Most sports stories are about athletes and their list of accomplishments, but this article will show that even sports stars can be victims of circumstance beyond their control.
The following is a list of 12 sports greats whose careers were ended prematurely.
1. Lou Gehrig: Born in Manhattan in 1903, Lou Gehrig went on to become the greatest first baseman baseball ever produced. Lou’s accomplishments include a .340 batting average, 493 home runs, a triple crown in 1934, an American League record 184 RBI’s in 1931, scoring 100 runs and 100 RBI’s in 15 straight seasons, and a record 2,130 consecutive games played, a mark that stood until 1995. In 1939 a visit to the Mayo Clinic revealed Lou had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - a hardening of the spinal cord. Knowing there was no cure, he retired on the Fourth of July, 1939, at the age of 36. Gehrig announced on that day to the fans at Yankee Stadium, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Lou was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1939. He died two years later at the age of 38. Today amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”
2. Roberto Clemente: He was the pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates, compiling a .328 batting average, four batting titles, an MVP in 1966, the strongest throwing arm in baseball history, 3,000 hits and 12 straight gold gloves in right field. On New Year’s Eve 1972, Roberto boarded a cargo plane airlifting emergency relief supplies bound for earthquake-torn Nicaragua. The plane crashed a mile off Puerto Rico and all perished. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 in an extraordinary special election held just 11 weeks after his death. Roberto Clemente once said “A country without idols is nothing.” He was 38.
3. Spider Sabich: The grandson of Croatian immigrants, Spider Sabich skied on the World Cup circuit for 4 years, and in two Olympics, winning eighteen top-ten finishes in the downhill and slaloms. The handsome and charismatic Sabich turned pro in 1970, helped popularize skiing in the United States and was the inspiration for the movie Downhill Racer starring Robert Redford. He made the cover of GQ magazine which billed him as Pro Skiing’s richest racer. His girlfriend was singer Andy Williams’ ex-wife Claudine Longet and on March 21, 1976, Longet shot Sabich in the stomach causing his death at the age of 30. Ms. Longet was convicted of misdemeanor criminal negligence and sentenced to thirty days in jail with a small fine.
4. Len Bias: He was a first team All-American basketball forward at the University of Maryland. Len impressed fans and scouts alike with his amazing leaping ability, long range shooting, and an uncanny knack for making plays. He was the ACC player of the year in 1985 and 1986. The Boston Celtics selected Bias with the second pick in the draft in 1986 and announced that he would be the cornerstone of their storied franchise. After the draft, Len went home and dined with friends, attended a party in his honor, and came home at 3 am with friends and some cocaine. Bias took his first and allegedly only dose of the powder which likely induced cardiac arrhythmia and by 6:30 am, he was dead. Bias was 22 years old and never played a single game in the NBA.
5. Dale Earnhardt: Earnhardt was an American car racer and owner who began his career in 1975. Considered one of the all-time great drivers, he won a total of 76 races, seven Winston Cup Championships (tied with Richard Petty for all time) and the 1998 Daytona 500. His aggressive style earned him the nickname “The Intimidator.” At the Daytona 500 in 2001, Dale smashed into a wall at nearly 200 miles per hour causing blunt force trauma to his head. He was dead at age 49. The seating section at the Daytona near the track where he died was later dubbed “Earnhardt Tower” in his memory.
6. Sean Taylor: Taylor was an All American safety for University of Miami and led them to the national championship in 2001. He was drafted by the Washington Redskins with the fifth pick in the draft and signed a seven year eighteen million dollar contract. In 2007, Sports Illustrated wrote that Taylor was the hardest hitter in the NFL. Within two months of that article, intruders broke into Taylor’s Miami home and shot him in the leg. The bullet pierced his femoral artery and with significant loss of blood, Sean fell into a coma and died the next day after two emergency surgeries. He was 24 years old. The four gunmen were apprehended and sentenced to life in prison. The first game after Taylor’s death, the Redskins lined up with only 10 players on defense for the first play at the game, as a tribute to Taylor, leaving his safety position empty.
7. Roy Campanella: “Campy” was a stocky catcher, had a rocket for an arm, a powerful bat and guided the Brooklyn Dodgers to five pennants from 1951-1957. In that stretch, Roy earned 3 MVP’S, averaged 31 home runs, 108 RB1’s and averaged .297. In the off season, after 1957, Campanella had a horrific car accident leaving him paralyzed in a wheelchair for life. He was inducted into the hall of Fame in 1969. In his induction speech, he summed up his love for the game by saying “You got to be a man to play baseball for a living, but you got to have a lot of little boy in you, too!” He was 71.
8. Rube Waddell: Rube was the greatest left handed pitcher in the early 1900’s and in 1905, he set the single season record for strikeouts (349) which held until Sandy Koufax broke it sixty years later. His career ERA of .216 is fifth all time. Early in 1912, Waddell developed tuberculosis after working shoulder deep in icy river water to help save a Kentucky town during a flood. He died in 1914 and in 1946 was elected the Hall of Fame. He was 37.
9. Payne Stewart: William Payne Stewart was a professional golfer who played for the United States on five Ryder Cup teams and two World Cup teams. Stewart won 24 tournaments, three majors (US Open, British Open and PGA) and over twelve million dollars in prize money. In 1999, on route to Dallas from Orlando to the tour championship, Payne was killed when his Lear Jet suffered a loss of cabin pressure which killed all on board of hypoxia. He was 42 years old.
10. Pat Tillman: Pat began his career as a linebacker for Arizona State and led his team to the Rose Bowl in 1997. That year he was BAC-10 defensive player of the year. In 1998, Tillman was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals and became their Pro Bowl safety in 2000. In May 2002, eight months after the 9-11 attacks and after completing the 2001 season at a salary of $512,000 per year, Pat turned down a 3-year, $3.6 million contract to enlist in the U.S. Army. Sadly, in 2004 Tillman was accidently killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, getting shot three times in the head. The controversy over his death lingers to this day. He was 27.
11. Thurman Munson: Thurman was a catcher for the New York Yankees for 11 years and his leadership and clutch hitting enabled him to be the first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig. (After Gehrig’s untimely illness and death, the Yankees decided not to have a captain, in honor of Gehrig, until Munson.) Munson earned three Golden Gloves, won the MVP in 1976, a “Rookie of the Year” in 1970, six All Star bids, 2 World Series rings and boasted a nearly .400 batting average for the post-season. His baseball career was tragically cut short when he died in an airplane accident while practicing landing in Canton, Ohio. His number 15 was retired by the Yankees and owner George Steinbrenner said “Thurman Munson was indispensable and irreplaceable”.
Munson was 32.
12. Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb: In 1953, “Big Daddy” was signed by the Los Angeles Rams with no college football experience. At six foot six and almost 300 pounds, he went on to dominate pro football as an All Pro Defensive Tackle winning the 1958 NFL Championship with Johnny Unitas’ Baltimore Colts. He was the only defensive player to win MVP in two consecutive Pro Bowls. When asked about his playing style he quipped, “I sort them all out until I find the one with the ball, then I keep him”. As a player he was a showman and crowd favorite, as he typically would knock the opponent down, help the dazed guy to his feet, brush him off and head him toward his huddle. In the off season, “Big Daddy” was a popular pro wrestler. But, in 1962, police found Lipscomb slumped in his chair, dead of an overdose of heroin. He was 31 years old.