252 in 1989-90 with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The pain and struggle of fighting game in and game out became too much for Kordic, who died of a heart and lung failure after a struggle with nine police officers in August of 1992. The motel where he was staying at the time was filled with unused syringes and bottles of anabolic steroids, while it also became clear Kordic was a frequent drinker and user of drugs like cocaine. Fighting is down league wide in the NHL and it's because of case like Kordic and Bob Probert, among others, whose deaths have shined a light on the rigors of the enforcer role.
4 Chris Henry
A promising young receiver who recorded 21 touchdowns in five seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, Chris Henry died in December of 2009 at 26-years-old by falling off the back of a pick-up truck. He was arrested multiple times during his short career, but was said to be on the right path to making a substantial change in his life.
He was even released by the Bengals following his fifth arrest in 2008, but was later given a second chance by the organization. But just one year later witnesses saw Henry in the back of a truck being driven by his wife, shirtless and with his arm in a cast from an injury he suffered the season prior. One witness described the incident as a domestic dispute, with Henry yelling, "If you take off, I'm going to jump off the truck and kill myself."
3 Luc Bourdon
Drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Luc Bourdon was poised to become a top-pairing blueliner for the Canucks before he passed away in a motorcycle accident in May of 2008. He was just 21-years-old. Bourdon was near his hometown of Shippigan, New Brunswick when his bike crashed. He had purchased the motorcycle just two days prior and had only received his license two weeks before the accident.
Bourdon had an impressive junior career with the Val d'Or Foreurs and Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL and twice represented the gold-medal winning Canadian team in the World Junior Championships. He played just 36 career NHL games and scored a pair of goals. Bourdon would be 29 and in the prime of his career today.
2 Tommy Hanson
Tommy Hanson came into the MLB as a power-throwing right-handed pitcher for the Atlanta Braves in 2009. He died just six years later in 2015 at 29-years-old. In his first season with the Braves, Hanson recorded 116 strikeouts in 21 starts and compiled 648 in his career over 708 innings. He had a record of 49-35.
In November of 2015, Hanson was hospitalized after being diagnosed with an organ failure. He went into a coma and died that same night. A coroner's report ruled the cause of death accidental due to delayed complications of cocaine and alcohol toxicity. He was playing in the minor leagues for the San Francisco Giants the year before his death, but was released about a week before his passing.
1 Pavol Demitra
Pavol Demitra was a great NHL player who played 847 career games for five different teams and recorded 768 points, but his death is often forgotten because of the overarching tragedy that surrounded the incident. Demitra left the NHL in 2010, despite still putting up respectable numbers with the Vancouver Canucks and went overseas to play for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv of the KHL in 2010-11. He led the team in scoring that season with 61 points in 54 games and posted 21 points in 18 playoff games.
Sadly, the following season, the team's plane crashed on September 7th, 2011. Demitra, who had a career high of 93 points for the St. Louis Blues in 2002-03, was one of 43 people to die in the plane which carried the Russian hockey team. Former NHLers Igor Korolev, Ruslan Salei, Josef Vasicek, Karlis Skrastins, and Brad McCrimmon were also killed in the crash.