All too often, it seems we are reminded of the mortality of man when the shocking news that one of our heroes, someone whose athletic prowess we watch and cheer on week in and week out, has made headlines for a much more tragic reason: their untimely and ultimately senseless death at much too early an age.
While some were entering the twilight of their careers, others were just getting started, only to have circumstances dictate that their time was most decidedly finished.
Here then, in no particular order, are the 15 biggest tragedies in the first decade of this century.
Derrick Thomas was a Hall-of-Fame bound linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs when he was taken too soon: Thomas was driving himself and two passengers to the Kansas City Airport when he lost control of his vehicle in a snowstorm, ejecting himself and one of the two passengers.
The ejected passenger died at the scene, and Thomas was paralyzed from the chest down.
In a stark example of the importance of safety restraints, the passenger who WAS wearing his seat belt walked away from the accident without any injuries.
Thomas's accident was also deemed to have been caused by reckless driving at speeds that were well above the speed limit, much less too fast for the road conditions.
Thomas died two weeks later in the hospital when a giant blood clot traveled from his paralyzed lower body to his lungs, ending the life of one of football's favorite sons.
Ironhead. The Intimidator. Mr. Restrictor Plate. The Man in Black. Dad.
All were names that Dale Earnhardt, Sr., was given or earned throughout his career and life.
Here was a man who struck, at the least, unease, and, at worst, fear into opponents when he made an appearance in their rear view mirrors.
Yet, off the track he was always ready with a kind word, some sage advice, and plenty of encouragement for up-and-coming drivers, belying the intense competitiveness he displayed on the track.
He won seven championships before he was finally able to complete his career by taking home the big one in Daytona, ending a 20-year drought at his favorite race track.
However, this place which seemed to give him the most joy would also be the site of his demise: In a last-lap crash trying to help his son Dale Jr., and Junior's teammate Michael Waltrip gain a victory at the 500, Earnhardt's car wiggled, then snapped violently to the right, hitting the outside retaining wall, while almost simultaneously being T-boned by the No. 38 of Ken Schrader.
At first what looked like a minor accident—after all, he had walked away from much worse—slowly became frighteningly hectic as rescue crews worked feverishly to extricate him from the wreckage.
Fans and drivers hoped for the best, while some, such as long-time friend and competitor Darrell Waltrip, most assuredly feared the worst.
Scant hours later, NASCAR president Mike Helton brought the sports community to its knees with one short sentence: "After the accident in Turn Four at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt."
And with that, fans of the man who had once famously said in a post-race interview that he didn't care whether fans were booing him or cheering him, as long as they were making some noise, were stunned into silence and mourning.
Standing 6'4" tall and weighing as much as 388 pounds at one point in his career, Stringer was a beast of a man on the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line.
Yet that considerable bulk contributed to his untimely death at the age of 25 during training camp in 2001.
On the second day of training camp, Stringer collapsed from what was later determined to be heat stroke; his core temperature had soared to 108.8 degrees Farenheit, and he died the next day, never having regained consciousness.
The sole bright spot in the tragedy was the NFL's efforts to monitor players for heat-related injuries to prevent similar tragedies from occurring.
On Sept. 29, 2003, Snyder was a passenger in teammate Dany Heatley's Ferarri Modena when Heatley lost control of his vehicle and struck a wall, ejecting both players.
While Heatley escaped serious injury, Snyder was not so fortunate.
Suffering a fractured skull and severe brain trauma in the accident, Snyder passed away almost a week later from the injuries and subsequent infections that ravaged his body.
While his career was short, Snyder made enough of an impact in the world of hockey to have the Ontario Hockey League's Humanitarian Trophy renamed in his honor, as well as a memorial arena being built in his hometown of Elmira, Ontario.
Heatley was charged with and convicted of second-degree vehicular homicide and sentenced to three years probation and community service.
If ever there was a man for our boys to look up to as a model for their own behavior, Tillman is that man.
A standout linebacker for Arizona State University, Tillman was also a go-getter in the classroom, graduating in three-and-a-half years with a 3.84 GPA.
Picked up by the Cardinals in the 1998 NFL Draft, Tillman converted to safety, a position that he played well enough to earn All-Pro honors in 2000.
However, the very next year would bring about events that changed the course of his career and life.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists flew passenger planes into the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and after passengers thwarted an attempt to fly a plane into the White House or Capitol, a field in Pennsylvania.
Tillman and his brother, Kevin, truncated their professional sports careers to enlist in the U.S. Army; both completed the Army Ranger Indoctrination Program and were deployed to the Middle East.
On April 22, 2004, Tillman's unit engaged in a firefight in Afghanistan, where Tillman was struck down by what was eventually determined to be "friendly fire."
Pick a wrestling circuit, and Guerrero was probably in it.
NJPW, ECW, WWF/WWE, WCW, take your pick: Guerrero fought in those and more.
Known for his tendency to do anything at all to win a match, legal or not, his "relationship" with the Eighth Wonder of the World, female wrestler Chyna, and his feud at the end of his career with Rey Mysterio, Guerrero was nonetheless plagued throughout his career with drug and alcohol problems.
On Nov. 15, 2005, Guerrero was found unconscious in his hotel room by his nephew.
Eddie was pronounced dead at the scene at the young age of 38.
The subsequent autopsy determined he had died from heart disease, although his alleged HGH and steroid use could have contributed to his untimely demise.
A journeyman pitcher who was far from overpowering, Lidle still had the ability to display moments of brilliance.
For example, he helped the Oakland A's gain a playoff berth in 2001 with a 13-6 record and set the A's record for most consecutive innings without giving up an earned run in 2002.
However, he wasn't one to keep his mouth shut when something irked him.
He famously got into a heated debate with Chris Russo and Mike Francesa while defending comments he made about his current team, the New York Yankees, following a loss to the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 ALDS.
On Oct. 11, 2006, Lidle was on a training flight in a Cirrus SR20 airplane, when it crashed into an apartment building in New York City's Upper East Side, killing both occupants and injuring 21 people on the ground.
With his death, Lidle became the third Yankees player to die while flying his personal aircraft, joining Thurmond Munson and Jim Hardin in that ignoble category.
Yes, he was a horse, but his career and subsequent death captured the attention of the American public.
Entering the 2006 Kentucky Derby with an undefeated record, Barbaro blew the field away by six-and-a-half lengths with relative ease, spurring talks of a potential Triple Crown victory.
However, it was not to be.
In the next race of the Triple Crown, the Preakness, Barbaro became uncontrollably skittish in the starting gate and was charged with a false start.
Deemed well enough to reload in the gate and restart, Barbaro exited the gates cleanly on the second attempt but, moments later, shattered his right hind leg in more than 20 places.
After multiple surgeries and intense therapy and treatment, Barbaro finally succumbed to his pain and injuries on Jan. 29, 2007, thus ending the life of one of the more overpowering racehorses in recent memory.
Benoit was a freak of nature: at 5'11", he sported a well-muscled 234-pound physique.
While powerful, Benoit was nevertheless an extremely technical wrestler, a fact that helped him attain several heavyweight championships throughout his career.
However, like too many top-tier athletes, Benoit was lured by the rapid and seemingly easy results gained by illicit drug and steroid use.
As a result, he was allegedly subject to uncontrollable fits of rage throughout his career.
In an act that shocked the wrestling community and the world, Benoit was found dead in his home on June 25, 2007, from hanging.
Further adding to the shock was the discovery of his seven-year-old son, who had been strangled, and his wife, Nancy, who had been bound before being murdered.
After an investigation, it was determined that Benoit had committed the murders over a three-day span, sedating and restraining both his son and wife before finally using a weight machine in his home to commit suicide.
While "roid age" was ruled out, a severe form of dementia that resulted from repeated concussions was determined to have significantly contributed to his depression and life-ending actions.
Taylor's death is one that could be held up as an example that the people you choose to associate with can be your best friends, or your greatest threats.
Drafted in 2004 by the Redskins, Taylor's on-the-field successes belied his off-field issues.
He was a problem child from the beginning, skipping required meetings, firing agents, and had numerous run-ins with the law, including multiple DUI arrests and arrests for armed assault.
It wasn't too surprising, then, in 2005 that Taylor was shot in the upper thigh during an invasion of his Florida home.
After surgery to repair the damage to his femoral artery, Taylor remained in a coma until he died just over 24 hours later.
Controversy or not, Taylor's life lent itself to his untimely demise.
Unfortunately, it hasn't seemed to have any positive effect on other professional athletes who seem intent in following his off-field example.
Darrent Williams has never been connected to any gang-related or other illicit activity.
However, that did not prevent him from being involved in a drive-by shooting perpetrated by a Crips' gang member at a New Year's Eve party in 2007.
Williams was a passenger in a vehicle along with teammate Jevon Walker and two others when Brian Hicks, a known Crips' member, opened fire on the vehicle.
It is purported that the shooting was a retaliatory attack upon patrons who were involved in an earlier altercation with Crips at the club.
Although Williams was not involved in the original fight, his proximity to the scene was sufficient to cause his death.
Struck once in the neck by a bullet, he was killed instantly, proving once again that associates and activities should be chosen wisely.
Nick Adenhart seemed to have it all.
Drafted right out of high school by the Los Angeles Angels, Adenhart almost lost his shot when he suffered a torn ligament in his elbow, which forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery, which severely affected his draft status.
However, team scouts convinced him to sign with the team and immediately placed him in their rehab program.
He worked his way through the minor leagues and finally realized his dream when he was called up to the majors on May 1,2008.
Unfortunately, his dream would be short-lived.
Less than one year later, Adenhart was a passenger in a vehicle that was struck by a drunk driver.
Two occupants of the vehicle died at the scene, while Adenhart and a fourth passenger were transported to the nearby University Medical Center at Irvine, Calif.
It was there that Adenhart became the third fatality of the horrific crash.
Thomas Gallo, the alleged driver of the minivan that struck Adenhart's car, is still awaiting trial, charged with three counts of murder, three counts of felony hit-and-run, and two counts of driving under the influence and causing injury.
When you think shocking, you need look no further than the death of Steve McNair at his condo in downtown Nashville, Tenn.
Known throughout the world of football as one tough cookie, McNair seemed to be the model of what a sports hero should be: strong on the field, always working hard, a stand-up family man, and someone who always was ready to lend a helping hand, a word of advice and encouragement, or time to a worthy charity.
Traded by the Tennessee Titans late in his career to the hated Baltimore Ravens, McNair enjoyed such popularity in Nashville that he maintained his home there and even opened a restaurant in North Nashville called Gridiron 9.
So, you can imagine the surprise when he was discovered shot dead in his condo by close friends Wayne Neely and Robert Gaddy, with two gunshot wounds to his body and one to his head.
Next to McNair was the body of one Sahel Kazemi, later shown to be both his mistress and the perpetrator of the murder-suicide in the early hours of July 4, 2009.
While he was eulogized as a hero, a father, and a friend, his image will be forever tarnished by the actions which lead to his death at the age of 36.
Known outside the ring as Eddie Fatu, Umaga came from a large family of wrestlers, the Anoa'i Wrestling Family.
Umaga entered the WWE in 2002 and was frequently featured as one-half of a tag team, fighting alongside multiple partners throughout his career.
Near the end, he debuted his last known wrestling persona, Umaga, chosen after the final part of the long and often painful tattooing process of his native Samoa.
Umaga presented himself as an out-of-control madman who could only be controlled by his relatively diminutive manager, Armando Estrada.
On Dec. 4, 2009, Umaga was hospitalized after being found unconscious, unresponsive, and not breathing, with blood leaking from the corners of his mouth.
At 6 p.m. that evening, he was pronounced dead after suffering what turned out to be his second heart attack that day.
No word has been released as to whether or not the growth hormones Umaga was caught using a year earlier contributed to his death.
Actions have consequences. Good actions normally result in positive consequences, while bad actions undoubtedly produce negative results.
Such is the case with Chris Henry, the oft-troubled wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Henry's play in college led to his being drafted by the Bengals in 2005, reaching the pinnacle of football that millions of young boys and their families dream of.
Henry didn't seem to appreciate the opportunity; or more possibly, he thought that it afforded him the right to forgo acceptable behavior.
Multiple arrests, altercations, and even on-field antics prompted him to be suspended twice by the NFL for violations of the league's personal conduct policy.
According to teammates, Henry had finally begun to "turn his life around" in the past year; unfortunately, the circumstances of his death seem to bely that assertion.
Henry was killed as a result of injuries sustained after he fell from the bed of a truck driven by his fiancee on Dec. 16, 2009.
Police and eyewitness accounts indicate that he was in the back of the truck involved in a "domestic dispute" (also known as a fight) with his fiancee when he fell out of the truck, suffering blunt force trauma to the head.
His death is indeed sad; however, apologists trying to glaze over his personal shortcomings do nothing to help future troubled kids from suffering the same fate.
Had he indeed "turned his life around" as friends and family claim, he would not have been involved in a "domestic dispute," and the opportunity for him to fall or be thrown from the back of a moving vehicle would not have existed.