The NFL’s brand has taken a catastrophic hit in recent years over the controversial concussion debate. Traumatic brain injuries have surfaced in former players, leading to symptoms related to depression and memory loss. The pain caused by repeated blows to the skull has even prompted some to commit suicide.
While the concussion debate is alive and well at every level of football, aside from one player on this list, these athletes died away from the gridiron, in some instances being foolish behind the wheel and in others, victims of dreadful acts of violence. Some argue that a life filled with bone-crushing collisions on the field, ultimately led to their departure off of it. Regardless of the fashion, these players left us too soon, without having the opportunity to write the final chapter of their NFL careers.
The media spotlight on the deaths of NFL players is magnified in North America, with the NFL being the most popular sports league this side of the Atlantic. Also in the NFL, there are more players on every roster than any other league. The final roster going into a season is 53, as compared to baseball with 25, hockey with just over 20 and basketball with just 13. Going through a whole season without a player on a team going through some hardships is hard. It’s sad to say in today’s NFL, but sometimes even going through a season without a death in the league is tough to come by.
Here is a look at 10 NFL players who died during their careers.
15. Rodney Culver, San Diego Chargers
Rodney Culver had to make the most of any opportunity he got. Drafted in the fourth round by the Colts in 1991, Culver was initially used as a short-yardage back, and was highly effective, scoring seven rushing touchdowns in his first season, as well as two receiving touchdowns. His numbers soon dropped as the Colts’ record did and he was released before the 1994 season.
He spent his last two seasons in San Diego. In the Chargers’ run to the Super Bowl, Culver was pushed down the depth chart but worked his way back up in 1995 thanks to a holdout from Natrone Means. His last ever touchdown came in the famous Chargers-Giants “Snowball Game” in 1995.
Culver and his wife were killed in the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 on May 11, 1996. The couple were survived by their two daughters. The Culver family reached a settlement with ValuJet, receiving $28 million.
14. Fred Lane, Carolina Panthers
Fred Lane became quite the story for the Carolina Panthers, coming in as an undrafted free agent in 1997 and quickly set a Panthers franchise rushing record for a game, with 147 yards in a game. In three years with the Panthers, he accumulated over 2,000 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
On July 6, 2000, Lane was shot and killed by his wife Diedra. She eventually pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2003. Prosecutors at her sentencing described Diedra Lane as an abusive woman seeking insurance money from Lane’s death. She was sentenced to seven years and 11 months in prison and released in 2009.
12 & 13. Marquis Cooper, Oakland Raiders – Corey Smith, Detroit Lions
Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith both went missing following a boating accident in 2009, as well as two former University of Florida players. One survivor, Nick Schuyler was found clinging to the boat, and claimed Cooper, Smith and Will Bleakley. Cooper and Smith had separated from the group early in the morning of March 2nd. Bleakley had been with Schuyler, but following the accident was unresponsive to CPR.
A search lasted a couple of days before ending, with Cooper and Smith presumed dead.
11. Korey Stringer, Minnesota Vikings
Korey Stringer was selected 24th overall by the Minnesota Vikings and played in the purple and gold for five years, including the Vikes’ 15-1 season in 1998 where they reached the NFC Championship.
In his final season in 2000, he earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time in his career. In the next training camp, tragedy struck when Stringer suffered a heat stroke during a Vikings practice and died soon afterwards. Stringer’s widow filed a lawsuit against the NFL and Riddell, Stringer’s equipment provider. Riddell had to compensate his widow, as a judge determined Riddell had a duty to inform Stringer that their equipment could contribute to heat injuries.
Stringer’s death led to changes in the NFL in terms of preventing heat strokes. Many teams now practice in light color uniforms, and shade and water are always made readily available. A team doctor is also present at every practice.
10. Jerry Brown, Dallas Cowboys
Jerry Brown went undrafted in 2010, and played for five teams including the Dallas Cowboys, the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger Cats, and the Arena Football League’s Jacksonville Sharks. Brown died in a high-speed car accident in which he was the passenger. The driver, his teammate in Dallas and at the University of Illinois Josh Brent, was slapped with a DUI and charged with intoxication manslaughter
With five defensive starters on the shelf, including Brown, in the game following his death, the Cowboys responded with an unforgettable upset victory in Cincinnati. Defensive lineman Jason Hatcher honoured Brown by holding his jersey up in post-game celebration.
The NFL reinstated Josh Brent in 2014. “I’m a very blessed person to be able to be in this position I am now,” said the defensive lineman via ESPN. He remains a Dallas Cowboy.
9. Thomas Howard, Atlanta Falcons
Al Davis drafted Howard in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft, and his best days came as a Raider in Oakland. In his second season, Howard led all linebackers in interceptions with six, taking two back to the house.
The linebacker’s final stint in the NFL came with the Falcons, in which he appeared in two midseason games before getting cut. Howard was one of two killed in a high-speed crash in Oakland on November 18, 2013, just six days after his release from Atlanta.
8. Darrent Williams, Denver Broncos
The cornerback was killed in a drive-by shooting at just 24. The incident occurred less than 12 hours after Denver’s final game of the 2006 season. When leaving a New Year’s Eve party at the nightclub Safari, an altercation occurred between some Crips gang members and several Broncos, including Brandon Marshall. After leaving the party, the group’s limo was followed where several of them were shot and Williams sustaining a fatal bullet wound in his neck.
The tragedy put an end to a promising young career—Williams registered six interceptions in his first two seasons, and garnered First-Team All-Rookie praise following his emergence as the starter opposite Champ Bailey. Williams was drafted in the second round of the 2005 NFL Draft.
7. Chuck Hughes, Detroit Lions
Chuck Hughes died of a heart attack in the late stages of a 1971 contest against the division rival Bears. He remains the only player to die during a game in NFL history. The Lions retired his number 85 jersey. However, former Lions wide receiver Kevin Johnson was granted permission from the Hughes family to wear number 85 during his tenure in Detroit. He had worn the number throughout his professional career. Hughes was seldom used as a receiver, catching just 15 passes in five seasons. He contributed, for the most part, on special teams.
6. Gaines Adams, Chicago Bears
Gaines Adams was the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft but failed to live up to the hype during his time in Tampa Bay. As a result, he was shipped to the Bears for a second-round draft pick after his sophomore season. Adams suited up just 10 times for Chicago, and did not register a sack. He died of a cardiac arrest due to cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart) in 2010 at the age of 26.
5. Jovan Belcher, Kansas City Chiefs
The news of Jovan Belcher’s death horrified the entire NFL, and made headline news around the world. The linebacker murdered his girlfriend, and subsequently drove to the Chiefs practice facility where he shot and killed himself in front of team officials, including GM Scott Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel. An autopsy revealed signs of brain damage in the 25-year-old similar to other deceased NFL players. During his time on the field, Belcher developed into a key contributor on the Kansas City defense, after going undrafted in 2010.
4. Chris Henry, Cincinnati Bengals
Chris Henry got the opportunity to learn under one of the league’s top receiving tandems at the time, in Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmanzadeh. As a result, Henry caught 15 touchdown passes in his first two NFL seasons. However, Henry’s career was marred by injuries and off-the field troubles, which caused him to miss 25 games over five NFL seasons.
The towering receiver was involved in a car accident in December 2009, a month after being placed on season-ending injured reserve. According to Charlotte Police, Henry had fallen off the back of a moving truck, and died of blunt force trauma to the head. He was just 26.
3. Rob Bironas, Tennessee Titans
One of the league’s most consistent kickers, and the right boot that broke the NFL record with eight field goals one 2007 afternoon in Houston, was killed in a car accident in 2014. Bironas was reportedly chasing another vehicle, and driving recklessly. An autopsy revealed his blood alcohol level had been three times the legal limit in the state of Tennessee. Bironas went undrafted in 2001, but managed to latch onto the Titans roster in 2005 and stick around for nine seasons. Bironas is ranked 52nd on the all-time scoring list, and earned All-Pro honors in 2007. He was married to Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s daughter, Rachel.
2. Sean Taylor, Washington Redskins
The hard-hitting safety was in the prime of his career when he was shot and killed in a home invasion. Sean Taylor was tenacious, and played with a high-flying reckless abandon that revolutionized the safety position. His thunderous hit on punter Brian Moorman in the 2006 Pro Bowl highlighted the toughness he demonstrated on the gridiron. In the game immediately following his death, the Redskins honored Taylor by sending 10 players out on defense, leaving his safety position vacant. He was named to the 2007 All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams posthumously. In 2008, the Redskins inducted the safety in their Ring of Fame.
1. Derrick Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs
The ferocious sack-specialist and holder of the NFL’s single game sack record with seven, passed away five weeks after his 33rd birthday of a blot clot due to injuries he sustained in a car accident.
“I was on a mission today,” said Thomas following his record-setting performance via the Chiefs website. “I read in the paper that Derrick Thomas was in a sack slump.”
“D.T” spent his entire 11-year career with the Chiefs, and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009. He ranks 15th on the all-time sack list with 126 and a half sacks. Thomas also held the Chiefs single-season sack record of 20, before having it broken this past season by outside linebacker Justin Houston.
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