15 Athletes Who Died During The Prime Of Their Careers
On 6th December 2016
Death is difficult and sometimes comes without warning. One day a person is alive and the next… Losing someone with vast talent is a tragedy, and with no warning it can be devastating. Specifically, athletes cut down in their primes, leaving families and legions of fans to mourn and ask why. These are athletes in their primes with lives cut too short by death.
Just missing our 15 taken too early is Steve Prefontaine, the Olympian runner who died in a car crash prior to the 1976 Summer Olympics. Pelle Lindbergh (NHL) and Dan Snyder (NHL) also died in car accidents. Darrent Williams was a promising NFL defensive back, just two years into his professional career when he was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Do you know the odds of making it to the NFL? Really, really hard, yet those odds are still better than getting killed in a drive-by, that’s just bad luck. Finally, NASCAR driver Tim Richmond, a noted playboy and 13-race champion on the racing circuit was diagnosed with AIDS, dying in 1989, just two years after his last victory.
It’s difficult when an athlete is taken early – what will be their legacy? How will teammates and fans react? Losing an athlete in their prime is an emotional rollercoaster that in some cases takes years to get over.
#1. Ernie Davis AGE: 23 (December 14, 1939 – May 18, 1963)
Heralded as one of the all-time great college running backs, Davis was well known both on and off the field during his time at Syracuse University. Known as "The Elmira Express," during his sophomore season Davis led Syracuse to an undefeated season and national championship. He followed that up two years later as a senior, becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman trophy.
In the 1962 NFL Draft, Davis was the overall number one pick by the Washington Redskins, and then later traded to the Cleveland Browns. Remember, at the time being traded to Cleveland was a good thing; there was a time they had a good football team, one that included the legendary Jim Brown. Unfortunately he never played a down in the NFL due a diagnosis of Leukemia. The NFL was very close to having a Cleveland Browns backfield with both Jim Brown and Ernie Davis running the ball.
#2. Salvador Sanchez AGE: 23 (January 26, 1959 – August 12, 1982)
Boxing is a brutal sport. I mean, you are hitting each other and trying to knock each other out. Your next fight could be your last fight, which comes with the territory when you enter the world of boxing. Salvador Sanchez is looked back on as one of the all-time greatest featherweight boxers, winning the WBC featherweight title at the tender age of 21. Sanchez would go on to defend his belt ten times over the next two years.
A month after his tenth title defense Sanchez was on his way to Santiago de Queretaro, Mexico when he was killed in a car accident. In 1991 Sanchez was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. The most telling statistic was that after his passing the next three champions were all previously beaten by Sanchez. He also went 4-0 (all knockouts) against four members eventually inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
#3. Thurman Munson AGE: 32 (June 7, 1947 – August 2, 1979)
The cause of Munson's early demise was a plane crash. The crazy thing is that this isn't the only plane crash to cut down a baseball player in his prime on the list. Munson was the catcher and also captain for the New York Yankees. In his career Munson was highly decorated, winning Rookie of the Year, three Gold Gloves, appearing in seven All-Star games and in 1976, winning the American League MVP. Most importantly, he had a great handlebar mustache. Oh, and Munson's Yankees won back-to-back World Series in 1977 and 1978. As captain (and one of the great Yankees) he was beloved by fans in New York and to some it is still shocking the sudden way he passed.
Despite being a Yankee, Munson loved where he grew up, in the state of Ohio. It was there he took flying lessons so that he could travel back and forth more often to be with his family.
#4. Hank Gathers AGE: 23 (February 11, 1967 – March 4, 1990)
Gathers' death was shocking and unsettling for many. In 1990 Gathers collapsed and died on the basketball court, during the quarterfinal of his team's league (WCC) tournament.
As a college basketball player, Gathers really had it all. Playing for Loyola Marymount, he led his team, conference and the whole NCAA league in both points and rebounds. He was only the second player to ever accomplish this. Gathers' play was predicting an amazing March Madness performance as well as projecting him as a successful NBA player.
With big plans for the NCAA tournament, Gathers' life was cut short when he collapsed after an alley-oop pass, officially dying from a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This condition has taken the lives of many athletes over the years, but rarely is it on such a public platform. Loyola Marymount continued on their charge without Gathers, making it to the Elite Eight and dedicating their run to the late star.