Long after the spotlight of an arena full of fans has faded, retired athletes move on to all kinds of other careers and journeys in life. Most of us don’t get to see that part of an athlete’s career, but that’s generally how things are supposed to go. But as is the case in any walk of life, sometimes the good die young. We present to you now 15 cases of athletes who died in the middle of their careers. Some achieved greater success and fame on the field than others, but they all passed away unexpectedly. The athletes on this list range in sport of choice, including basketball, football, soccer, hockey and skiing. Though not all of the athletes on this list died on the field of play, they will be remembered for achieving high levels of success in athletics and for leaving us way too soon.
15. Drazen Petrovic
Petrovic was part of a wave of European roundball stars who changed the face of the NBA in the late 80’s. However, an auto accident in Germany in 1993 cut short a career full of promise for the New Jersey point guard. A star in his native Croatia, Petrovic led the former Yugoslavia to a Silver Medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. No stranger to controversy, Petrovic feuded openly with fellow Yugoslav Vlade Divac, who was a Serb. Petrovic signed with Portland in 1989 and played in 77 games that season, scoring an average of 7.6 points per game in what he called “garbage time.” A trade to New Jersey revitalized the Hall-of-Famer’s career and in the season before his death at 28, he averaged 22.3 ppg and shot 52 % from the field.
14. Thurman Munson
From the time he was drafted by the Yankees (fourth overall in 1968) Munson made an impact on the New York Yankees. He was rookie of the year in 1970 after hitting .302 and was named the first team captain since the beloved Lou Gehrig. The seven time all-star and 1976 American League MVP led the Yankees to three straight World Series appearances from 1976 to 1978. While he still had game left in him at age 32 in 1979, donning the tools of ignorance behind the plate was taking its toll. And on August 2, 1979, an off-day for the Yankees, Munson was practicing landings in his own Cessna Citation when he made an error and paid with his life.
13. Payne Stewart
The image is indelible. Stewart in his plus-fours, arm outstretched with clenched fist and leg extended rearward, celebrating the par putt that won him his third and last major at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. No small feat, considering he took out Phil Mickelson with the 15-footer on 18 and that he outlasted Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh. Stewart also was a member of the electrifying 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team that came from behind to beat the Euro squad at Brookline, Massachusetts. Sadly, just four months removed from his victory at Pinehurst, Stewart died in a plane crash in South Dakota at the age of 42.
12. Roberto Clemente
Some would argue that at the time of his death at 38, that Clemente’s career would soon be over. But wait. The Pirates legend still hit .312 in his 18th season with Pittsburgh, just five points below his career average of .317. The 1966 National League MVP was a fixture in Steeltown and no doubt could have patrolled right field for the Bucs well into his 40’s. A noted philanthropist, the 12-time all-star involved himself in charity work in his native Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries during his off seasons. On December 31, 1972, while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, Clemente was killed in a plane crash. He was the first Latin American to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
11. Jason Collier
Collier was drafted 15th overall in the 2000 NBA Draft. He was 7 feet tall and he was a serviceable player as a professional, playing regularly for the Houston Rockets during his first three seasons, and ending his career with the Atlanta Hawks. Collier died suddenly in the off-season back in 2005 and an autopsy after his passing revealed that Collier’s heart was one and a half times the size of normal human heart. The doctor who performed the autopsy said Collier’s heart was too big even for a 7-foot 200-pound frame. The Hawks wore black patches on their uniforms the following season to honor him and also retired his jersey.
10. 1958 Manchester United Team
In February of 1958, a flight carrying the Manchester United soccer team, as well as supporters and journalists, crashed during takeoff at an airport in West Germany. The team, affectionately known as ‘The Busby Babes’, were on their way home from a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade. Twenty-three people were killed in the crash, including eight members of the United first team, three staff members, and eight members of the press. The team scraped through the rest of the season with reserve and youth players, and a few helpful loan players from other clubs. Manager Matt Busby, who was severely injured in the crash and almost died in hospital, recovered and resumed his duties running the team. Ten years later, in 1968, a new team of Busby’s Babes that included George Best and Denis Law would finally lift the European Cup for Manchester United and bury the ghosts of the Munich crash.
9. Darryl Kile
Kile was found dead on June 22, 2002 at the age of 33, just hours before his team, the St. Louis Cardinals was scheduled to take on the Chicago Cubs at Wrigely Field. Prior to the start of the game, Cubs catcher Joe Girardi addressed the crowd letting them know that the game had been postponed. The cause of the cancellation wasn’t revealed to the fans on that day. An autopsy after Kile’s passing revealed he had two blocked arteries in his heart and that these blocked arteries caused a fatal heart attack. Kile was a three-time All-Star and also played for the Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies. He threw a no-hitter against the New York Mets in September of 1993.
8. Dan Snyder
A former NHL defenseman for the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers, Snyder was known as a hard working tough guy who’d stand up for his teammates and do whatever it takes to win. He battled hard just to make it to the NHL, and his character and go getter attitude got him named captain of the Ontario Hockey League’s Owen Sound Platers, above other teammates who had more talent and skill. Snyder died when teammate Dany Heatley lost control of his sports car while speeding in the fall of 2003. Snyder managed to play in just 49 career NHL games and was only 25 years old at the time of his passing. Heatley on the other hand avoided jail time and is still playing in the NHL.
7. Owen Hart
Hart died at the all too young age of 34, at a pay-per-view event in Missouri in 1999. At that time, the WWF star played a character known as the Blue Blazer, an outlandish acrobat superhero who would make silly mistakes. At the PPV event, Hart was supposed to enter the ring for his match with The Godfather from a zip line above the arena. A quick release mechanism was supposed to allow him to float just above the ring, act like he was tangled in it, and then have him fall face first into the ring. Instead, the quick release somehow triggered early and Hart fell close to 80 feet into the wrestling ring below. He was rushed to hospital, and the show went on. However, it was soon revealed that he had succumbed to his injuries. Hart’s family sued the WWF and eventually settled out of court.
6. Bill Masterton
Masterton played in the NHL back in the 1960s, before helmets were commonplace. In a game against the Oakland Seals in ’68, Masterton was nailed by two players at the same time. He lost his balance and fell backwards, smacking his head so hard on the ice that he suffered a brain hemmorage. Doctors rushed to help him but were unable to operate on him because the damage to his head was so bad. Masterton’s jersey was retired by the North Stars, and still hangs in the rafters of the Dallas Stars’ home arena today. His death helped spark a debate for the use of helmets in hockey and the league honored Masterton by naming an award after him, given to the player who best demonstrates perseverance in the game of hockey.
5. Nick Adenhart
Adenhart was drafted in the 14th round of the 2004 Major League Baseball Draft by the Anaheim Angels. It took him 5 seasons to make it to the big leagues but in 2009, he did just that. Unfortunately, Adenhart died at the age of 22 after making just 4 career starts with the Angels. He was killed in a car accident where the other motorist was intoxicated. The worst part about it was that the driver’s license was already suspended due to previous issues with driving under the influence. He was ultimately sentenced to 51 years to life in prison. Adenhart’s life has been commemorated by fans and players in many ways since, but catcher Mike Napoli has a pretty special routine he goes through in memory of Adenhart. He runs out to center field before every game and writes Adenhart’s name on the warning track.
4. Sarah Burke
Burke was inducted into the Olympic Hall Of Fame in June of 2012, just 6 months after her death. She was inducted because she strongly advocated for the inclusion of the half pipe in the Olympic Games. She was a poised competitor, a 4-time X-Games gold medalist and also a half pipe world champion. Not only did she get the sport into the Olympics, she successfully fought to have women included in the X-Games years earlier. Burke was a true pioneer and represents an incredibly perseverant attitude. She would pass away in January after falling while practicing for an upcoming event in Utah. Burke was just 29 years old.
3. Reggie Lewis
Reggie Lewis was drafted 22nd overall in the1987 NBA draft. He played 6 seasons at small forward for the Boston Celtics and even made an All-Star game appearance in 1992. His number 35 jersey is retired by the team. By all accounts, Lewis was expected to be quite the professional player and did more than live up to the hype. Unfortunately, he suffered from a heart defect that ultimately led to his death. He was taking part in an off-season practice with the team in the summer of 1993 when he collapsed unexpectedly on the court. He averaged over 17 points and 4 rebounds per game in his NBA career.
2. Sean Taylor
Taylor was a free safety for the Washington Redskins. He was drafted 5th overall by the team in the 2007 NFL Draft. He was destined to be a defensive superstar in the league, appearing in 2 Pro Bowls during his short career. The Redskins named him as one of the 80 greatest Redskins of all time and carved out a spot for him on the team’s ring of honor. After his passing, the team went out and played against the Buffalo Bills, lining up for the first play of the contest without a free safety in honor of Taylor. Sean passed away due to a gunshot wound to his leg that caused significant blood loss after a burglar took aim at him during a robbery. He was just 24 years old.
1. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL Team
The plane crash involving the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavi hockey team back in September of 2011 has to be viewed as one of the most tragic events in hockey history. 43 members of the team were killed in the crash that featured former NHLers Pavol Demitra, Karel Rachunek and Brad McCrimmon among many others. Alexander Galimov was the only player able to survive the accident, but he succumbed to his injuries only days later. Alexander Sizov, a member of the flight crew, was the only person who survived the ordeal. The KHL announced within a week of the incident that Lokomotiv Yaroslavi would not participate in the regular season, marking the only time in professional hockey history that only a single team did not participate in a full season.