The NFL life of a pro player is a short one. No sooner than you see them walk across the stage of the draft, you see them exit the game altogether.
It's a short-lived love affair if you have the good fortune of seeing a future Hall of Famer play for your team.
They color your memories and make you proud to wear the colors that represent your squad.
They give you a reason to wake up feeling good on a Sunday morning because you expect greatness and you know you will get just that from them.
These are those guys—guys who left too soon from the playing and pro world.
Their days may not necessarily have ended while they played the game, but their presence in the world transcended far beyond the snap of the football.
Died in 2000, at age 33, from a pulmonary embolism.
Thomas was one of the most feared linebackers in the AFC from the moment he arrived on the scene in 1989.
Selected fourth overall by the Kansas City Chiefs, Thomas wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks long before anyone knew who Brian Urlacher was. He became legendary for his "sack and strip" move and was a thorn in the side of opposing defenders because they were rarely able to contain him due to his quickness off the snap.
In his rookie season, he won Defensive Player of the Year and became the first Chiefs rookie linebacker to be elected to the Pro Bowl.
He would make eight more appearances after that one.
For his career, he totaled 126.5 sacks, 642 tackles, 19 fumble recoveries, and three safeties.
He also holds the record for most sacks in a game with seven.
Died in 2000 of intestinal cancer, aged 31.
Eric Turner was one of the highest-drafted defensive backs in history at the time Cleveland picked him in 1991.
Drafted second overall out of UCLA, Turner was a dominating defensive back in his limited career.
He appeared in only 109 games but managed 30 interceptions and two Pro Bowl appearances. He led the league in interceptions in 1994 with nine.
Died in 1986 of cardiac arrest at age 23.
Don Rogers was a hard-hitting safety out of UCLA.
He was named Co-MVP of the 1983 Rose Bowl and set a record in the 1984 game with two interceptions. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, 18th overall, in 1984.
He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year after collecting 105 tackles.
Many feel he could have been a big factor in the Browns' defense had he lived. He might have been the final piece for the 1986 Browns, who very nearly made it into the Super Bowl if not for "The Drive" by John Elway.
It's possible that Rogers may have been able to get an interception or make a key tackle. He could have been the difference on that big-time defense the Browns sported that year.
Died in 2000 at age 24.
Fred Lane was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Carolina Panthers.
During his time in Carolina, he gained 2,001 yards rushing (4.0 average) and had 13 scores.
His six 100+ yard games during the 1997 season are good enough for second all-time.
Died in 1999 at age 45 of liver failure.
Walter Jerry Payton, "Sweetness" as he was affectionately known, was the NFL's all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards until 2002, when Emmitt Smith broke his record.
His playing style was simple—run hard and run long, and never go down easy. If you were going to take him down, then you better have come ready for a fight.
He was a fierce competitor. Despite the fact that he wasn't always the fastest guy on the field, he managed to elude defenders with his repertoire of moves and outstanding leaping ability.
Even more impressive than his career accomplishments were his traits as a human being. Payton was just a nice guy.
In the end, he declined favoritism based on his celebrity. He did not accept the possibility of being moved up the donor list simply because his name was Walter Payton.
Payton, despite his hard-playing style, only missed one game in his 13-year career, and he never celebrated after a score.
A true class act if there ever was one.
Died in 2004 at age 43 of cardiac arrhythmia.
Reggie White is one of the most decorated defensive ends in NFL history. His accomplishments on the field are endless. Just to name a few:
He's a 13-time Pro Bowl selection, twice named NFL Defensive Player of the Year ('87 and '98), and thrice named NFC Defensive Player of the Year ('82, '91, and '95). He was a Super Bowl Champion ('98 with Green Bay) and 1985 USFL Man of the Year.
He finished his career with 1,112 tackles and 198 sacks (second all-time).
His number has been retired by both the Green Bay Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles (for whom he played from 1985-92, setting a single-season sack record in 1987 with 21).
Died in 2004 at age 27 as a result of "friendly fire."
I know everyone knows the story of Pat Tillman well enough that I hardly need to recap it here. So, I will just say that he was a true patriot and man of honor.
In light of his decision to enter the military post-9/11, many forget that Tillman was also a very good football player.
He was a hard-playing, never-say-die safety for the Arizona Cardinals. His approach to the game was to go at it 110 percent on every down and see what happens. That attitude got him named to the 2000 NFL All-Pro team after he amassed 155 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception, and nine pass deflections.
In his very short career as an NFL player, 1998-2001, he had 390 tackles and three interceptions.
His jersey has been retired by the Cardinals.
Died in 2007 at age 24 of a gunshot wound.
Darrent Williams was drafted in the second round of the 2004 draft and became the Denver Broncos' starting cornerback. He started in nine games, the most for a rookie since Louis Wright, recording 58 tackles and two interceptions.
The following season, he started in 15 games, recording 86 tackles and four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown.
He was also a phenomenal punt/kick return man, recording 579 yards (16.5 yard return average).
The loss of Williams was a huge blow to the Denver secondary, as his counterpart, and good friend, Domonique Foxworth was never the same after he was killed.
Denver is still trying to fill the void that Williams left.
Died in 2001 at age 27 of heatstroke complications.
Korey Stringer was drafted 24th overall by the Minnesota Vikings in 1995.
He started in 93 games and had two fumble recoveries. He was adored by the Minnesota community for his charitable works and community outreach programs.
He made the Pro Bowl in what would be his final season as a Viking.
Died in 1983 at age 24 by drowning.
Joe Delaney was a fourth-round draft choice in 1981 by the Chiefs and immediately became an impact player for the team, rushing for 1,121 yards (80.9 yards per game) and three touchdowns on his way to helping the Chiefs to a 9-7 record, which gave them their first winning season since 1973.
He was named Rookie of the Year and selected to the Pro Bowl.
The following season was shortened by a strike, and Delaney played in only eight games.
His good works were well-known within the community, and he often was known for helping others.
His death while trying to save three children from drowning, even though he could not swim well himself, sealed his legacy as the consummate human being.
Died in 2007 at age 24 of a gunshot wound.
Sean Taylor was a big-time hitter for the Washington Redskins, drafted in 2004 (fifth overall).
He had 299 tackles, 12 interceptions, and eight fumble recoveries.
He was a big-time hitter with what seemed to be limitless talent for the game. He played the game so effortlessly that it seemed he wasn't always giving it his all.
His 2006 season was plagued with inconsistencies, but much of that could have been attributed to the Redskins' decision to play him in different coverages due to deficiency in the rush defense.
Even still, he ended that year with 129 tackles and three forced fumbles.
He was twice elected to the Pro Bowl (2006 and posthumously in 2007) and is sorely missed by the team and its fans.