December 15, 2023 | Kyle Climans

Heartbreaking Facts About Athletes Who Passed Tragically Young

When you’re young and successful, you sometimes lose awareness of your own mortality. Such is the case with athletes. Many have had tragically short lives despite whatever early triumphs they achieved in life. Whether it was due to accident, recklessness, or tragic heroics, these athletes regretfully did not live to rest on their laurels. Find out more about them below.

42. Unlucky Number

Some of you might remember that the 27 Club is a thing in the music industry. This is a reference to the fact that many musicians have passed at the age of 27. These include Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Janis Joplin. Actors like Anton Yelchin and Jonathan Brandis have occasionally been included in this club, and as this list will show, quite a few famous athletes have also passed at this age. It seems to be a curse which transcends career choices.


41. The Deathly Plane

By 1999, Payne Stewart had become famous among pro golfers for his distinguishing wardrobe, which included ivy caps. He had also won more than $12 million throughout his career, including more than $2 million in 1999 alone. Sadly, he also got onto a plane which failed to pressurize. All the people on board, including the pilots, fell victim to hypoxia. The plane continued to fly on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a South Dakota field.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young facts Wikimedia Commons

40. Perished Pioneer

In the 1970s, there was a "running boom," when running became a mainstream method of exercise and sporting events around running began to draw crowds. One of the people who spearheaded the running boom was Steve Prefontaine. He ran middle and long distances for the US in the 1972 Olympics. Prefontaine ended up holding seven American records in seven different distance track events. Sadly, his career was cut short when he became involved in a single car accident while having a blood intoxication level of 0.16.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsGetty Images

39. We’ll Miss You, Sarah

Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke famously lobbied the International Olympics Committee to add the superpipe skiing event to the official 2014 Winter Games roster. Sadly, Burke did not live long enough to participate for a medal. In 2012, Burke was badly injured while training, which led to a cardiac arrest. This, coupled with the lack of oxygen to her brain, caused Burke to lost his life of her injuries. She was only 29 years old.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikimedia Commons

38. Lost Lion

On October 24, 1971, during a game between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, 28-year-old Chuck Hughes was playing for Detroit when he collapsed on the field. It was later discovered that a blood clot had formed due to a condition which caused the hardening of his arteries. Despite frantic efforts to save his life, Hughes was the first—and only—NFL player to lost his life on the field during a game.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsPixabay

37. It Was an Ordinary Day…

On June 22, 2002, a day game was set to happen between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. However, during the pre-game warmups, the Cardinals noted that their pitcher, Darryl Kile, was absent. He was found in his hotel room, having passed of a heart attack. In the wake of such a shocking event, the game was canceled as the Cardinals appealed to the audience for their thoughts and prayers.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsFlickr, Kyle Steed

36. Heart-rending Loss

Jerome Brown was an NFL player who spent five years playing with the Philadelphia Eagles. Unfortunately, the 27-year-old player was back in his home town of Brooksville, Florida when he lost control of his car and crashed into a utility pole. He and his 12-year-old nephew lost their lives in the accident.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsGetty Images

35. Behind the White Mask

Pelle Lindbergh was a goalie who participated in five seasons of the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers. At the age of 26, Lindbergh crashed his car in Somerdale, New Jersey while driving while using. Seriously injured, Lindbergh was put on life support until his family gave permission to take him off of it. If there is any silver lining in this tragedy, it’s that Lindbergh’s organs were donated, leading us to hope that others were able to get the transplants they needed to save their lives.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikipedia

34. Where’d it Come From?

Known as "Schmirler the Curler," Sandra Schmirler won three World Curling Championships with her team and won a gold medal for curling the first year that curling was a sport in the Winter Olympics. In 1999, Schmirler was diagnosed with cancer when a tumor was discovered to be behind her heart. There was confusion as to where the tumor came from, leading Schmirler to humorously dub it “the cancer from Mars". Sadly, efforts to treat it proved unsuccessful, and Schmirler passed in her sleep on March 2, 2000, at the age of 36.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikimedia Commons

33. Thanks, Gord

Toronto Maple Leafs player Bill Barilko has become infamous for his tragic disappearance and passing after he embarked on a fishing trip into northern Quebec. On the way back, however, the floatplane disappeared, and Barilko was never heard from again. The wreck was eventually discovered in 1962, 11 years after it had crashed. Barilko would later be immortalized in “Fifty Mission Cap,” a 1992 song by the Tragically Hip. For their part, the Maple Leafs have embraced “Fifty Mission Cap” as a tribute to their former player, and apparently still own a framed copy of the hand-written lyrics by Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young facts Wikimedia Commons

32. Bravo, Roberto

Roberto Clemente was one of the first players to defy the biased barriers in professional baseball, and he had a remarkable career to boot. He participated in 15 All-Star games throughout his career, as well as two World Series Championships. He was also the first Latin American player to be inducted into National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikimedia Commons

31. Farewell, Roberto

Clemente was also known for his dedication to charity. Thus, when an earthquake hit Nicaragua in 1972, Clemente participated in sending aid packages. When Clemente found out that the Somoza government had diverted the first three planes filled with such packages for their own selfish purposes, Clemente traveled on the fourth plane in an effort to use his star power to avoid another such action. However, the plane he was on suffered engine failure, leading to a crash into the Atlantic Ocean. Clemente’s body was never found.

Roberto Clemente by Reynerio Tamayo - 2017Ron Cogswell , Flickr

30. A Short Season

Inspiring the movie Brian’s Song, starring James Caan, Brian Piccolo was a football player who played with the Chicago Bears for four years. Sadly, he had to remove himself in the middle of a game in 1969, as he was finding it hard to breathe. He was later diagnosed with “an aggressive form of germ cell testicular cancer, first diagnosed after it had spread to his chest cavity". He was only 26 years old when he passed.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young facts Wikimedia Commons

29. In the Flower of His Youth

Regretfully, Brian Piccolo wasn’t the first football player in the 1960s whose career and life were cut short by cancer. College football player Ernie Davis showed such promise that he was the first pick in the 1962 NFL Draft. Sadly, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia before he could play a professional game with the Cleveland Browns. After Davis’ passing in 1963 at age 23, his #45 jersey was retired, and no less a figure than President John F. Kennedy sent a personal message to Davis’ funeral. Also, like Brian Piccolo, Davis got his own movie; the 2008 film The Express.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsThe Express (2008), Universal Studios

28. Ended by Your Hobby

Thurman Munson was a seven-time All-Star who spent 11 seasons playing with the New York Yankees as a catcher. Of course, living the high life with such a decorated career as Munson’s meant that he could afford to pursue a unique hobby: flying. Munson practiced flying for a year, but on August 2, 1979, his fourth display of takeoff and landing went wrong. Simple errors on Munson’s part caused the plane to crash and burst into flames. While the others in the plane managed to survive, Munson suffered a broken neck and lost his life from asphyxiation from the toxins he was forced to inhale which had been released into the plane in the wake of the crash.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikipedia

27. And Boston Wept

While he’d never won a championship, 27-year-old Reggie Lewis had played with the Boston Celtics for an admirable six years. Sadly, this ended abruptly when Lewis collapsed on the basketball court while he was practicing for the next season. Lewis had suffered from heart concerns before this cardiac arrest, but the suddenness of his passing was nevertheless a shocking tragedy. His jersey number was retired in the wake of Lewis’ passing.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikimedia Commons

26. Health and Safety Awareness

In a sadly similar situation as Reggie Lewis, college basketball player Hank Gathers was found to have a heart condition which was serious enough to require medication. Gathers, however, felt that his performance was hampered by the medication, so he scaled it back. This proved a fatal mistake when he collapsed in the middle of a game on March 4, 1990. Though he was taken to the hospital, Gathers passed of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikimedia Commons

25. Succumbed to Sickness

Lou Gehrig earned his nickname “The Iron Horse,” and during his career he played a whopping 2,130 consecutive games! It was a record that stood for nearly 60 years until Cal Ripken, Jr. succeeded him. In the meantime, though, Gehrig also set other records with his career, including the most career grand slams with 23—a record that was later broken by Alex Rodriguez. It was, thus, a shock to baseball fans everywhere when Gehrig was forced to announce his retirement from baseball due to his having contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He would lost his life two years after his retirement at the age of 37.

Babe Ruth factsWikimedia Commons

24. Refusing to Despair

In one of the most touching moments in the history of American baseball, Lou Gehrig gave a speech to a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium. One of the more famous parts of his speech was his declaration, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth". Following his speech, the crowd cheered for two minutes as Babe Ruth hugged Gehrig as he wept, moved by the crowd’s support. In a further tribute, ALS has gained the moniker "Lou Gehrig’s Disease" in the years since his to the disease.

Babe Ruth factsWikipedia

23. Lost Potential

Len Bias has been called one of the greatest basketball players who never got the chance to play at the professional level, and this is because his career ended while he was still playing college basketball. In the 1986 NBA draft, Bias was the second pick by the Boston Celtics, but before he could get started with them, Bias passed from a sudden cardiac arrhythmia induced by drug. Thousands of people paid their respects at a memorial service to Bias.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsGetty Images

22. Get Me Out of Here

We’ve all heard of those reality shows where all kinds of people are thrown into situations for our amusement. The French series Dropped had assembled several sports stars, including Camille Muffat, the three-time Olympic medalist for swimming. In a freak accident, however, two helicopters carrying the athletes collided in midair more than 300 feet off the ground. Everyone on board both helicopters were ended, including Muffat.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikimedia Commons

21. Teen Prodigy

In 1951, 16-year-old Maureen Connolly became the youngest tennis player—at the time—to win the US Championships. Two years later, she entered all four Grand Slam tournaments and won them all. She was only the second person to have ever done it, and of the last Grand Slam tournaments which she played, she won all nine of them.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikimedia Commons

20. A Crashing Halt

Sadly, Maureen Connolly’s career ended at the age of 19. In July 1954, only two weeks after she won the Wimbledon title for the third time in a row, Connolly went horseback riding—her second passion, after tennis. Much to everyone’s shock, a concrete mixing truck spooked her horse, and in the ensuing panic, Connolly’s leg was caught between horse and truck before she was thrown to the ground. The injuries to her right leg were so serious that her professional tennis career ended before it could even begin—she had been planning on turning pro that same year.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikimedia Commons

19. What Happened After

Recovering from her injury, Maureen Connolly refused to let the end of her tennis playing career taint her love of horseback riding. She even married Norman Brinker, who had been part of the US equestrian team at the 1952 Olympics. Connolly also successfully sued the concrete mixing company, winning $95,000, in 1957 money, keep in mind. Connolly remained a presence in tennis as a correspondent and a coach until her tragic end at age 34 due to ovarian cancer.

Sarah Bernhardt FactsPexels

18. Lost Opportunities

Ben Wilson was reportedly the most valued basketball recruit in the US in 1984. At the time, he was only 17 years old, playing for Simeon Career Academy. However, all that changed one night when an altercation between Wilson and a youth led to said youth pulling out a pistol and firing. Surgeons operated on Wilson to save his life, but they were unsuccessful.

Basketball player Benjamin The BEZ News, Wikipedia

17. Some Time Off In Between the Season

By age 27, Lyman Bostock had played pro baseball for just over three years and had already made a name for himself with 624 hits and also giving thousands of his salary to charity. In 1978, just after he’d played a game in Chicago, Bostock visited his uncle, Thomas Turner, and they in turn went to see Joan Hawkins, a woman whom Bostock had tutored when he was younger. Hawkins and her sister, Barbara Smith, joined Bostock and Turner for a lift to their cousin’s home.

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16. Jumping to Conclusions

Sadly, Barbara Smith was being stalked by her husband, Leonard, who later claimed that she was frequently unfaithful to him. Because Bostock and Barbara were sitting in the back of the car together, Leonard assumed that they were an item even though Bostock had only known her for a half hour. Leonard followed the car until they stopped at an intersection, pulled out a pistol, and opened fire. A slug entered Bostock’s head through his temple and he passed two hours later in the hospital.

Ginger Rogers factsPxHere 

15. Court Sentencing

Leonard Smith was tried for manslaughter and he claimed that he was actually aiming for his wife but Bostock just got in the way—sorry, does that somehow make it okay? The first trial ended in a hung jury, while in the second trial, Smith was found innocent by reason of temporary insanity. Smith was released after seven months, lived quietly, and refused to take any interviews for the rest of his life before dying in 2010. We’ll leave the debate of injustice and punishment to you.

Deannie Best factsShutterstock

14. Such Promise

Marion Miley, the daughter of former golf player Fred Miley, showed talents at the sport which far exceeded her father’s. Even in 1930s, where women’s golf was strictly listed as "amateur," Miley drew crowds with her skill and charisma. However, her dream to “become the best woman golfer in the world” would never be fulfilled.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsGetty Images

13. Burglary

On September 28, 1941, Marion Miley and her mother, Elsa, were hurt in their apartment by three men who broke in. Although Marion picked up a golf club and fought against the assailants, they pulled guns out and opened fire. Mother and daughter were both gone as the apartment was looted by the men.

Tiger Woods FactsShutterstock

12. Aftermath

Marion Miley’s passing took the nation by storm, with legendary crooner Bing Crosby donated $5,000 to be used as a reward for the apprehension of Miley’s killers. Robert H. Anderson, Raymond Baxter, and Tom Penney were eventually detained and found guilty. While some suspected that Anderson might be innocent, all three men were executed in the electric chair.

Bing Crosby factsFlickr, Bing Crosby

11. Points for Bravery

By 1983, Joe Delaney had proved himself a living legend in the world of American football. In just two seasons of playing in the NFL as a running back with the Kansas City Chiefs, “Delaney set four franchise records that would stand for more than twenty years". However, in June of that year, Delaney was visiting Chenault Park with friends in his home in Louisiana when he saw that three children were drowning in a water hole which hadn’t been intended as a safe swimming space. In a move that was in keeping with his long history of helping those less fortunate than him, Delaney plunged into the water to save the children, despite the fact that he couldn’t swim.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsGetty Images

10. Taken Too Soon

Despite his lack of swimming ability, Joe Delaney was able to assist one of the children out of the water before he himself drowned, along with the other two children. Delaney was only 24 years old when he passed.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikipedia

9. With Full Honors

In honor of Delaney’s heroism, his burial and memorial service were held on the Fourth of July that year, with more than 3,000 people attending. President Ronald Reagan awarded Delaney the Presidential Citizens Medal less than two weeks later. Delaney’s jersey number, 37, hasn’t been officially retired, but it’s never been used since his passing, though the number 37 was emblazoned in a patch on the upper-left chest of every uniform of the Kansas City Chiefs, along with a gold eagle.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikipedia

8. Someone in Distress

American pro golfer Erica Blasberg had been set to attend a qualifying round for the Bell Micro LPGA Classic in Alabama on May 10, 2010. However, the morning of the ninth, she sent a text to her caddy, Missy Pederson, explaining that she would no longer play in the tournament. She did not respond to any of Pederson’s concerned text. Blasberg was later found lifeless that afternoon in her home. She was only 25 years old.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikimedia Commons

7. Suspicious Behavior

While the cause of her passing was ruled to be self-immolation by asphyxiation, it was also reported that Blasberg’s system had contained such drug as codeine, tramadol, temazepam, and butalbital. An arrest warrant was issued for her doctor, Thomas Hess, who had called 9.1.1 in the first place to alert officers to Blasberg’s condition. Hess was accused of obstructing justice, and he later admitted to having hidden the final note and prescription medication in order to, as he put it, “spare the family embarrassment". While he was sentenced to one year’s probation and community service, Hess was ultimately cleared of any liability in Blasberg’s passing.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsShutterstock

6. Patriotic Duty

Eight months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, accomplished football player Pat Tillman finished his contract with the Arizona Cardinals, but turned down a $3.6 million offer to play with them for three more years. Instead, Tillman was inspired to join the US forces in the wake of the terrible tragedy which had shook the nation.Live TVWikipedia

5. Fallen Hero

Unfortunately, Pat Tillman’s good intentions and jump to the cause led to a very sad ending for such a talented young man. While he was deployed in Afghanistan, Tillman was ended by friendly fire. A scandal erupted in the wake of his passing when the US Army tried to cover up the details of his passing, claiming he was ended by the enemy until they disclosed the truth to Tillman’s family. He was lionized after his pasing, given many posthumous service medals such as the Silver Star and Purple Heart.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsWikimedia Commons

4. Never Saw It Coming

Cleveland Indian Ray Chapman is the only person in the history of the MLB to lost his life because of an injury sustained while playing an MLB game. On August 17, 1920, Chapman was struck by the ball after it had been thrown by pitcher Carl Mays. Partly because of a practice back then of dirtying up a baseball—leading to it fly more erratically through the air and also being harder to see—Chapman reportedly didn’t try to dodge the ball which struck his head so hard that Mays initially thought that the ball had hit Chapman’s bat.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsPicryl

3. We Have to Change Things

Chapman’s tragic end eventually led to a number of alterations to the MLB rules. For one thing, the spitball pitch was forbiden, and following Chapman’s passing, umpires were required to switch out baseballs if they became dirty. 30 years later, Chapman was used as an example to bring about the mandatory addition of batting helmets.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsPixabay

2. Oops…

In the 1994 World Cup, during the game between the United States and Colombia, one of the Colombian players accidentally deflected the ball into his own team’s net. This player was Andrés Escobar, a man who’d previously been nicknamed "the Gentleman" for his clean play and good manners. Now his accident not only cost Colombia the game, but also their place in the World Cup. The incident made him hated amongst Colombian sports fans, even as Escobar wrote a short piece in a Colombian newspaper El Tiempo expressing his remorse, but ending optimistically with the sentence “life doesn’t end here".

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsGetty Images

1. It Was Just a Game…

Five days after Colombia was eliminated from the World Cup, Andrés Escobar was warned by his friends to keep a low profile while he was back home in Colombia, but he was determined to be able to enjoy a night out. After visiting a bar and a night club, he eventually split up with his friends. At 3 AM, he was confronted by three men in the night club’s parking lot, leading to two men pulling out hand guns and firing a total of six rounds into Escobar’s body. In a display of a truly sickening sense of humor, Escobar’s killers shouted “GOAL” in Spanish once for every slug they fired. Escobar passed in the hospital 45 minutes later, at the age of 27, much to the horror of Colombia and the international sporting world.

Athletes Who Died Tragically Young factsGetty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30


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