It’s tragic when anyone dies at a young age but there’s something that feels especially shocking when it’s a star athlete. Given their often immaculate physical health and massive standing in the world, sports stars often seem immortal and when we lose one in their prime, it can sting even more than the deaths of other celebrities.
Over the years, we’ve lost many famous athletes far too early, whether by tragic accidents, awful attacks or underlying health issues that seem unfathomable to their fans. Here are some of the most beloved sports stars whom we lost far too soon.
Outside the stadium where the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals play, there’s a powerful bronze statue that honors the life and career of Pat Tillman. The former star safety famously left his lucrative NFL career after just four seasons to enlist in the U.S. Army in the wake of 9/11, despite often expressing views that he was against war. He was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan in 2004 at the age of 27 and has since been hailed as a national hero. He’s easily one of the most fondly remembered athletes on this list, especially given the brief length of his playing career.
Another NFL star who was taken from the world far too soon was Kansas City Chiefs legend Derrick Thomas. The brilliant pass rusher spent 11 years with the team and was elected to nine Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams during that time. The 126.5 sacks he earned rank him inside the NFL’s all-time top 20. In January 2000, at the age of 33, Thomas was paralyzed in a car crash that killed a passenger and led to his own death just a few days later. He was posthumously elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Another bright NFL star who died far too early into his career was wide receiver Chris Henry. The fan-favorite player with the Cincinnati Bengals had been a star at West Virginia University before being drafted in 2005. In December 2009, football fans were shocked to learn Henry had been killed after falling out of the back of a truck that was being driven by his fiancée. He was only 26 years old and his autopsy revealed that Henry had been living with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is caused by head injuries.
In July 2019, baseball fans were stunned when Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs died during one of his team’s road trips. The pitcher was just days from his 28th birthday and had already spent time as a starter for two MLB clubs since his debut in 2012. Skaggs was found dead in a hotel room in Texas after what was ruled an accidental overdose on fentanyl and oxycodone mixed with alcohol.
The death of Steve McNair is one of those that still saddens football fans more than a decade later. The star quarterback, who won the NFL’s MVP honor in 2003 and once led the Tennessee Titans to the Super Bowl, racked up more than 31,000 passing yards and 200 total touchdowns in his career, which spanned 13 seasons. He retired in 2008 and was just starting his post-football life when his death stunned fans. In July 2009, the 36-year-old was murdered by a woman with whom he’d apparently been having an affair, who then killed herself.
That Junior Seau was one of the best linebackers in NFL history and that his death was one of football’s most heartbreaking ever are two inarguable facts. In addition to being a 12-time Pro Bowler and 10-time All-Pro pick, Seau was given the NFL’s coveted Man of the Year award in 1994. He retired in 2009, eventually landing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and would be dead within a few years.
In May 2012, when he was just 43 years old, Seau shot himself in the chest, likely to preserve his brain for study. The subsequent autopsy revealed that he suffered from CTE.
If you had to name the biggest star in modern racing history, Dale Earnhardt would be a tough one to top. He won an incredible seven NASCAR season championships in his career, including four from 1990-1994. His whole image as “The Intimidator,” with his signature black stock car, made him a cultural icon in the sport. That’s what made his very public death, which happened after a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, a shock that racing fans still feel.
The death of Kobe Bryant in January 2020 shocked the entire world and all you need to do is look at his career accomplishments to understand why. He was a five-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise that retired both of the jersey numbers he wore during his career, and an 18-time NBA All-Star. In addition to that amazing success as a basketball player, Bryant won an Academy Award in 2018 for writing the short film, “Dear Basketball.”
Just a few years into his retirement, Bryant was killed at the age of 41 in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people.
In 2010, defensive end Will Smith was with the New Orleans Saints when they won the long-suffering franchise’s first Super Bowl. He played all nine seasons of his NFL career with the Saints and retired in 2014. A couple years later, when Smith was just 34 years old, he was killed in the city that had become his hometown during his career. In April 2016, Smith was driving a vehicle in New Orleans while drunk and got into a crash with another vehicle which then led to an altercation with that car’s driver, who shot and killed the ex-NFL star.
In an MLB career that only lasted four seasons, José Fernández was twice named an All-Star and was named the National League’s rookie of the year in 2013. The Cuban pitcher, who spent his whole career with the Miami Marlins, had a lifetime earned run average of just 2.58, showing how gifted he was. In September 2016, just five days after he made his final start, the 24-year-old was killed, along with two other people, in a boating accident in Miami. An investigation found that Fernández was driving the boat and was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine.
After a memorable career at Oklahoma State University, wide receiver Darrent Williams was chosen by the Denver Broncos in the second round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, he’d only get to spend two seasons with the team before his life would be cut short. On New Year’s Day in 2007, Williams was killed in a drive-by shooting while he was riding in a limousine in downtown Denver. The rising star was only 24 years old when he was shot.
One of the youngest professional athletes to suddenly die in recent memory was Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart. He only got the chance to start in four MLB games before his life was taken. Adenhart made his big-league debut for the Angels in May 2008 but would sadly be dead less than a year later. In April 2009, just hours after making what would be his final start, Adenhart and two others were killed by a drunk driver who hit the car they were in. He was only 22 years old.
In 1999, professional wrestling was one of the most popular sports in the world and Owen Hart was one of the most beloved athletes in it. The holder of multiple WWE titles in the 1990s, Hart was at the top of his game when he was killed in arguably the most shocking moment in wrestling history. In May 1999, when Hart was just 34 years old, he was performing a dangerous entrance at a WWE pay-per-view event by being lowered to the ring when an equipment malfunction led him to fall to his death in front of a packed arena of fans.
In 2008, Luc Bourdon was one of the NHL’s rising stars when he was tragically killed in an accident. The Canadian defenseman was drafted 10th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2005 and would spend his entire NHL career with the team. In May 2008, Bourdon was driving a motorcycle in his home country when he lost control and crashed into a truck, killing him. Bourdon was just 21 years old when his life — and promising hockey career — ended.
Defensive tackle Jerome Brown was coming off of back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons when his life was cut tragically short in 1992. The first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles was a national champion at the University of Miami and was a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro pick in 1990 and 1991. After just five seasons in the NFL, Brown and his nephew were killed when he crashed his car into a palm tree in Florida. Brown was just 27 years old.
Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke was a five-time Winter X Games gold medalist who helped to successfully lobby the International Olympic Committee to include her favored event, half-pipe skiing, in the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Sadly, Burke never made it to the competition. She died after landing on her head and suffering cardiac arrest during a training accident in Utah in January 2012 at the young age of 29.
A few years before fellow NHL star Luc Bourdon died, Dan Snyder was killed in a traffic accident. Snyder spent his entire, brief career with the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers, playing with them from 1999-2003. In September 2003, he was riding in a car driven by teammate Dany Heatley when it crashed, severely injuring both of them. Snyder died a few days later at the age of 25. The franchise named an award in his honor that was given yearly to the most exemplary teammate.
Long-distance running wasn’t yet the cultural phenomenon it is today back in the early 1970s, but Steve Prefontaine helped make it one. He competed for the U.S. at the 1972 Munich Olympics, narrowly missing out on a medal, but set multiple records for American runners during his career. Before he’d get to compete in the 1976 games, Prefontaine was killed in a drunk driving crash in May 1975. He’s since been credited with helping make running a massively popular activity in America.
If you’re talking tragic deaths in sports, MLB icon Roberto Clemente has to be in the conversation. The former NL MVP, 15-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion spent his entire career with the Pittsburgh Pirates as an outfielder. Born in Puerto Rico, Clemente was renowned for his philanthropic work and tireless humanitarian efforts in Latin America. In December 1972, at the age of 38, Clemente was killed in a plane crash while heading to Nicaragua to help victims of an earthquake.
Every year, MLB gives the Roberto Clemente Award, which you can see below, to the player who best exemplifies community and character in helping others off the field.
In 2006, Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor was selected to his first Pro Bowl and in less than a year, he would be dead. The former star at the University of Miami was chosen in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft and had been living up to that selection after a couple of seasons. In November 2007, Taylor was tragically shot and killed by intruders at his home in Miami at the age of 24.
Unlike most players on this list, Jasper Howard didn’t even get a chance to get paid for his athletic skills before his life ended. The cornerback played college football at the University of Connecticut from 2007-2009, helping them win the Big East conference as a freshman. In October 2009, Howard and his teammates were celebrating a homecoming football win on campus when he was stabbed to death. Howard was only 20 years old when he was killed.
In the late 1980s, Croatian baller Dražen Petrović became one of the first European players to make a big impact in the NBA. He spent just five years in the league but was an international basketball star before joining the Portland Trail Blazers in 1989. From 1991-1993, he was a starter for the New Jersey Nets, where he played his best NBA seasons, averaging better than 20 points per game in the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons.
In June 1993, Petrović was riding in a car in Germany when it crashed, killing him at the age of 28.
In an NBA career that lasted for eight seasons, Malik Sealy racked up more than 4,900 points and 1,500 rebounds while playing for four different teams. However, it was the Minnesota Timberwolves who retired his jersey number after his tragic death in 2000. That May, Sealy was killed by a drunk driver who was going the wrong direction on a highway in Minnesota. The former St. John’s University star was only 30 years old and his career was still going strong.
Undoubtedly one of the saddest deaths in sports history, Hank Gathers was another star athlete who never got the chance to turn pro before his life ended. In 1990, Gathers was one of the best players for the Loyola Marymount University men’s basketball team, with one of the highest-scoring offenses in college hoops. Gathers, who suffered from a heart condition, collapsed on the court during one of the team’s games that March and was pronounced dead a few hours later at the age of 23.
Perhaps no basketball player ever cast a bigger shadow over Memphis than Lorenzen Wright. He was a star in high school and college in that city before eventually playing for the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA. The seventh overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, Wright would spend 13 seasons in the league. In July 2010, Wright’s life would also end in the Memphis area, when he was shot and killed by his ex-wife at the age of 34, in a case that would go unsolved for nearly a decade.
After a solid football career at the University of Southern California, Joe McKnight was drafted to the NFL in 2010. He would spend four seasons as a running back and kick returner for the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs before injuries led him to the Canadian Football League. In December 2016, McKnight’s life ended when he was just 28 after he was shot by a man during a road-rage confrontation in Louisiana, his home state.