These Athletes’ Careers were Tragically Cut Short
Some of the biggest what-ifs in sports history involve athletes whose careers were cut short. Many of these athletes who passed away were destined to become Hall of Famers but, instead, their careers ended in tragedy. Here are some of the saddest cases of careers that were cut too short.
At the time he was selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, it felt like Gaines Adams had the world ahead of him. It looked like a promising career was ahead of him with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. However, Adams didn’t gel with the team and was eventually traded to the Chicago Bears.
Unfortunately, Adams only suited up for the Bears a total of 10 times. The star cornerback passed away due to cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart) in 2010, just three years after he was drafted. At the time of his passing, Adams was only 26 years old.
When Fred Lane entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, he was far from being considered one a top talent in his draft class. But the running back became somewhat of a Cinderella story when he set the Carolina Panthers’ franchise rushing record for a single game with an incredible 147-yard performance.
Three years after he was drafted, however, things took a grim turn for Lane. In 2000, the running back got into a heated domestic dispute with his wife, which ended in his death. Lane was shot twice, and his wife pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. She was sentenced to seven years and 11 months in prison.
Baseball has been around for more than 100 years, yet only two players have passed away due to game-related injuries. One of those players was Ray Chapman, whose passing occurred in 1920. In the middle of a game between the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees, a fatal accident took place that shocked the baseball world.
When Yankees pitcher Carl Mays threw a spitball, the pitch struck Chapman in the head. He collapsed immediately and later passed away at a hospital in New York City. Chapman’s passing ultimately started the movement toward requiring batters to wear helmets and outlawing the spitball pitch.
The passing of horse racing jockey Frank Hayes is one of, if not the strangest on this list.
Hayes tragically suffered a heart attack in the MIDDLE of a horse race. Incredibly enough, the horse he was riding, Sweet Kiss, actually continued to run the track and even went on to win the race!
After the victory, the owner of the winning horse headed over to congratulate Hayes only to find him slumped over the horse. It’s very well possible the jockey passed away in the middle of the race after suffering the heart attack. Either way, his horse won the race and he wasn’t alive to celebrate the win.
The death of Jovan Belcher was one of the most surprising NFL stories in recent memory, and it shocked the league to its core. The then-Kansas City Chiefs linebacker murdered his girlfriend and their three-month-old baby, before driving to his team’s practice field where he shot himself in front of team officials.
In the aftermath of one of this devasting tragedy, Belcher’s family insisted that an autopsy be done to his brain. It was revealed that the linebacker had signs of CTE, a traumatic brain injury that has recently been discovered to have affected many former NFL athletes and current players as well.
There aren’t many names in the history of NASCAR bigger than Dale Earnhardt. With seven Winston Cup Series championships and 76 victories throughout his career, Earnhardt is a legend in the sport of racing. But on the fourth turn of the final lap at the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt was involved in what was, at first, a seemingly innocuous crash.
Unfortunately, however, the crash was a lot worse than it initially appeared. The accident proved to be fatal, and Earnhardt passed away at the same race he had won just three years earlier. The world of racing was in shock and, just like that, Earnhardt’s celebrated career came to a dramatic close.
Just one player in NFL history has ever passed away on the field, which may come as a surprise, considering the lengthy history of injuries that have occurred in football. The fatality transpired with only a minute left on the clock in a 1971 game between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions.
Lions wideout Chuck Hughes tragically suffered a fatal heart attack. He was a fourth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1967 NFL Draft. Hughes was just 28 years old at the time of his passing. The tragedy rocked the NFL world to its core.
Duk Koo Kim
In the boxing world, several fighters have lost their lives in the ring. Few, however, are as well-known as Duk Koo Kim. With a 17-1-1 record, the South Korean boxer was the world’s top lightweight contender heading into his championship bout with Ray Mancini in 1982.
The bout with Mancini went 14 rounds and was brutal for both boxers, especially Kim.
Kim took a beating, including a sequence in which he was hit 39 times in a row. Kim lost by TKO in the 14th round and fell into a coma after the fight. Four days later, the South Korean boxer passed away due to brain injuries.
The name Chris Henry still tugs at Cincinnati Bengals fans’ heartstrings. The towering wideout was the perfect complement to Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmanzadeh, rounding out one of the league’s best receiver groups. The third-round pick looked like a star in the making until tragedy struck in 2009.
Just a month after he was placed on season-ending injured reserve, the Bengals’ stud receiver was involved in a fatal car accident. Apparently, he had fallen off the back of a moving truck and passed away due to blunt force trauma to the head. Henry was only 26 years old at the time of his passing.
The New York Yankees are a franchise known for legendary players. There are dozens of Yankees whose names will live on forever, but one that may not be as well-known is Thurman Munson. The former team captain and 1976 American League MVP was an incredible talent until his career was cut short.
Munson took up flying in order to visit his family more often but, in 1979, he was involved in a crash while practicing landings. He was just 32 years old.
Munson’s locker at old Yankee Stadium went untouched from the time of his death until the stadium was demolished nearly three decades later.
One of just five Chicago Bears players in the Super Bowl era to have his number retired, Brian Piccolo is the subject of an infamous sports tragedy. He went from an undrafted taxi squad (known today as the practice squad) player to special teams player to starting fullback.
Things were looking bright for Piccolo until a 1969 matchup with the Atlanta Falcons when he took himself out of the game after scoring a touchdown. Upon the team’s return Chicago, a hospital examine resulted in a terrifying cancer diagnosis. Only a few months later, Piccolo passed away at the young age of 26.
Legenday Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente ended his career with exactly 3,000 hits. The final of those hits came in his final at-bat of the 1972 season, with no indication it would be his last. At the age of 38, he was still batting .312 and showed no signs of slowing down.
But when a disastrous earthquake struck Nicaragua in December 1792, Clemente immediately arranged to go and provide relief. His flight took off on New Year’s Eve, but it would never return. The plane crashed, and none of the five passengers on board managed to make it out alive.
For decades, NFL teams have struggled to find consistent, reliable kickers who can make big kicks when it matters most. Few teams rest easy, knowing their kicker can put the ball between the uprights in crunch time. Rob Bironas was one of those kickers, making a record eight field goals in one game.
But in September of 2014, the kicker was involved in a horrific accident. Bironas lost control of his 2009 Yukon Denali, swerved off the road, flipping and hitting several trees before it landed upside down in a ditch. The Tennessee star passed away due to blunt force trauma.
Most hockey fans may recognize the name Bill Masterson. Each year, the Bill Masterson award is given to the NHL player who shows the most perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication in the league. Unfortunately, the reason the award is named after Masterson isn’t a happy one.
In his first NHL season, Masterton was the recipient of a brutal check. The centre’s head slammed into the ice. The traumatic blow resulted in a brain hemorrhage. He was pronounced just two days after the incident.
Masterton’s death began movement for mandatory helmets in hockey, implemented in the 1979-80 season. He remains the only player to die from an in-game injury.
With a lifetime ERA of 3.15, an All-Star appearance, and two no-hitters to his name, Don Wilson was a dominant MLB pitcher at his peak. The hurler spent all nine years of his professional career with the Houston Astros, serving as one of the team’s top pitchers throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In the pitcher’s final MLB appearance, he finished with a two-hit, 5-0 shutout. That off-season, Wilson was found in the passenger seat of his car, parked in the garage with the engine running. The incident was ruled to be an accident. Wilson had passed away at the age of just 29 years old.
A third-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, linebacker Marquis Cooper was a pretty typical NFL journeyman. He was drafted by the Buccaneers, but he also played for the Vikings, Steelers, Seahawks, Jaguars and Raiders before his NFL career was tragically cut short in 2009.
In March 2009, Cooper and three other men went missing. They were boating near Clearwater, Florida, when their boat capsized in rough seas. One of the other men who went missing was Cooper’s teammate, Corey Smith. Authorities searched for a few days, but they found nothing. The men are presumed to have passed away at this point.
One of the NBA’s best ball-handlers of all time, “Pistol Pete” Maravich was one of the youngest players to ever be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Widely regarded as one of the NBA’s most creative offensive talents ever, Maravich revolutionized the point guard position.
Maravich retired at the age of 33, but he still remained active in his years of retirement. In 1988, the former NBA star was playing in a pickup basketball game, when he collapsed to the ground. It was later discovered that the 40-year-old passed away as a consequence of a previously undetected heart defect.
Still the NFL’s record-holder for the most sacks in a single game, Derrick Thomas is one of the greatest pass rushers in the history of professional football. The longtime Kansas City Chiefs linebacker tragically passed away just a few weeks after he turned 33 years old.
By the end of the 1999 NFL season, the Chiefs had locked up a spot in the playoffs, but their star linebacker was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. A few days later, a blood clot developed in Thomas’s legs that traveled up to his lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism.
When it comes to describing Kobe Bryant’s astonishing 20-year NBA legacy, the phrase “poetry in motion” on the basketball court immediately comes to mind. But he was more than just an athlete. Besides tallying 18 All-Star appearances, the 2008 MVP award, five championships, and rising to unprecedented heights of basketball greatness, he was an exemplary figure off the court as well.
After retiring in 2016, Bryant became vigorously involved with multiple initiatives. In 2014, he invested in BodyArmor Superdrink with a 10% stake of $6 million. About three years later, the valuation exploded to $200 million. In addition to launching lucrative investments, he also won an Oscar for his animated short Dear Basketball. But his legacy aside, he will always be remembered as an honorable human being. We’ll miss you, Kobe.
Another tragic case of a player taken too soon is former MLB rising star Lyman Bostock. The outfielder spent the latter half of his 20s establishing himself as one of baseball’s best hitters. Batting .311 over four seasons, Bostock received MVP votes in his two final years as a pro.
Bostock’s promising career was cut short when, hours after a game in September 1978, he was shot as in the passenger seat of a vehicle in his hometown of Gary, Indiana. The shooter was sentenced to a psychiatric hospital and released seven months later, proving to pave the way for the “guilty, but mentally ill” plea in the state of Indiana.
Former first-round MLB pitcher Tyler Skaggs was a promising young pitcher with a bright future. The hurler spent time with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Anaheim Angels. Skaggs was still figuring things out on the mound with a career 4.41 ERA, but seemed to be moving in the right direction.
In 2019, the pitcher was found dead in his hotel room in Texas, where the Angels were visiting the Rangers. An autopsy would reveal that Skaggs had aspirated on his own vomit, and he passed away due to asphyxia while under the influence. The incident was ruled an accident.
Easily the biggest what-if of any player whose career was tragically cut short, Sean Taylor was perhaps the NFL’s best safety at the time of his passing. He was a transcendent talent who hit hard and struck fear into opponents, revolutionizing the safety position.
During the 2007 season, Taylor was the victim of a fatal home invasion. Intruders made their way into the safety’s Florida home and shot him. The NFL superstar passed away the next day, leading to an outpouring of sympathy and support. In the game after his passing, the Redskins honored Taylor by sending only 10 men out on defense for a play.
One of the greatest players in MLB history, Lou Gehrig tore up the majors for roughly two decades, batting an incredible .340 throughout his career. He also played in 2,130 consecutive games, a seemingly unbreakable record at the time. But soon, he realized something was not quite right.
Eight games into a rough 1939 season, the legendary Yankees star decided to bench himself, missing his first game in 14 years. As it turned out, Gehrig would never play again. He found out he was suffering from ALS, now commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Three weeks shy of his 38th birthday, Gehrig passed away.
Known for being the first European goaltender in NHL history to win the Vezina trophy (and the first goalie to bring a water bottle on ice with him during games), Pelle Lindbergh was an ascending NHL talent. However, in 1985, he fell victim to a fatal car accident.
In the early hours of the morning, Lindbergh lost control of his Porsche 930 Turbo and struck a wall in front of a New Jersey elementary school. The collision critically injured Lindbergh and severely injured his two passengers. The goaltender was a posthumous All-Star selection, topping that year’s fan vote.
Three-time Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna was one of the most well-known racers in his sport. In fact, even before his passing, he was widely regarded as one of the all-time great drivers. Unfortunately, it was a collision during competition that would end Senna’s incredible career.
At the 1994 San Marino Gran Prix, Senna led the race on the sixth lap. Then tragedy struck. His car went into a turn at 135 mph, before hitting a wall. Senna was airlifted to a hospital, but it was too late. A documentary, Senna, based on his life has since been released and has received critical acclaim.
Two-time All-American NCAA basketball player Len Bias was on track to become a full-blown NBA superstar. The two-time ACC Player of the Year was selected by the Boston Celtics with the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. He was set to join a team that already boasted Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. Sadly, that day never came.
Only two days after the Celtics selected Bias with their top pick in the draft, the 23-year-old small forward passed away from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a drug overdose. The Celtics were one of the NBA’s best teams throughout the 1980s, but they might’ve been even better had Bias been around.
A two-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro, Jerome Brown was one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen. The Philadelphia Eagles’ first-round pick posted 20.5 sacks from 1989-1991. At age 27, it looked like Brown was on the fast track to a bright NFL future until his career was cut short.
In June of 1992, Brown was lost control of his ZR1 Chevrolet Corvette at high speed and crashed into a utility pole. Neither Brown nor his 12-year-old nephew, who was in the back seat, survived the tragic incident. Following the tragedy, the Eagles retired Brown’s number 99.
Professional boxer Sonny Liston was a dominant fighter who competed from 1953 to 1970. In 1962, he knocked out Floyd Patterson in the first round and became the world heavyweight champion. Known for his toughness and punching power, Liston was one of the greatest heavyweights in boxing history.
But in 1971, Liston was mysteriously found passed away in his home. The time of death has been placed six to eight days prior to that, and the cause of death remains unsolved to to date. The police declared it a drug overdose, but some believe this to be little more than a cover-up.
A former second-round pick by the New England Patriots, defensive end Marquise Hill appeared to have a bright NFL future ahead of him. Unfortunately, Hill’s career was cut short in 2007 when Hill and his friend, Ashley Blazio, were involved in a jet ski accident.
The two fell off the jet ski at Lake Pontchartrain (north of New Orleans). Neither of them were wearing personal flotation or tracking devices. According to Hill’s agent, the defensive end saved his friend’s life, but was unable to save himself. Hill’s body washed ashore a day later. The Patriots wore a “91” insignia on their helmets during the 2007 season in his honor.
Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer was the 24th overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. The first-rounder took a few years to hit his stride but, in 2000, he was elected to his first Pro Bowl. The 27-year-old was finally living up to his draft pedigree, but the 2000 season would prove to be his last.
In training camp the following season, Stringer unexpectedly suffered heat stroke during the Vikings’ practice. He was taken to the hospital, but the offensive lineman could not pull through. Stringer’s untimely passing led the NFL to make changes in terms of shade and water availability in practices.
The first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, Syracuse running back Ernie Davis was a superstar ready to shine in the NFL. He was selected by the Washington Redskins with the first pick of the 1962 NFL Draft, before being traded to the Cleveland Browns to play alongside Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown.
Fans salivated at the potential of a Brown-Davis backfield but, alas, it never came to fruition. That’s because, in 1962, the former Heisman Trophy winner was diagnosed with leukemia. Shortly after, Davis passed away, never getting the chance to see the field as an NFL running back.