20 Epic Athletes We'll Never See Again

Amber LeeSports Lists Lead WriterFebruary 18, 2013

20 Epic Athletes We'll Never See Again

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    It's a rare occasion when an athlete comes along with just the right mix of talent, drive and longevity required to make a run at becoming the best of all time. 

    Transcendent athletes like Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan won the genetic lottery, in terms of talent. They possess the rare ability to stay driven long after punching their ticket into the Hall of Fame early in their careers. And they just lucked out in the injury department. 

    The careers of many promising superstars end far before their time because of freak injuries. The careers of Gretzky and Jordan spanned decades. 

    But talent is something that can matched or surpassed someday, if the right athlete stumbles into the right set of circumstances at just the right time. Character, on the other hand, cannot be duplicated. 

    For everything Gretzky accomplished during his legendary career, he's relatively forgettable—you know…as a person.

    On the court Shaquille O'Neal didn't come anywhere close to reaching MJ status, but he's even more universally beloved because of his persona. 

    We're always talking about the next Gretzky and the next Jordan—which means it's universally agreed that it's possible that person my come along. But we can all agree there will never be another Shaq. 

    So here is Shaq, and 19 other epic athletes that cannot and will not ever be duplicated. 

    **And don't forget to find me on Twitter if you want to file any formal complaints. 

20. Yogi Berra

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    Hall of Fame Yankees great Yogi Berra is one of the greatest catchers in baseball history and is one of just four players to ever be named the AL MVP three times.

    Berra is nearly as famous for his "Yogi-isms" as he is for the 13 World Series Championships he won as a player and coach. He quit school after the eighth grade to seek employment, which has given him a very unique way with words.

    Some of Berra's most famous quotes: 

    "It's déjà vu all over again." 

    "You can observe a lot by watching."

    "The future ain't what it used to be."

    "Pair up in threes."

    There's some understated brilliance in that unforgettable nonsense. 

19. Wilt Chamberlain

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    It's safe to say that the late, great Wilt Chamberlain was truly one of a kind. He was a standout college basketball star at Kansas University, but decided to leave school after his junior season. But the NBA was a bit different in 1958 than it is today—because Chamberlain did not complete his studies, he was required to sit out for an entire season. 

    Which is why he began his professional basketball career with the famed Harlem Globetrotters, who signed Chamberlain to a one-year contract worth $50,000—a boatload of money for the time. A year later he headed to the NBA to begin his 15-year Hall of Fame career. 

    In addition to winning two NBA titles with the Lakers and 76ers, the perennial All-Star amassed countless individual honors. Chamberlain was named the league MVP four times, led the league in scoring seven times and was the rebounding champion 11 times. 

    And that was just the tip of the iceberg. In 1962 Chamberlain achieved what many consider the most unbreakable record in sports by scoring 100 points in a single game against the Knicks (who are almost always on the wrong side of history). Chamberlain's historic achievement was widely celebrated, by fans and media alike, on its 50th anniversary in 2012. 

    Though it is that legendary 100 point game that has largely defined his legacy, Chamberlain's claim that he had bedded over 20,000 women has also shaped his public perception. He devoted an entire chapter of his 1991 memoir, A View From Above, to his sexual escapades. 

18. Jack Lambert

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    The legendary Steelers "Steel Curtain" defense of the 1970s is widely regarded as the meanest, most dominating defensive force in the history of football. And of all the Hall of Fame players to don the black and gold during their dynasty, there is no better representation of the team at that time than the legendary linebacker Jack Lambert.

    His iconic toothless scowl was incurred long before be began his career in the NFL, and was actually the result of taking an elbow to the grill during a high school basketball game. Unlike many Pittsburgh greats, the success of Lambert in the NFL was anything but assured early in his career. 

    He was selected late in the second round of the 1974 draft, largely because he was relatively undersized for a linebacker at the time. Lambert was undeterred by doubters and, not only did he win the starting job that fall, he was also named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

    Lambert was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first nine seasons in the league before inevitably being slowed down by injuries. A born leader, the seemingly grizzled-since-birth Lambert immediately emerged as one of the team leaders, a role that was expanded when "Mean Joe" Greene was battling injury in 1976. 

17. Dock Ellis

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    Retired pitcher Dock Ellis didn't have a remarkable career in MLB. In his career, which spanned just over a decade, he was named an All-Star just once and he was a member of the 1971 World Series Championship-winning Pirates. 

    Ellis was also instrumental in leading the Yankees to the 1976 World Series, a performance which earned him AL Comeback Player of the Year honors. Overall, a pretty solid showing. 

    But Ellis earned a permanent place in sports lore thanks to a no-hitter he threw in June 1970. Pitching a no-no is always a big deal, but this one was made all the more impressive by the fact that Ellis was tripping balls on LSD throughout the entire game. 

    According to an Outside The Lines report, "The Pirates suspected Ellis was on something, but weren't entirely sure because the pitcher always acted a little nuts."

    You would think there would be a noticeable difference between acting "a little nuts" and tripping out on acid, but apparently Ellis straddled that not-so-fine line throughout his career. 

16. Mark Messier

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    The legendary Mark Messier is undoubtedly one of the greatest NHL players of all time, but his greatness is sometimes overshadowed by a certain former teammate that he played with in Edmonton for almost a decade. Although, there's no shame in having to take the backseat when Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky is in the driver's seat. 

    Gretzky may lay claim to countless unbreakable NHL records, but Messier didn't too bad for himself either. He did win six Stanley Cups after all—two more than Gretzky— and remains the only player in league history to serve as captain to two different championship teams. 

    One place he never came up short to Gretzky was in the personality department. In 1994 Messier, then with the Rangers, famously guaranteed a Game 6 victory over the Devils—and delivered on it thanks to a third-period hat trick that forced a Game 7.

    The Rangers went on to win their first Stanley Cup since 1940, earning Messier his saintly nickname, "The Messiah." 

15. Ray Lewis

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    When Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced his retirement prior to the start of the playoffs in January 2013, not even he could have imagined a more storybook ending to a 17-year career that in no way required a Super Bowl victory for validation. 

    The prospect of a Ravens championship started as implausible, shifted to improbable and ultimately became inevitable after their resounding victory in the AFC Championship. 

    Which actually seems to mimic the path of Lewis' own career. He started off on the wrong path an was arrested on suspension of murder, then made an unlikely shift to the straight and narrow to become one of the most respected leaders in sports in what many have called the ultimately story of redemption.

    Lewis has his share of detractors, many of whom have legit questions about his past, but there's no denying he's a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. Bookending his careers with a couple of world championships only adds to the passion people have for him and against him. 

14. Pete Rose

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    Throughout his playing career, Rose achieved pretty much everything possible. He won three World Series Championships, three NL batting titles, two Gold Glove Awards and was named an All-Star 17 times—just some of his accomplishments. The Sporting News ranked Rose the No. 25 greatest player of all time in 1998. 

    Yet he remains one of the most reviled figures in all of American sports. Rose received a permanent ban from baseball in 1989 when it was revealed he had a long history of betting on games—charges he denied for over a decade before coming clean (for profit) in his 2004 memoirs. 

    Rose has also faced charges of tax evasion, publicly battled a gambling addiction and in 2009 he left his wife of over two decades for Kiana Kim, a Playboy model 30 years his junior, none of which has helped restore his public image. 

    Rose has yet to appear on a Hall of Fame ballot, although Commissioner Bud Selig is said to be considering lifting his lifetime suspension from baseball.  

13. Walt 'Clyde' Frazier

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    Hall of Fame point guard Walt "Clyde" Frazier was a force of nature so great that he was able to lead the Knicks to two NBA Championships in four seasons.

    A seven-time All-Star, Frazier is generally regarded as one of the game's all-time greats, and was named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996. But for all of his accomplishments on the court, Frazier's off-the-court swagger is truly unparalleled. 

    He earned the nickname "Clyde" early in his career because of his fondness for fedoras, the hat worn by actor Warren Beatty, who portrayed Clyde Barrow in the1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. And he was the first NBA player with his own signature line of shoes.  

    Frazier followed in the footsteps famed Jets quarterback Joe Namath, who landed in New York two years prior. The two shared a love of designer duds and fur coats and were both coveted corporate pitchmen. 

    Frazier's persona has served him well in his life after basketball. He worked successfully in broadcasting for years and in March 2012 he opened "Clyde Frazier's Wine and Dine," a basketball-themed restaurant in New York City. 

12. Babe Ruth

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    When it comes to the storied history of the Yankees, an "embarrassment of riches" is probably the best way to describe the level of talent donning the pinstripes over the last century. They've already retired over a dozen numbers—if they're not careful, they're going to run out eventually. 

    Which makes it all the more impressive that legendary slugger Babe Ruth still stands out among the Yankees' all-time greats more than 75 years since he played his last game in New York. Ruth was the first player to hit 60 home runs in one season and his 714 career homers stood until 1974, before being eclipsed by Hank Aaron. 

    He was one of the first standout superstars in American sports history. Outside of his endless achievements within MLB, Ruth was known for his larger than life personality and a lifestyle that could most accurately be described today as #YOLO. 

    Because of his penchant for alcohol, tobacco and taunting police, Ruth spent most of his childhood in a Catholic reformatory, after his parents essentially deemed him a public menace. Ruth's life of excess led to weight gain and ultimately the rapid decline of his career. 

    But despite going out with a relative whimper, Ruth's career has reached mythical proportions since his death in 1948. 

    The most famous example comes from Game 3 of the 1932 World Series, in which Ruth is said to have "called his shot" before hitting a home run on the next pitch. Despite the fact that it likely didn't even happen, the story has a prominent place in sports lore. And the mystery surrounding the event only adds to the legend. 

11. Jim Brown

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    Widely regarded as the best running back of all time, retired Browns great Jim Brown seems to have excelled at everything he's ever tried. In addition to playing football at Syracuse, Brown also was a standout athlete on the university's basketball, track and field and lacrosse teams. 

    He was selected in the first round of the 1957 NFL Draft and went on to have nine consecutive seasons of unprecedented success in Cleveland. When Brown retired in 1965, he held most of the NFL rushing records—many of which stood for decades. 

    After football, Brown's penchant for success transferred seamlessly into an acting career which has spanned over 40 years. With Brown standing as the most notable exception, the bright lights of Hollywood have not been kind to athletes seeking a second career as a movie star. 

    Today Brown remains one of the most respected retired athletes and fascinating personalities in American sports. And he is particularly outspoken when it comes to his former team. In 2012 Brown called running back Trent Richardson "ordinary," and in early 2013 he urged Browns' fans to "get over" Art Model relocating the franchise. 

    Adding to his legend? The recent revelation that Brown once considered a career in boxing—at least until Muhammad Ali literally knocked some sense into him in 1965. 

10. Shaquille O'Neal

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    Shaquille O'Neal burst into the national spotlight as the shockingly sizable standout freshman playing college ball at LSU in 1990. A 7'1" NCAA juggernaut, Shaq left college early and was selected No. 1 overall by the Magic in the 1992 NBA Draft. 

    And the rest, as they say, is history. After serving his time in Orlando under his rookie contract, Shaq immediately defected to Los Angeles in 1996, which is where he played the most fruitful seasons of his career. He won three championships with the Lakers and was named the NBA Finals MVP in each of those three seasons. 

    But under all that success was a long-simmering feud with teammate Kobe Bryant which came to a boil in 2004. When it became clear that the Lakers were going to be forced to choose between the two, Shaq's financial demands and lack of physical conditioning made the decision much easier. 

    He was traded to Miami, where he won one more championship before his game began its sharp decline. He eventually retired in 2011. Shaq may be gone from the game, but he'll never be forgotten.

    During the peak of his career, Shaq was one of the most dominating physical presences in sports history. The only thing bigger? His mouth. Shaq is a one-man one-liner machine: 

    Me shooting 40 percent at the foul line is just God's way to say nobody's perfect.

    Our offense is like the Pythagorean theorem: There is no answer!

    I do what I do. Always.

    I would like to be referred to as 'The Big Aristotle.'

    Shaq has always been equal parts athlete and entertainer, which is why he hasn't ceded one inch of the spotlight in retirement. He remains a visible presence in the NBA, working as an analyst for TNT. Shaq has been an actor, a rapper, a scholar, a reality television star, an honorary U.S. Marshal, an author and an entrepreneur.

    Who knows what he might do next?

9. Ron Hextall

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    The NHL has had its share of animated characters over the years, but very few of them have been goaltenders. The nature of the position just doesn't lend itself to distinguishing oneself with anything but one's ability to block shots. 

    Goalies are covered in protective gear from head to toe and are relegated to opposite ends of the ice. They take very few penalties. They rarely engage in physical contact after the whistle. And they almost never score goals. 

    Well, not unless they are named Ron Hextall. It's been over a decade since he retired and Hextall still holds the league record for most penalty minutes by a goalie: in a single season, in a single playoffs and over the course of his career. He was a straight-up brawler and fans in Philly wouldn't have it any other way. 

    That's not to say that Hextall didn't have any productive accomplishments on the ice—he did. In his rookie season he won the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league's top goalie, and led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals. 

    Hextall's aggressive play redefined the position—he racked up a number of multi-game suspensions in addition to penalty minutes. He was the first NHL goaltender to score a goal and today he and future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur are the only net-minders to have scored two.

8. Charles Barkley

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    For going on three decades, "Sir Charles" Barkley has been one of the most dominating forces in all of professional sports. He may not have won a championship during his Hall of Fame career, but he was named to the All-Star team almost a dozen times and was named the NBA Most Valuable Player in 1993. 

    For everything Barkley achieved in his game, his scandalous behavior on and off the court may be an even more defining factor in his legacy. Many athletes willingly, or reluctantly, accept that their public position means they have a responsibility to behave in a way that sets a positive example for people that look up to them. 

    Barkley, in a very bold move for the time, famously declared, "I am not a role model," in a 1993 Nike ad. Say what you will about Sir Charles, because he sure as heck will say anything he wants about you. 

7. John McEnroe

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    It's hard to believe that bad boy of tennis John McEnroe ever existed in the same sport that officially banned women from grunting in October 2012.

    His temper is legendary and his intense rivalry with Björn Borg was so intense that it was the subject of the 2011 HBO documentary McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice.

    Also legendary is McEnroe's trash talking and unflappable confidence. Some of his greatest hits include

    You'll be sorry you hit me, you f*****g communist a**hole!

    My greatest strength is that I have no weaknesses.

    This taught me a lesson, but I'm not quite sure what it is.

    Over 1,000 officials to choose from and I get a moron like you!

    Think there will ever be another athlete like McEnroe? You cannot be serious!!!

6. Deion Sanders

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    There is no American athlete that more perfectly embodies the '90s than Hall of Fame cornerback Deion "Prime Time" Sanders. He was a gifted athlete who played football as well as baseball, in the vein of Bo Jackson, but he wasn't as fast or nearly as good with his bat. 

    Although, anything Sanders lacked in ability, he more than made up for in confidence and drive. "Neon Deion" Sanders was a one-man hype machine, the likes of which the sports world had never seen before. He may not have been as naturally gifted as Bo Jackson, but had enough talent of his own to be considered the greatest pure athlete in NFL history. 

    Sanders predominately played cornerback throughout his career, but was also known to field punts and fill in occasionally at running back and wide receiver. He became an instant sensation after being selected No. 5 overall by the Falcons in the 1989 NFL Draft. 

    Fans loved his flashy style and elaborate touchdown dance celebrations. And any fans who didn't love Sanders loved to hate him. The circus surrounding Sanders was already immense, but it only intensified when he signed with the Cowboys as a free agent in 1995. That was the same year he became one of just a handful of athletes ever to host Saturday Night Live

    During his career, Sanders attracted lucrative endorsements from corporate kingpins like Pizza Hut, Pepsi, Nike and American Express. Naturally, he released a horrifyingly terrible rap album at some point—but was later content just to star in music videos with his pal MC Hammer. 

    Given Sanders' longtime love of the spotlight, it's no surprise that he embarked in a career in broadcasting after his retirement. He's also found work as a an actor, television personality and even starred in his own reality show with his ex-wife in 2008.

5. Diego Maradona

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    In the annals of soccer, Argentine great Diego Maradona sits alongside Brazilian icon Pelé as one of the two greatest footballers of the 20th century, an official honor that was awarded to them jointly at the FIFA awards ceremony in 2000. The difference was that Pelé was on hand to accept the award, while Maradona claimed his individual honors and left early. 

    That incident is demonstrative of the attitude Maradona displayed throughout much of his playing career and continues to demonstrate in his post-retirement career as a coach. It would also foreshadow a growing feud with Pelé that persists to this day. The two have been publicly exchanging verbal barbs regularly since the feud really heated up in 2009. 

    But Maradona's greatness on the pitch and his (often hilarious) feud with Pelé is only part of the story. Unapologetically brash and indulgent, Maradona battled cocaine addiction and weight gain through much of his playing career—particularly towards the end. In 2009 Italian police seized a number of his valuable possessions because of his failure to pay taxes. 

    Maradona's ability to court controversy and attract attention may be unrivaled in sports. The sizable tattoo of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara on his shoulder is physical evidence that he wears his political views on his sleeve.

    An outspoken critic of former President George W. Bush, during a 2007 appearance on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's talk show, Maradona declared his hatred of the U.S. and his allegiance to Chavez and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. 

    You can say an awful lot of things about Diego Maradona…but you can't say he doesn't have a flair for the dramatics.  

4. Bo Jackson

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    Bo Jackson is the first American athlete to be named an All-Star in two professional sports. He played both football and baseball while attending Auburn University and excelled at both. After he won the Heisman Trophy in 1985 and was drafted No. 1 overall by the Buccaneers months later, many assumed Jackson would focus on football. 

    But anyone who knows anything about Bo Jackson is well aware that he generally favors the road less traveled. Having no desire to play for Tampa Bay, Jackson opted to play baseball and signed with the Royals. He reentered the NFL Draft in 1987 and was selected in the seventh round, No. 183 overall, by the (then) Los Angeles Raiders. 

    Since Jackson had not intention of giving up his career in MLB, he became a baseball player who played NFL football during his offseason. Ya know…no big deal or anything. Jackson's crossover success earned him a lucrative Nike endorsement, which resulted in the ridiculously popular "Bo Knows" ad campaign. 

    For a brief moment in time, Jackson was pretty much the biggest thing in the world—until a hip injury in 1991 completely derailed his career. Jackson's NFL career came to an abrupt end with the injury and his MLB career followed suit. Within three years, he was out of sports entirely.

    Jackson's life was chronicled in the 2012 ESPN 30 For 30 documentary You Don't Know Bo. It was a celebration of Jackson's extraordinary unparalleled athletic abilities, as well as a devastating reminder of an exceptional career that seemed to be over before it even began. 

3. Dennis Rodman

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    Dennis Rodman was such an unabashed spectacle during his career in the NBA that sometimes his persona overshadows what an amazing player he was. Not only did he win five championships, Rodman was also named the Defensive Player of the Year twice and was the rebounding champion for seven consecutive seasons. 

    But for all of Rodman's Hall of Fame accomplishments on the court, he made far more headlines for his antics off the court. After a failed suicide attempt in 1993, Rodman began to transform himself with tattoos, piercings and an overwhelming amount of crayon shades of hair dye. He developed a fondness for dressing in elaborate drag. 

    Rodman embarked on an ill-conceived acting career in the late '90s, which is only memorable because of how tragically terrible it was. His high-profile romance with pop star Madonna and quickie marriage, and even quicker divorce, to Carmen Electra were both irresistible tabloid fodder. 

    Things haven't really calmed down for Rodman since his retirement. In fact, he's been in and out of various rehabs—some of which have been televised—and he's struggling financially. But none of that will ever diminish his contribution to the game or his iconic status in sports and pop culture. 

2. Joe Namath

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    Considering the endless parade of superstar athletes who have called New York home, it's no small achievement that "Broadway Joe" Namath still stands out among them. There are those that question whether Namath's numbers over his injury-plagued career would have translated into a Hall of Fame career in another era. 

    Perhaps it's a fair argument, but Namath's contribution to the NFL is far greater than anything you can read on a stat sheet. The league wasn't always the moneymaking juggernaut it is today, and the fact that Namath, despite coming off a serious knee injury at Alabama, was drafted by both the Rams (NFL) and Jets (AFL), underscores the potential he possessed. 

    Ultimately Namath signed with the struggling Jets, who offered him the richest contract in football history. And four years later he led them to the first (and only) Super Bowl victory in franchise history, defeating the heavily favored Colts, who were led by Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas. In fact, the Jets were such underdogs that Namath's famous "guarantee" was actually triggered by a drunken heckler who was harassing him. 

    Namath went on to become football's first certified superstar whose popularity transcended the game. He was known to show up hungover on occasion and wear fur coats and sunglasses on the sidelines. Namath appeared in a number of commercials during his career and later found work as an actor, television personality and a color commentator. 

1. Muhammad Ali

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    When it comes to trash talking and showmanship in sports, boxing great Muhammad Ali set an impossible standard during his storied career. His brilliant way with words and willingness to play the villain has made Ali one of the most polarizing athletes in sports history.

    Love him or loathe him, the one thing you can't do is ignore him, which is why Sports Illustrated named Ali the "Sportsman of the Century" in 1999. Whether Ali was talking trash to build pre-match hype, pounding his chest or speaking seriously about social issues, he never struggled with delivering a line. 

    When you are as great as I am, it is hard to be humble.

    "Silence is golden when you can't think of a good answer.

    Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong.

    If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologize.

    Ali didn't just bring the pre-match spectacle, he always brought it all (and then some) to the ring and never left until he'd exhausted everything in his physical armory. Ali's three bouts with rival Joe Frazier are widely regarded as three of the most riveting in boxing history.

    The rope-a-dope technique, a strategy that involves absorbing a lot of early blows to tire out one's opponent, is largely attributed to Ali. He famously employed the technique against George Foreman in the 1974 bout famously dubbed the "Rumble in the Jungle."

    Nobody gave the aging Ali a chance against the powerful Foreman, almost seven years his junior. Well...nobody except Ali, himself...which is all that mattered.