Gone Too Soon: Top 11 Most Tragic Sports Deaths Since 1980

Brandon WilliamsCorrespondent IJune 23, 2011

Gone Too Soon: Top 11 Most Tragic Sports Deaths Since 1980

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    LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 02:  Fans of the Washington Redskins pay thier respects at the memorial for the late Sean Taylor before the game against the Buffalo Bills on December 2, 2007 at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. Taylor died November 27, a day aft
    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    There’s little need to emphasise the point, especially in a sport like tennis: there are winners, but also the losers.

    Sometimes, the losers have come up second best one too many times for their names to fade into obscurity. Certainly, when it comes to Wimbledon, noone ever goes out in complete obscurity.

    Great many champions at Wimbledon have profited at the expense of numerous other grass-court talents, who have relegated legitimate challengers for the title to mere insignificance by the glory of their victories—but this is not the case today.

    Their names live on—the heroes and heroines who fought majestic battles, but never quite managed, somehow or another, to cross the finishing line. These are Wimbledon’s Greatest Could-Have-Beens.

11. Darrent Williams, CB, Broncos (1982-2007)

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    Denver selected the talented Oklahoma State defensive back with the 56th overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft and got immediate results as Darrent Williams started nine games. His first professional interception resulted in an 82-yard return for a touchdown against the rival Oakland Raiders, one of two picks that helped Williams earn all-rookie honors.

    A solid second season (four interceptions while becoming the Broncos' primary return specialist) put Williams on the fast track to eventually replacing Champ Bailey as the team's top corner, but those dreams were dashed in a hail of gunfire in the early hours of January 1, 2007.

    An altercation at a Denver night club (that involved teammate Brandon Marshall but not Williams) resulted in a drive-by shooting that killed Williams and wounded two others. The shooter, Willie Clark, was indicted in October 2008 and was sentenced to life in prison in May of 2010. 

10. Don Rogers, S, Browns (1962-1986)

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    Rogers replaced Ken Easley as the hard-hitting enforcer of the UCLA secondary; like Easley, Rogers was also a first round pick, selected by Cleveland with the 18th overall pick of the 1984 draft.

    The 6'1", 206-pounder started 30 of his 31 games with the Browns, recording a pair of interceptions and ranking among the team's leading tacklers on a Cleveland franchise that was on the rise. The Browns had won the AFC Central in 1985 and held a 21-3 lead over the Dolphins before Dan Marino led a fourth quarter comeback in the divisional round.

    With so much in front of him, Rogers' brief life came to a close on June 27, 1986, when he passed away from an overdose of cocaine. Almost as tragic was the fact that the 23-year-old was scheduled to be married the next day.

9. Pelle Lindbergh, G, Flyers (1959-1985)

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    Pelle Lindbergh was a second-round pick of the Flyers in the 1979 draft, but remained in his native Sweden long enough to anchor the net for the national team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. He eventually reached Philadelphia, appearing in eight games during the 1981-82 campaign.

    The following season proved to be a breakout for Lindbergh, who went 23-13-3 with a 2.98 goals against average, numbers that earned him a spot on the NHL all-rookie team. He became the first European goalie to win 40 games in a season the next year (40-17-7) as the Flyers reached the Stanley Cup finals before falling to Edmonton. Lindbergh was a first-team all-NHL selection and won the Vezina Trophy in the process of establishing himself as one of the game's premier players.

    Off to a 6-2 start early in the 1985-86 season, greater heights were in front of Lindbergh, but his life was dashed on the morning of November 10, when he lost control of his sports car and crashed into a wall. Kept on life support long enough to harvest his vital organs, the rabidly popular star died two days later.

8. Derek Boogaard, D, Wild/Rangers (1982-2011)

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    At 6'7", 265 pounds, Derek Boogaard quickly earned a reputation as one of the NHL's most feared players, a mantra that was further established when he shattered the cheek of Ducks strongman Todd Fedoruk. He logged 158 penalty minutes as a rookie and followed up with 120 in just 48 games in 2006-07.

    The Rangers signed Boogaard to a five-year deal during the 2010 offseason to serve as their primary muscle man, but suffered a concussion during a fight early in the season against the Senators' Matt Carkner that resulted in him missing the remainder of the season.

    Boogaard died this past May 13 from a lethal combination of alcohol and oxycodone in his Minneapolis apartment. Police later ruled the death as an accidental overdose.

7. Nick Adenhart, P, Angels (1986-2009)

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    Overcoming Tommy John surgery that saw his draft stock fall, Nick Adenhart—a 14th round selection by the Angels in the 2004 draft—worked his way up to the majors early in the 2008 season, winning one game in three appearances.

    A strong spring earned Adenhart a spot in the Los Angeles rotation, and his first start of the 2009 season justified it. The hard-throwing righty held the Athletics scoreless through six innings, scattering seven hits and striking out five en route to a no-decision.

    Hours after the start, Adenhart and three other friends were hit by a drunk driver. Two of Adenhart's friends were killed instantly, while he passed away shortly after arriving to the hospital.

    Andrew Gallo, the driver of the car that hit Adenhart, was sentenced to 51 years to life in prison in December 2010, charged with three counts of second-degree murder.

6. Jerome Brown, DT, Eagles (1965-1992)

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    A brash force of nature, Jerome Brown was one of the key reasons the Miami (Fla.) football program earned the nickname, "The U," serving as the leader of the Hurricanes' walk-out of a promotional dinner prior to the 1986 national championship game against Penn State. His play also helped Brown become the Eagles' first round choice (ninth overall) in the 1987 draft.

    The 6'2, 290-pound thrived under head coach Buddy Ryan's aggressive "46" scheme, which made the Eagles' defense one of the most feared units in the NFL. Brown was chosen to the All-Pro team in both 1990 and '91 and appeared to be hitting his stride at the right time, becoming regarded as one of the best defensive tackles in the game.

    Brown's life ended on the afternoon of June 25, 1992, when he lost control of his sports car and hit a power pole at a high rate of speed, killing him and his nephew.

    The Eagles played the 1992 season in honor of him, but his fellow college teammates also wore Brown's number on the back of their helmets as well. 

5. Hank Gathers, F, Loyola Marymount (1967-1990)

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    Originally recruited by USC, Hank Gathers (along with best friend Bo Kimble) transferred to Loyola Marymount, where the duo became the feature attractions of coach Paul Westhead's high-octane, score-at-will style of play. 

    Gathers averaged 22.5 points and 8.7 rebounds his first season at LMU, a warm-up for a 1988-89 season in which the 6'7 native of Philadelphia became only the second player in NCAA Division I history to lead the nation in both scoring (32.7 ppg) and rebounding (13.7). He was named the West Coast Conference player of the year and began to attract the attention of NBA scouts, who were enamored with his size and off the charts scoring skills.

    Early in the 1989-90 season, Gathers collapsed at the free throw line during a game, which resulted in doctors discovering that he had an irregular heartbeat. After taking a beta blocker that left him sluggish at times, Gathers chose not to take the pills on game days.

    It would be a game day that led to his tragic death. Shortly after a thunderous dunk against Portland in the WCC quarterfinals, Gathers collapsed on the court and attempted to get back up before he fell again. Attempts to revive him failed, and Gathers was pronounced dead shortly after arriving to the hospital.

    The emotionally drained Lions became the Cinderella of the 1990 tournament, reaching the Elite Eight before falling to UNLV (which eventually won the national championship).

4. Reggie Lewis, G/F, Celtics (1965-1993)

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    The Northeastern University star didn't have to go far to begin his NBA career, as the Celtics picked him in the first round of the 1987 draft. After playing in just 49 games as a rookie, the 6'7" Reggie Lewis broke out in 1988-89 by averaging 18.5 points per game while establishing himself as one of the anchors who would keep the Celtics on top as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish began to wind down their Hall of Fame careers.

    Lewis earned his first (and only) All-Star game nod during the 1991-92 season, where he averaged 20.8 points per game. He averaged 20.8 points the following season, leading Boston in scoring as they began life without Bird.

    On the afternoon of July 27, 1993, Lewis collapsed while taking part of an offseason workout session at Brandeis University. Attempts to revive him failed, and Lewis was pronounced dead of a sudden cardiac death at the age of 27.

    Allegations that cocaine contributed to his death were later dispelled; Lewis had shown signs of heart troubles during the 1992-93 season, including a collapse 

3. Sean Taylor, S, Redskins (1983-2007)

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    As a true freshman in 2001, Sean Taylor shined on defense and special teams for a Miami (Fla.) regarded as one of the most dominant college football teams in history. As a junior, the 6'1", 230-pound athletic freak of nature (he ran 4.4 and had a 40-inch vertical jump) was a consensus first-team All-American while also being named the Big East Conference's defensive player of the year.

    With little to prove, Taylor turned pro and was selected by the Redskins with the fifth overall pick of the 2004 draft.

    Taylor ran afoul of both the law and the Redskins during his first two seasons, capped off by spitting at Buccaneers RB Michael Pittman in the 2006 NFC Wild Card game. The incident proved to be turning point for Taylor, who began to tap into his potential during the '06 season by recording 129 tackles and three forced fumbles while also earning the title of the hardest hitting player in the league.

    He was leading the NFC in interceptions in the 2007 season before missing two games with a knee injury. Taylor spent time recovering at his Florida home, when on the morning of November 26, he was shot in the upper leg by an intruder during which proved to be the second break-in of his home in less than two weeks.

    Emergency surgery failed to save Taylor, who had lost a significant amount of blood. He was pronounced dead early the following morning.

    The Redskins named him to their Ring of Fame during the 2008 season. 

2. Drazen Petrovic, G, Nets (1964-1993)

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    One of the best players in Europe in the 1980s, Drazen Petrovic (drafted by Portland in 1986) arrived to America in 1989 and served as a role player during the Trail Blazers' run to the NBA Finals. Frustrated by lack of playing time Petrovic was dealt to New Jersey midway through the 1991 season and averaged 12.6 points despite playing for a young team that finished 27-55.

    Finally given the chance to start the following season, Petrovic exploded into the NBA scene by averaging 20.5 points while also leading all guards in field goal percentage (.505). He followed up with 22.3 points per game in 1992-93, knocking down 45 percent of his three-point attempts.

    Petrovic was entertaining offers from various NBA and European teams after the season. Tragically, his life came to an end on June 7 when a truck cut off the car he was travelling in the German state of Bavaria.

    Though his NBA career was all too brief, Petrovic became the first European player to make a successful transition. His style and personality opened the doors for the current wave of players that includes All-Star G Tony Parker and 2011 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player and perennial All-Star Dirk Nowitzki.

1. Len Bias, F, Maryland (1963-1986)

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    If there was ever a player suited to play the role of foil for Michael Jordan, Len Bias was atop the one-player list.

    "He's maybe the closest thing to (Chicago guard) Michael Jordan to come out in a long time," said Celtics scout Ed Badger. "I'm not saying he's as good as Michael Jordan, but he's an explosive and exciting kind of player like that."

    A rock-solid 6'8, 210-pounder, Bias emerged as one of the top college players in the nation, earning both Atlantic Coast Conference basketball and overall athlete of the year in 1985-86. His thunderous dunks and aggressive style on the glass made Maryland basketball must-see games on a then-still fledgling ESPN, which helped raise Bias' status across the nation.

    We all know the rest of this tragic tale:

    *Bias is drafted second overall in the 1986 draft to the defending World Champion Celtics.

    *Bias dies of a cocaine overdose on the morning of June 19, leading to one of the biggest "What ifs?" in NBA history and becomes the first domino to fall (including the 1993 death of Reggie Lewis) that leads to a 22-year titleless drought for Boston.

    *His death becomes the rallying cry to the war on drugs, leading Congress to enact more rigid sentences for those caught and/or using them.

    *The eventual investigation leads to the resignation of longtime Maryland coach Lefty Driesell and athletic director Dick Dull. The program is then placed on probation, leading to a decline in the Terrapins' program until Gary Williams arrives.

    More than 25 years later, the name Len Bias still leads to shutters, tears and heartache for a young man who—like the others on this list—had so much in front of him.