When we are young, the players we love are about 15 years older than us and seem unbeatable and immortal. But as we soon realize, they don't live forever. Some tragically die before we ever saw them at their best while others have illustrious and long careers.
For those who leave us too early it comes as a shock. Their death is sudden and we're devastated because we thought we knew them. We expected to see them practice or play the next day and they seemed so invincible. We mourn and wonder how and why. Though they are gone, we freeze them in our mind's eye as we wish to keep them.
Others have brilliant, accomplished careers. They may or may not win championships, but we cheer and feel connected to them through how we imagine them to be. Then they retire and we realize they played a significant role at a time of our life when we needed them. We celebrate their career, they disappear from the spotlight, and we begin a new "relationship" with other athletes.
But as we grow and age, we experience tragedy and death. As our favorite players who died young stay frozen in time, those that retired age away from our eyes. But one day death will find them, and with hearing their name again we're reminded of our youth as the floodgates of memory open. We may wonder how we forgot about them, but we remember our heroes either by a time in our life, their accomplishments or style, or simply an image.
Whether our favorite athletes die young or old, by accident, murder, or sickness, they remind us no one is immortal. They also remind us they aren't any different in the design of life than we are.
20 20. Jovan Belcher With The Mother Of His Child
This selfie shows Belcher, his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, and his kissing crazed dog. Does his eyes and smile foreshadow the tragedy that would follow? Would anyone believe this is the face of a man who would shock the NFL at the age of 25? Belcher shot her nine times. He murdered her in front of his own mother and with their baby at home. Then he drove to the Chiefs' practice facility and told general manager Scott Pioli, owner Clark Hunt, coach Romeo Crennel, and linebackers coach Gary Gibbs what he did. He had a gun in his hands and they tried to talk to him. He asked Pioli and Hunt to take care of his daughter. He thanked them and then shot himself in the head.
19 19. Junior Seau Honored For The Last Time
This was Junior Seau without the famous eyes, like those of a great white shark, that combined with his incredible speed, leadership, and strength made him one of the most dominant linebackers to ever play. Fans, teammates, and opponents respected and loved him. But at this point, his eyes are shallow and weak. His smile is heavy and strained. Almost everyone who cheered his play didn't know the suffering and depression he endured. Most fans didn't know he didn't speak English until he was 8, that he and his three brothers slept in the garage, and that many Samoans were jealous and bitter about his success.
Many fans didn't know about The Junior Seau Foundation, that he never had a documented concussion but had CTE, that his favorite song was "Who I Aint," and his real name was Tiaina Baul Seau Jr.
18 18. Corporal Pat Tillman Serving His Country
Pat Tillman was this man; square jawed and with the most serious and honest eyes. He actually left his career as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals and enlisted in the United States Army in 2002, after the September 11 attacks. Americans of every race and gender relied on his and others' shoulders to serve in Afghanistan to protect our way of life. His hands turned down a five-year, $9 million contract from the St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals. He gave his life and died by friendly fire to protect what so many of us take for granted because in his eyes it was a responsibility, a calling, and oath. Tillman was the first professional football player to be killed in combat since 1970, when Bob Kalsu died in Vietnam. Would you doubt anything this man said?
17 17. Sean Taylor With His Whole Life Ahead Of Him
What could the boy, third from the right in the top row, know? He couldn't begin to imagine winning the 2001 BCS National Championship with the Miami Hurricanes. Did he dream of being the 5th overall pick in 2004 by Washington? At this age, he probably had the guts to hit like a "Meast," but the "half man, half beast" had to learn the game of football. He learned the game, but he didn't really learn about choices and consequences.
The judge who acquitted Taylor because a videotape didn't demonstrate "obvious" intoxication did him no favors. If Sean wasn't given probation and community service for aggravated assault with a firearm and misdemeanor battery, maybe he would have learned that football wasn't a get out of jail free card.
Instead, in 2007, at the age of 24, this boy was murdered in his own home. The NFL and fans were crushed and cried out for him, his team, and his family.
16 16. Andre Waters Basking In His Dream
Does this look like the face of a man that was one of the most feared and hardest hitting safeties in the 1980- 1990s? Waters was undrafted and played to the extreme on every play while sacrificing his body and health. During his era, guys didn't stop when their forward momentum was halted and plays weren't whistled dead. Because of Waters' aggressiveness he was often cursed by opposing fans and players and was called Andre "Dirty" Waters.
But all those hits had consequences, and when he retired there was something wrong. He suffered from too many concussions and committed suicide. His brain showed the results of CTE and was compared to that of a 90-year-old. This smile, this man, had become that debilitated from a game he loved.
15 15. Chris Henry In His Final Years
Chris Henry was another young player that died far too early in his career. Henry died in a tragic accident. Henry fell off the back of a moving truck that was being driven by his fiancee Loleini Tonga, and his friend Sam Pahnisch while they were arguing. Henry left three children behind following his death at the age of 24. No charges were filed against his fiancee, as she was deemed not to be driving recklessly, or speeding excessively. It just makes you wonder why Henry was in the back of a moving truck. Henry's brain would later be examined and even though he was just 24, he was discovered to have CTE. It was a shocking discovery, especially since Henry had never been diagnosed with a concussion during his career.
14 14. Aaron Hernandez At Peace With His Daughter
Aaron Hernandez's fall was complicated, dysfunctional, and bizarre. He became indignant, callous, and a villain. Along the way, he lost himself and grew into a hardened bully. The stories about him in the locker room kept leaking and taking on a life of their own. He acted cocky and unsympathetic in the courtroom by laughing at the judicial process and about the victims. He became a monster.
How did that man change from this one and how did the man above get so lost? A parent knows the smell of their child's skin, the tenderness of their belly, and their vulnerability. Considering that Hernandez took his own life to vacate his murder conviction so that his daughter would be entitled to his NFL fortune makes this a very emotional photo.
13 13. Darrent Williams Playing His Last Game
Darrent Wiliams only got to play in the NFL for two seasons before his life was taken from him at the age of 24. On New Year's weekend in 2006-07, the Broncos were playing for a playoff spot against the San Francisco 49ers. The Broncos lost in heartbreaking fashion, with the Niners kicking a last second field goal to eliminate Denver, but it was nothing compared to the tragedy that would occur later that night. While out celebrating New Year's at nightclub Safari with teammates, Brandon Marshall got into an argument with some men at the club. Those men turned out to be gang members and caught up with the group of Broncos players later in the night. While pulling up next to the group's rented Hummer, the men opened fire and Williams suffered a gunshot to the head, collapsing in teammate Javon Walker's arms.
12 12. Korey Stringer At Practice
Korey Stringer's death was a dark day for the NFL and it led to serious changes regarding how teams practice today. Stringer was a Pro Bowl tackle in his day, but like many linemen he was carrying a lot of weight due to the standards of the position. However, in a 2001 training camp practice, Stringer suffered from heat stroke and he would later die to complications from it. Stringer's widow filed a lawsuit against the NFL and the lawsuit led to changes such as the heat illness prevention program in the NFL. His death also brought up concerns of NFL players being pressured to bulk up. Stringer was 6'4 and weighed 335 pounds at the time of his death, which undoubtedly contributed to his heat stroke.
Since then, many professional teams have trained in light color uniforms, while water and shade are always readily available at practice. A team doctor is also in attendance at every NFL practice. It's a shame it took a tragedy like this for those changes to be made.
11 11. Reggie White Taking In A Game Day
One of the greatest defensive ends of all time, "The Minister of Defense" terrorized the NFL his entire career. He was once the all time sack leader, had his number retired everywhere he played, won a ring, and is a Hall of Famer. But most importantly, Reggie was respected and adored by every teammate, fan, city, and person because of his character, passion, and smile.
Reggie White was an angel who played a cruel game with grace and respect. After a decorated career with the Eagles, he became one of the most sought after free agents of all time and signed with Green Bay, where he would win his only Super Bowl. He was also a devout Christian and died at the age of 43, on December 26, the day after Christmas, in his sleep.
10 10. Bubba Smith Taking In The Moment
An overdose of diet pills, heart disease, and an enlarged heart killed the iconic and affable Bubba Smith. He was the first pick in the 1967 draft and won his first ring with the Baltimore Colts when they beat the Jets in Super Bowl III. He also won a ring in Super Bowl V when the Colts beat Dallas, but he refused to wear it because he wasn't satisfied with his game.
After he retired, he became an actor and played Moses Hightower in the "Police Academy" movie series. He also appeared in the popular Miller Lite commercials featuring retired players like Dick Butkus as inept golfers and bumbling jocks.
But Smith walked away because he didn't like promoting alcohol and drinking. There was an on the field Bubba and this, the off the field and real Bubba.
9 9. Will Smith Enjoying Precious Family Time
Smith was part of the Saints team that lifted the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But in a city where drinking, guns, and violence are constant danger, his murder occurred as "way leads to way." Smith was a big, social, loving family man who, in one night made a fateful decision. He, his wife and two friends were out for the night, drinking, and enjoying a festival. Smith's car bumped into Cardell Hayes' Hummer. There were words exchanged, but unfortunately, it didn't stop at just words. The words led to a confrontation, guns were drawn, and Smith was shot and killed. Hayes also had a family and now more children are fatherless. This picture leaves a sad image, knowing these children will be growing up without their father.
8 8. Joe Delaney's Infectious Smile
It wasn't an era marked by narcissistic athletes breaking the law, carrying guns, or the media scrutinizing, second guessing, and focusing on criticism. It was an era where athletes and fans felt a bond, a sense of loyalty, and trust. In society, there weren't cell phones, 500 television channels, and ponds were meant for swimming on sweltering days. In 1983, three kids went swimming in a pond that had a steep drop-off and long, thick, waving weeds on the bottom. When a mother screamed for help, the AFC rookie of the year and sensational running back lost his life trying to save drowning children he didn’t know. But he did know he couldn't swim and he had a wife and 3 daughters. This was a man who died at just 24 years old in an attempt to save children. NFL defenses couldn't stop his legs from churning, but the weeds and grasses in the pond did.
7 7. Brian Piccolo With His Loved Ones
Most people know about Brian Piccolo from the film "Brian's Song." It is a "great" movie and stands the test of time as a testament to the depth of friendship and love between men. The movie brought us into the locker room and brotherhood between Piccolo and Gale Sayers. We felt the love between Sayers and Brian, and parts of us died with the 26-year-old who had embryonal cell carcinoma. It was a sad end.
But did we know about his wife andthree daughters and what they experienced. No, of course not, because artists sometimes make choices for us. If we wanted to know what his wife, Joy Murrath, and his daughters Kristi, Lori, and Traci felt or experienced, that was our responsibility.
6 6. Fred Lane Smiling
Fred Lane was done carrying the ball through enemy lines for the season. He was a premiere back for Carolina and had the brute power and speed to never look back. So when he came home that fateful summer day in 2000, he wasn't prepared to be shot by his wife, Deidra Lane. As he walked through the door she shot him the first time, and then a second time in the back of the head. She plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2003, and then walked out of prison after serving just under six years. Six years! It was a ridiculously low sentence for an act so vile. Deidra was seen walking out the front door and into a BMW, where relatives waited to take her home.
5 5. Tyler Sash Enjoying His Dream
Tyler Sash ran onto the field after his Giants pulled off one of the greatest upsets when they beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Little did he know that he would be released soon after, and that he would suffer from memory loss, lose his temper, and be confused. Little did he know that finding work would be so difficult, and that his life, which was recently so full of hope, would end. Sash died from an accidental overdose of painkillers, and his family donated his brain to be studied for chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
He had CTE so profoundly that it was beyond what had previously been recorded in a player his age. He had suffered multiple concussions, but like so many players, their endorphins and determination blind them from reality.
4 4. Ernie Davis With The First Of What Should Have Been Many Trophies
Ernie Davis was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. He was a running back for Syracuse University and was the first pick in the 1962 NFL draft for the Cleveland Browns. But the Heisman would be the last trophy the lovable, proud, and beaming man they called "The Elmira Express" would hold. Before he could his career even started, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia and died within a year at the age of 23. Hiss story was told in the movie The Express and it looked like he was going to form a formidable backfield in Cleveland with Jim Brown. He never played an NFL game. How could this tragedy befall a man like this, whose gentle smile and eyes shined far too short...
3 3. O.J. Murdock Committing To College
So many athletes get lost as they move through the stages of their career. Murdock, at the age of 25, shot himself while sitting in his car outside his old high school in Tampa, Florida. Only now can we see in his eyes that maybe life was moving too fast for him. He was in the NFL and played for the Titans, so what was he doing at his old high school? He texted an old coach and thanked him. He also apologized for texting so late. What was O.J afraid of, or what made him decide to take his own life? His smile show something like he's excited about the career that's ahead of him, but what is it that brought him to such a dark place?
2 2. Steve McNair Saluting The Crowd
Steve McNair was one of the most beloved players in Oilers/Titans franchise history. Unfortunately, his exit from the team was very unceremonious and he lost his life not long after retiring. On July 4, 2009, Independence Day, Steve "Air" McNair was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds, along with the body of Sahel "Jenni" Kazemi, who was later discovered to be his mistress. On the day of the shooting, Steve and Jenni had texted each other and exchanged messages of love. That night, after McNair put his children to bed, he went to her. His body was found with two shots in the body, two in the head, and her dead body with one shot to the temple next to him. The quarterback that everyone loved and adored was loved to death.
1 1. Walter Payton On Just Another Day Of Practice
Pound for pound, there was no better running back than Sweetness. Even Jim Brown agrees. He could do everything every other back could do, but no other back could do all that he did. He ran through players like Bo Jackson and cut this way, that way, and took it to the house like Barry Sanders. He was as deadly as Marshall Faulk as a receiver and blocked like a lineman. He stiff armed, high stepped, and soared over mountains of defenders from the goal line. But most of all, he made everyone smile. The entire world adored Walter Payton.
He was a prankster and put Icy Hot in Mike Singletary's jock strap. When Payton was dying of a rare liver disease and bile duct cancer, he was surrounded by friends and family at home. NFL fans and the media loved and respected him so much they followed his death from afar, yet closely, to let the family mourn.
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