Early U.S. Sports Deaths: The Top 15

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIJune 28, 2009

HONOLULU, HI - FEBRUARY 10:  Young fans hold up a sign in memory of Sean Taylor #21 of the NFC's Washington Redskins during the game against the AFC at the 2008 NFL Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium on February 10, 2008 in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Paul Spinelli/Getty Images)

In making lists like these, obviously your criteria will greatly influence who makes the cut and in what order you put them. 

My criteria emphasized how much of a great career the sports world potentially missed. 

Hence, the younger the athlete, the more likely they would make my list and the higher they would be.

If the death had some social significance, I tended to give it some, but not a lot of weight. I chose U.S. athletes merely for simplicity’s sake.

That being said, some famous athletes' deaths are not on my list because of the criteria that I used and I will explain why they did not make it. 

Just consider them my honorable mention list. 

Auto racing legend Dale Earnhardt, Sr. still had some years left in his career, however, at 49 he was too old to make the list.

The same goes for golfer Payne Stewart (42); baseball players Roberto Clemente (38, born in Puerto Rico), Lou Gehrig (37), and Thurman Munson (32); football player Derrick Thomas (33); and skier Spider Savage (31, the last three years of his career plagued by injuries).

Other athletes, such as little-known All-American basketball player Wayne Estes (21)—who was reportedly going to be drafted 10th by the Los Angeles Lakers (they ended up taking Gail Goodrich) in the first round of the 1965 NBA draft—just missed the list talent-wise, in my opinion.

Several other athletes fall into these categories and there are probably others that I may have missed. I’m quite certain that readers will be more than happy to point out these athletes and tell why they should have made my list. 

With some sadness, here is my list:

1. Ernie Davis, 23

He played his last collegiate game two days after his 22nd birthday. In 1961 he became the first black Heisman Trophy winner. Playing at Syracuse University he broke all of Jim Brown’s career records and two years earlier as a sophomore led the Orangemen to their only National Football Championship.

Tragically, he succumbed to leukemia in 1963 before he ever played a down in the NFL, where he was to be teamed up with Brown in the Cleveland Browns’ backfield. 

He was called “the greatest running back who ever lived up to that time,” by longtime and highly respected Playboy sports editor, Anson Mount.

2. Len Bias, 22

Bias was a University of Maryland All-American college basketball player who suffered a fatal cardiac arrhythmia that resulted from a cocaine overdose less than 48 hours after being selected second by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft. 

While he won ACC Player of the Year honors, surprisingly, he lost out to Johnny Dawkins for Naismith Player of the Year, and was passed over by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who chose Brad Daugherty. 

He was 6'8", 210 pounds, and a great all around player with amazing leaping ability, and a sure-fire future NBA star.  Some people claim that he was the best collegiate basketball player they ever saw.

3. Sean Taylor, 24

Taylor was a free safety for the Washington Redskins, and was drafted in the first round (fifth overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft.

He was voted to two Pro Bowls and was named second team All Pro.  Despite off the field difficulties, Taylor was very popular and widely considered one of the hardest-hitting defensive secondary players in the NFL.

Intruders fatally wounded Taylor on Nov. 26, 2007. He died the next day.

4. Steve Prefontaine, 24

Prefontaine was a popular American middle and long-distance runner. "Pre" had an aggressive, exciting running style, and once held the American record in the seven distance track events from the 2,000 meters to the 10,000 meters. 

Prefontaine died in 1975 in a car accident before he got a chance to compete in the 1976 Olympics where he was determined to make up for his fourth-place finish in the 5,000 meters in 1972 (where he held the lead for the last mile, but faded with 150 meters to go).

5. Jerome Brown, 27

Brown was a football defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles and, along with Reggie White, the heart of their stellar defense.  He was voted to two Pro Bowls and also two first team All-Pro selections.

Sadly, he too died in a car accident in 1992, devastating Eagle fans who were hoping for their first Super Bowl win.

6. Hank Gathers, 23

Gathers was an American college basketball star at Loyola Marymount University who collapsed and died in 1990 during a game of a heart condition.

In the 1988–89 season, he became the second player in history to lead NCAA Division I in scoring and rebounding in the same season, averaging 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds per game.

7. Lyman Bostock, 27

Bostock was an American professional baseball player who played Major League Baseball for four seasons. He as an outfielder for the Minnesota Twins (1975-77) and California Angels (1978). 

He had a career .311 batting average and was second in the league in 1977 (.336) and fourth in 1976 (.326). 

He died when he was shot in the head in 1978 by a woman’s estranged husband (he had met her only 20 minutes earlier). His assailant thought the two of them were having an affair. Apparently, the bullet was intended for the woman.

8. Reggie Lewis, 27

Lewis was an American professional basketball player for the NBA's Boston Celtics from 1987 to 1993 who died from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a structural heart defect that is considered the most common cause of death in young athletes.

He averaged 20.8 points per game in each of his last two seasons with the Celtics, and finished with a career average of 17.6 points per contest.

Who knows how many championships the tragic deaths of Bias and Lewis cost the Celtics.

9. Korey Stringer, 27

Stringer was an American football player who died from complications brought on by heat stroke in 2001. He collapsed during training camp in Minnesota while with the Vikings of the National Football League.

Stringer was a standout on the offensive line, earning Pro Bowl honors in what turned out to be his final season. Stringer's death brought about major changes regarding heat stroke prevention throughout the NFL.

His death also addressed complications of pressuring players to "bulk up" to well over 300 pounds. Stringer, who at the time of his death was 6'4" and weighed 335 pounds, was at the lowest weight he had ever been in his pro career.

10. Pat Tillman, 27

Tillman was an American football player who left his professional sports career and enlisted in the United States Army in May 2002.

He joined the United States Army Rangers and served multiple tours in combat before he was killed by friendly fire in 2004 in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Details about the circumstances surrounding his death have been the subject of controversy and military investigations.

While he did not make the official All-Pro Team, Sports Illustrated football writer Paul Zimmerman (Dr. Z) named Tillman to his 2000 NFL All-Pro team after Tillman finished with 155 tackles (120 solo), 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, nine pass deflections, and one interception for 30 yards.

11. Joe Delaney, 24

Delaney was an American football player who died tragically in 1983 trying to save three drowning children in a pond (he successfully saved one of them). 

He was the AFC Rookie of the Year as a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs (gaining 1,121 yards on 4.8 yards per carry) and was a Pro Bowl selection in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

12. Ray Chapman, 29

Chapman was an American baseball player who died when he was hit in the head by a pitch in 1920. He's only the second player in MLB history to have died from an injury playing baseball.

His death was partially the reason MLB banned the spitball after the season and was one the examples used over 30 years later when helmets became mandatory.

Chapman batted .278 lifetime and was an excellent shortstop who led the league in putouts three times and assists once. 

He batted .300 three times, and led the Indians in stolen bases four times.  In 1917, he set a team record of 52 stolen bases, which stood until 1980.

13. Fireball Roberts, 35

Roberts was an American NASCAR auto racer who died from complications due to a racing crash in 1964 during the World 600. 

He had 33 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins, 122 top 10 finishes, and was the 1962 Daytona 500 Winner.

14. Davey Allison, 32

Allison was also an American NASCAR auto racer who died in 1993 from a helicopter crash. He was the pilot. 

He had 19 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins, 92 top 10 finishes, and was the 1992 Daytona 500 Winner.

15. Bruce Lee, 32

Lee was an American—born Chinese martial artist, philosopher, instructor, actor, film director, screenwriter, and the founder of the Jeet Kune Do concept.

He is widely regarded by his fans as the greatest martial artist in recorded history and a cultural icon. 

He was also one of the greatest athletes ever with perhaps the quickest human reflexes in recorded history. Lee was pound-for-pound one of the strongest athletes ever. 

Since he developed his own system, lack of opportunities such as Ultimate Fighting Championships (which he likely would have dominated) limited his official athletic accomplishments.