Dale Earnhardt and the 10 Most Notable Athlete Deaths During Competition

Tim GrovesCorrespondent IFebruary 22, 2011

Dale Earnhardt and the 10 Most Notable Athlete Deaths During Competition

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    Athletes push their bodies above and beyond the normal limits.  We marvel at what they can achieve when they put it all on the line for us, the fans.  Their greatness mesmerizes us.  We become entranced at what they can accomplish.

    But sometimes the boundary is crossed.  Sometimes the human body cannot survive what it is being put through.

    Sports are meant as an escape from the daily grind.  Something to give us hope and joy, not remorse.  But tragedy occurs, whether we wish it to or not.  

    Ten notable athletes, cut down in their prime, competing in the sport they loved.  The list is no particular order.  A ranking would do nothing but trivialize the what these men went through for our enjoyment. 

Kenny Irwin, Jr.

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    Auto racing of any sort is a dangerous endeavor.  Being strapped into a metal machine capable of reaching speeds of 200-plus mph can be described as nothing less than terrifying. 

    NASCAR alone has a long and painful history full of deaths on the race track.  Kenny Irwin, Jr. was a young, up-and-coming driver.  He had won the Rookie of the Year award in Craftsman Truck and Winston Cup Series.

    He never won a race in his four years behind the wheel but he did accumulate 12 top-10 finishes.

    During a practice session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Irwin's car crashed headfirst into the barrier.  The car flipped on it's side and slide across the track.  It has been said that Irwin most likely died on impact due to a basilar skull fracture. 

Leavander Johnson

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    Leavander Johnson was a 35-year-old boxer.  He had won the IBF lightweight world title in his previous fight against Stefano Zoff.  He was defending his title for the first time.

    On Sept. 17, 2005, Johnson stepped into the ring against Jesus Chavez to defend his lightweight title for the very first time.  During the 11th round, the fight was stopped as Chavez landed a barrage of undefended strikes.  Johnson left the ring under his own power, obviously upset over the loss of his title.

    Backstage he collapsed.  Johnson was rushed to the hospital, where they attempted to correct the swelling and bleeding of the brain being experienced by the boxer. 

    Johnson's conditioned improved after he was placed in a drug-induced coma.  Things took a turn for the worse on Sept. 22.  His family decided to take him off of life support. 

Hank Gathers

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    Hank Gathers was an exceptionally gifted basketball player.

    He was originally recruited by the University of Southern California, where he played his first season of college basketball.  After a disappointing season the coach was fired and the players left with a choice.  Gathers decided to transfer to Loyola Marymount.

    At Marymount, he became the second player in NCAA history to lead the nation in both scoring and rebounding when he averaged 32.7 points per game and 13.7 rebounds per game. 

    During a game against UC Santa Barbara, Gathers collapsed at the free throw line.  It was found that he suffered from an abnormal heartbeat.  He was prescribed medication, but quickly cut back on it after he felt that it hindered his play.

    On March 4, 1990, he fell down again in a game against Portland.  He pleaded with trainers to let him get back up.  Shortly after, his breathing stopped.  He was rushed to the hospital and declared dead on arrival. 

Reggie Lewis

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    Reggie Lewis averaged 17.6 points per game for his NBA career.  His last two seasons he managed to chip in 20.8 points per game.  He was an All-Star in 1992, the year before he died.

    During an offseason practice, Lewis suffered sudden cardiac arrest.  A police officer attempted to review Lewis, but was unsuccessful.  The cause of death was linked to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

    The Boston Celtic had exhibited previous symptoms of the condition.  During the opening game of the playoff series against the Charlotte Hornets, Lewis collapsed as well.  Unfortunately, the warning signs were not headed, and the NBA lost another young star.

Mike Coolbaugh

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    Mike Coolbaugh was an MLB hopeful.  He bounced around from minor league club to minor league club.  He signed a deal with the Kansas City Royals in 2006, but subsequently shattered his wrist in spring training.  He retired from professional baseball.

    With his career finished, he turned to coaching.  He came aboard the staff of the Colorado Rockies Double-A affiliate, the Tulsa Drillers.  Coolbaugh was the first base coach.

    In the ninth inning of a game, Coolbaugh was struck in the neck with a line-drive.  The impact destroyed his left vertebral artery.  He suffered from a severe brain hemorrhage.

    The MLB quickly passed ruling that all base coaches would begin wearing batting helmets.

Ryan Shay

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    Ryan Shay was a gifted track and cross country runner throughout his high school and college career.  He was a three-time state champion in high school and the valedictorian, as well. 

    Above reaching Notre Dame, Shay continued his dominance.  He was an All-American nine times in college.  He won the NCAA individual title in the 10,000 meter race.  Shay left the school as the record-holder in both the 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter race.

    Once he exited college, Shay continued to run competitively.  He won numerous races including marathons, half-marathons, 20 km and 15 km.

    In November of 2007, Shay was attempting to qualify for the US Olympic team in New York City.  He collapsed five-and-a-half miles into the race.  He was pronounced dead when he reached the hospital.

    Doctors concluded that he had passed due to a massive heart attack, that occurred due to an enlarged heart.

Chucky Mullins

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    Chucky Mullins was a football player at the University of Mississippi. 

    During the Ole Miss homecoming game against Vanderbilt in October of 1989, Mullins went in for a tackle against Vanderbilt fullback Brad Gaines.  It was a short pass play and should have been a routine play.

    Mullins went in for the tackle headfirst and remained on the field following the play.  He was airlifted to a nearby hospital where it was discovered that he had destroyed four vertebrae in his spine.  He was left as a quadriplegic.  

    He returned to Ole Miss in 1990 to finish his degree.

    Almost a year later, Mullins was overwhelmed with pulmonary embolism.  It was caused by blood clots due to inactivity.  He died in the hospital in May of 1991.

Andres Escobar

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    Andres Escobar was a defender on the Colombian World Cup team in both 1990 and 1994. 

    During the 1994 World Cup a heavily favored Colombian team was taking on the underdog American squad.  Escobar raced across the field to prevent US midfielder John Harkes to score.  Instead, Escobar deflected the ball off of his leg and into his own goal.

    The Colombian team would go on to lose 2-1 and were subsequently knocked out of the tournament.

    On returning to Colombia, Escobar went out with friends one night.  During the evening he became separated from his group and found himself alone in the parking lot.  He was confronted by multiple men, resulting in an argument.  The men brandished pistols and shot the player dead, while yelling "Goal!" in Spanish for every shot fired.

    Escobar was dead by the time he reached the hospital.  While it was ultimately never proved, the overarching opinion is that Escobar was shot and killed due to his own goal that knocked Colombia out of the World Cup.

Korey Stringer

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    Korey Stringer was a standout offensive lineman for the Ohio State Buckeyes with Orlando Pace, as they paved the way for Eddie George. 

    Stringer was drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings and immediately excelled on the football field.  He started throughout his career for the team, and was even voted to his first Pro Bowl in 2000.

    During the 2001 offseason, Stringer suffered and died from heat stroke during team workouts. 

    Stringer's widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit against both the league and the Vikings.  The suit was settled outside of court, but not before sweeping changes went through the league.  Teams now train in light color uniforms, provide copious amounts of water and shade and have doctors on site at all times.

Dale Earnhardt

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    Dale Earnhardt was the ultimate bad boy of NASCAR.  He was loved by millions and hated by even more.  He was known for his ruthless nature, often times crashing rivals in order to win races.  His notoriety was well earned.

    Over the course of his career, Earnhardt won 76 races and seven series titles. 

    During the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt went into the final turn in a comfortable third place behind teammate Michael Waltrip and his son Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  Sterling Marlin was charging fast behind the trio.

    In a surprising move, the elder Earnhardt went to block for his son and teammate, instead of charging for the victory.  It would cost him his life.  He clipped the car beneath him and rocketed up towards the wall.  His car collided with it head on. 

    His death resulted in sweeping changes in barrier technology and required head gear for racers.