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Great NFL Careers Cut Short by Untimely and Tragic Death

Josh FriesenContributor IIIApril 16, 2012

Great NFL Careers Cut Short by Untimely and Tragic Death

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    There isn't anything as tragic in the NFL world as a player who suddenly and shockingly passes away. Car accidents, illness, botched robberies and acts of heroism have too often taken the lives of talented football players, leaving a somber and sullen lull over the league.

    Moments of silence, special patches, helmet stickers and halftime ceremonies have all been done to pay tribute to players who pass away. For many teams, there will always be a certain emptiness that accompanies such calamity. 

Joe Delaney

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    Joe Delaney was a two-time All-American for Northwestern State and was drafted in the second round of the 1981 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.

    Delaney instantly made an enormous impact with the team, rushing for 1121 yards and three touchdowns. He was named AFC Rookie of the Year by United Press International, helping to propel the Chiefs to a 9-7 record. He was also chosen to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl that year. 

    Following Delaney's 193-yard rushing performance against the Houston Oilers, defensive end and future Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea said, "I've played against the best—O.J. Simpson, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton—and (Delaney) ranks right up there with them. He's great with a capital G."

    Delaney's sophomore season was less impressive, however. He underwent surgery for a detached retina, and the season was cut short because of the strike of the 1982 season. Delaney managed only 380 yards in the eight-game season. Despite this, the franchise looked forward to success under their star running back. 

    However, a third season for Delaney would never come. In the summer of 1983, while with friends at an amusement park in Louisiana, Delaney heard cries for help. He came upon three children who were swimming in an aesthetic pond not meant for swimming. 

    Not knowing how to swim, Delaney dove in to the 20-foot-deep pond in an attempt to save the children. Delaney managed to aid one child before he himself drowned. One of the children died later at a hospital, while the third was eventually found at the bottom of the pond, along with Delaney. 

    Although he played only two seasons, Delaney is regarded as one of the best running backs the Chiefs organization ever had. His name is included in Arrowhead Stadium's Ring of Honor, his jersey is retired and he is enshrined in the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame. 

Gaines Adams

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    Gaines Adams was a star at Clemson and one of the best defensive ends in the country his senior year, where he logged 12.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He was named to all five official All-America teams acknowledged by the NCAA in 2006. Many said he was the best and safest defensive player in the 2007 NFL Draft.

    Adams was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the fourth overall pick, where he made a big impact in his rookie campaign. He tallied 38 tackles, two forced fumbles and six sacks.

    His second season was even better. He registered roughly the same statistics but added two interceptions, returning one 50 yards for a touchdown in overtime. 

    His play began to decline, and he wasn't becoming the player Tampa Bay envisioned him being. He was traded in the middle of the 2009 season to the Chicago Bears for a second-round pick. He played in ten games for Chicago, never starting one. He registered seven tackles in those ten games, with a pass defensed and a forced fumble. 

    On January 17th, 2010, Adams went into cardiac arrest at his family's home. He was rushed to the hospital but was pronounced dead in the emergency room.

    The autopsy showed that Adams had an enlarged heart, something that can often lead to heart attacks. His family said they had no idea about his medical condition. 

    Many remembered Adams a patient and humble football player who always had a smile on his face. 

    "Gaines was an impressive kid with such a tremendous future in front of him," former Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. Gruden was the head coach of the Buccaneers when Adams was drafted. "He was a great teammate and well-liked by our coached and all those who had the opportunity to be around him in Tampa."

Ernie Davis

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    Regarded as the best professional football player to never play a game, Ernie Davis was perhaps the greatest running back to come out of Syracuse University. 

    And that includes NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown.

    Davis was paramount in leading Syracuse to a national championship during his sophomore season, capping off an undefeated season by defeating the University of Texas in the Cotton Bowl in 1959. 

    His junior season was even more remarkable, as he set the record for yards per carry with 7.8 and was the third leading rusher in the country with 877 yards. He also led his team to another Cotton Bowl, earning MVP honors. 

    Davis' senior campaign was one for the ages. Davis rushed for 823 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also added 16 receptions for 157 yards and two touchdowns.

    That year, he would go on to win the Heisman Trophy, the first African-American to do so. President John F. Kennedy, who had followed Davis's career, sent a telegram to the running back:

    Seldom has an athlete been more deserving of such a tribute. Your high standards of performance on the field and off the field, reflect the finest qualities of competition, sportsmanship and citizenship. The nation has bestowed upon you its highest awards for your athletic achievements. It's a privilege for me to address you tonight as an outstanding American, and as a worthy example of our youth. I salute you.

    Davis went on to be picked first overall by the Washington Redskins in the 1962 draft, becoming the first African-American to be taken first overall. The decision was a reluctant one, as Redskins owner George Preston Marshall had previously refused to allow any black players to play for his team and was known around the league as being a stubborn racist. 

    Davis refused to play for the Redskins, saying, "I won't play for that S.O.B." He was traded to the Cleveland Browns.

    While preparing for the 1962 College All-Star Game, Davis was diagnosed with acute monocytic leukemia and began receiving medical treatment. Tragically, the disease was incurable, and Davis succumbed to it on May 18, 1963. 

    Both the Senate and House of Representatives eulogized Davis, and more than 10,000 mourners paid their respects at his wake. His No. 45 jersey was retired by the Cleveland Browns. 

Brian Piccolo

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    The story of Brian Piccolo is all too well known. Piccolo, whose life was chronicled in the film "Brian's Song," was a fullback who played for the Chicago Bears alongside Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers. 

    Piccolo played college football for Wake Forest. His only other scholarship offer coming out of high school was from Wichita State. 

    Despite leading the nation his senior season in rushing yards and scoring and being named ACC Player of the Year, Piccolo went undrafted in the 1965 NFL Draft. 

    Piccolo tried out for the Chicago Bears as a free agent. He ended up making the team, but was relegated to the team's practice squad. 

    Over the course of the next four years, Piccolo's playing time gradually increased. In 1966, he played primarily on special teams. The year after that, he was promoted to backup tailback behind Gale Sayers. Finally, in 1969, he started as fullback. 

    His excitement was short lived. In the Bears' ninth game, Piccolo removed himself from the game because he had difficulty breathing. He was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma shortly afterward. Brian Piccolo had a tumor.

    Piccolo underwent surgery to remove the tumor, then underwent a second to remove to remove his left lung and pectoral muscle. A few months later, after complaining of chest pain, Piccolo was readmitted to the hospital. There, doctors noticed the cancer had spread to other organs.

    Things looked bleak for Piccolo. In May 1970, Gale Sayers was recognized as the league's most courageous player that season and was awarded the George Halas Award. Sayers acknowledged his friend and teammate.

    He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent: cancer. He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' 24 hours a day of his life ... I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.

    Piccolo died on June 16, 1970. The Bears honor his memory by awarding the Brian Piccolo Award to the rookie and veteran who best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor of Brian Piccolo. 

Pat Tillman

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    The story of Pat Tillman is one of the most tragic in the NFL.

    A linebacker out of Arizona State, Tillman was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft. 

    In his first year as a pro, Tillman played all 16 games and registered 74 total tackles. 

    In 2000, Tillman was an NFL All-Pro selection after having a breakout season, making 144 tackles, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. 

    Tillman was set to become a star in Arizona. All of that changed September 11, 2001 when America was attacked. After the 2001 season, Tillman rejected a three-year $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army. 

    Tillman participated in the initial invasion of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He came back to the United States to complete Ranger School in Fort Benning, Georgia, before being redeployed to Afghanistan in late 2003. 

    On April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed by friendly fire. Initially, the U.S. Army attempted to cover up the cause of Tillman's death. They claimed that Tillman and his unit were attacked in an ambush. 

    The subsequent cover up stained the relations between the Tillman family and the U.S. Army. It wasn't until an investigation by Brigadier General Gary M. Jones that the U.S. Department of Defense revealed that Tillman's death was the result of accidental friendly fire. 

    Pat Tillman left behind a legacy laced with patriotism and sacrifice. While every fallen soldier deserves recognition for their service, Tillman had the world at his fingertips before he enlisted. He was being paid to play the game he loved.

    Yet, he cast all that aside in order to serve his country. He'll be remembered across the NFL for that. 

Sean Taylor

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    Prior to the start of the 2007 NFL season, Sports Illustrated named Sean Taylor one of the hardest hitting players in the NFL. 

    Before his hard tackling days as a Washington Redskin, Taylor was a high school football standout in Florida, where he played running back, linebacker and defensive back. 

    Taylor went on to go to the University of Miami for three years. In his junior season, he dominated opposing offenses and was a Jim Thorpe Award finalist, an award given to the nation's best defensive back. 

    Following his stellar college career, Taylor entered the 2004 NFL Draft, where he was drafted fifth overall by the Washington Redskins. 

    Taylor enjoyed immediate success as a safety, claiming the team's starting sport by the third game. He finished the year with 89 tackles, two forced fumbles, nine passes defended and four interceptions. 

    On the field, Taylor excelled and never looked back. Off the field, however, was a different story. Taylor was involved in some questionable behavior. 

    In 2004, Taylor was arrested for suspected drunk driving after being pulled over going 82 mph on a 55mph highway.

    In 2005, Taylor was arrested yet again for armed assault after he was present at an incident in which bullets were fired into a stolen vehicle. He was charged for aggravated assault with a firearm, which is a felony. Taylor had allegedly pointed a gun at somebody regarding a dispute over ATV vehicles. 

    After that incident, however, things began to change for Taylor. Before the 2007 season, Taylor acknowledged that he needed to change his life.

    "You play a kid's game for a king's ransom," he said. "If you don't take it serious enough, eventually one day you're going to say, 'Oh I could have done this, I could have done that.'" 

    On an early November morning in 2007, Taylor was shot in the leg by an intruder in his Florida home, the bullet piercing his femoral artery. His long-time girlfriend and 18-month-old daughter hid under the bed and called police after the burglar had left. 

    Taylor was quickly airlifted to the hospital but fell into a coma due to massive blood loss. Taylor underwent surgery, but he would never awaken. He died the next day.

    A week after his death, 4,000 people, including the entire Redskins organization, attended Taylor's funeral. 

    At the service, Taylor's uncle, Michael Outar spoke at one of the eulogies.

    "I wanted him to play running back or quarterback and score all the touchdowns. The coach gave Sean number 66 and put him on the line," Outar said. "Before the game he said, 'Uncle Michael, what do I do?' I said, 'Hit the guy with the ball.' And that's what he did, over and over."

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