Athletes That Died Far Too Young

Athletes are often more than just sports figures. Off the court or field, they are revered as heroes and role models by peers and fans alike. While some athletic stars live far into their retirement years, some larger-than-life athletes experience the tragedy of their own and unfortunately die at a young age. These tragedies occur across different sports, ranging from football and basketball to baseball and hockey.

Catastrophic events and horrifying accidents often occur out of the spotlight, but in some cases, can unfold before our very eyes. NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt died suddenly after his car slammed into a concrete wall during the 2001 Daytona 500 Race, with thousands witnessing the horror from home and the stands. Other high-profile athlete deaths aren't the result of accidents, but rather, murder, like the death of NFL quarterback Steve McNair.

Here are some of the most well-known athletes that lost their life far too young.

Pat Tillman

Few athletes opt to hang up their cleats for the military, but for NFL safety Pat Tillman, the decision couldn't have been easier. Born in November 1976, Tillman was the oldest of three sons, who went on to become a football star at Leland High School in San Jose, California, per Biography. Tillman's accomplishments throughout his high school career did not go unnoticed, and by 1994, he received a full scholarship to Arizona State University. After several victories at ASU, including earning the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1997, Tillman was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 1998, as reported by ESPN.

Tillman was a force with the Cardinals, and other teams made note of his talent. During his career, he was offered lucrative opportunities to play with other teams, including a $9 million contract from the St. Louis Rams, but ultimately was loyal to the team he started with, according to SF Gate. Three years into his career, the tragic September 11 attacks unfolded, which inspired Tillman to give up his NFL position and enlist in the army with his brother Kevin Tillman in May 2002.

After completing training, Tillman was assigned to the 2 Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, and deployed to Iraq in late 2003. His time in the military was cut short, however, when Tillman was accidentally shot three times by an allied soldier in a tense firefight exchange in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. He was 27 years old.

José Fernández

At just 24 years old, José Fernández overcame significant hardships to become one of the greatest pitchers in the MLB. Born in Cuba, Fernández grew up playing baseball from a young age and had dreams of making it to the big leagues in the United States. The journey to the States was not easy, with Fernández and his family making three attempts to defect from Cuba throughout the mid-2000s, per Each attempt resulted in jail time, but by 2008, Fernández successfully made it to the United States and settled in Tampa, FL.

After graduating from Braulio Alonso High School, Fernández was selected as the 14th overall pick by the Miami Marlins in the 2011 MLB Draft, as reported by CBS Sports. On the field, he was an electric pitcher and had a historic start to his rookie season with the Marlins in 2013. That season, Fernández earned the Rookie of the Year Award with a record of 12-6, and a 2.19 ERA, according to Sports Illustrated.

The beloved pitcher continued to break records and lead the Marlins to several victories by the end of the 2016 season. But just five days after his last game on September 20, Fernández, along with Emilio Macias and Eduardo Rivero, died in a boating accident off of Miami Beach, per NBC 6 South Florida. It was later determined Fernández was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine when he crashed the boat.

Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant is regarded as one of the greatest basketball players ever; an unstoppable enigma that made him loved on and off the court. He followed in the footsteps of his father, NBA forward Joe Bryant, and started playing basketball when he was just 3 years old. As a young adult, Bryant soared at Lower Merion High School outside of Philadelphia, where he led the basketball team to four consecutive state championships, as reported by Biography. After graduating high school, Bryant was selected as the 13th pick by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft but was later traded to the LA Lakers, where he would play for the entirety of his 20-year career.

Bryant was fiercely dedicated to his position as a shooting guard, with his style compared to that of legends like Michael Jordan. Over the span of his career, he was a pivotal player that helped lead the Lakers to five NBA championships, three of which were consecutive. Following the 2015-2016 season, Bryant hung up his jersey and retired from the NBA.

In the years after his retirement, the star kept busy with several projects, including launching a production company, a venture capital firm, and writing the short film, "Dear Basketball," which earned an Oscar for best animated short film. In 2020, however, Bryant tragically died in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant, and seven others; he was 41, per TIME.

Dale Earnhardt

It is nearly impossible not to associate NASCAR with the career accomplishments and legacy of Dale Earnhardt. The stock car driver is highly considered to be among the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, who, in his 26-year career, won 76 Winston Cup races as well as seven Winston Cup championships. Earnhardt got his start in NASCAR in the 1975 World 600 race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and started his first season in 1979. He won his first Cup in 1980 and went on to earn the nickname "the Intimidator" due to his aggressive driving style and passion for winning.

Throughout the next two decades, Earnhardt not only had a successful NASCAR career, but he also built a multi-billion dollar business that sold merchandise and souvenirs, ranging from t-shirts to toy cars, per ESPN. He became a father to four children, including a son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who followed in his dad's footsteps. Earnhardt and his son competed in a handful of races, which included the 2001 Daytona 500. The race would unfortunately be Earnhardt's last, as his car collided with racers Ken Schrader and Sterling Marlin, and subsequently crashed into a wall on the last lap of the race. Earnhardt was just months shy of his 50th birthday, and his tragic death sent shockwaves to the NASCAR community and the world.

Len Bias

When the world of sports is constantly getting new faces, it can be easy to forget the important and notable figures that left an impact but aren't around to see their legacy unfold. You may not know the name Len Bias, but when he was drafted in 1986, he was compared to Michael Jordan in terms of his athleticism, talent, and potential. He started college at the University of Maryland in 1982, and though he was considered by many to be unrefined and undisciplined his first year, he became one of the team's best players by his sophomore year.

At the University of Maryland, Bias became an All-American player, and by his junior year, he earned the ACC Player of the Year award for leading the team in points scored. His senior year was his most notable one, as he helped defeat the No. 1 University of North Carolina by scoring 35 total points in the game, seven of which were scored in the last few minutes.

Bias's signature reverse dunk and leaping plays caught the eye of several in the NBA, which led to him being selected by the Boston Celtics as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. Unfortunately for Bias, he was never able to start a professional career in basketball. Just two days after being drafted, the 22-year-old died from an accidental cocaine overdose in his dorm room, per Sports Illustrated.

Sean Taylor

In his prime as a safety for the Washington Commanders (then the Washington Redskins), Sean Taylor fully embodied his nickname "meast," meaning half-man, half-beast. In his three-year, four-season career with the Commanders, Taylor developed a complex reputation as one of the best safeties in the league who had a tendency to trash talk and encounter legal issues, according to NBC Sports Washington. Yet, despite it all, he was beloved by fans, and on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

Taylor's journey with football took off in high school when he played both running back and defensive back positions on the Gulliver Preparatory School football team. During his time in high school, he was a key part of helping the team win the Florida Class 2A State Championship, and would later secure a spot on the University of Miami football team in 2001. While he was with the Hurricanes, he was a second-team all-Big East Conference pick his sophomore year, and an All-American the following year.

Following a successful college career, Taylor was chosen as the fifth overall pick by the Washington Commanders in the 2004 NFL Draft. Taylor starred in a total of 53 games with the Commanders, with remarkable stats that included 302 total tackles, eight forced fumbles, and 12 interceptions, per ESPN. In 2007, the 24-year-old's life and career was cut short when he was murdered in his home during an attempted burglary.

Dražen Petrović

During the 1970s and '80s, the NBA began looking for talent outside of the US. Among the select foreign players that made it in the league, Croatian player Dražen Petrović quickly became a sensation in the States given his track record with other professional basketball clubs across the globe, including Cibona and Real Madrid, per The Athletic.

Dubbed "the Mozart of Basketball," Petrović began playing the sport when as a teenager, and signed up for the Yugoslavian national team in the early 1980s. According to the Olympics website, by 1984, Petrović's impressive moves and stature earned the team a bronze medal in the Olympics, which would be followed by a silver medal and a European championship in 1988 and 1989, respectively. Around this time, he garnered the attention of the NBA and was drafted in the third round of the 1989 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers. Petrović played for the team for two seasons and scored an average of 20.6 points per game during his second season, as reported by ESPN. He was traded in 1991 to the then-New Jersey Nets. 

From 1992-1993, Petrović had an average score of 22.3 points per game, which helped get the Nets to the playoffs that year. Tragically, however, the 28-year-old never saw another season in the NBA. In June 1993, he was killed in a car accident while traveling with his girlfriend and a friend on Germany's Autobahn 9 highway.

Steve McNair

Often, the legacy of public figures is complicated by secrets that were later exposed after their death. NFL quarterback Steve McNair was consistently ranked as one of the greatest football players of the late 1990s and early 2000s, with multiple Pro-Bowl appearances and an MVP award under his belt by the time he retired in 2008.

In the late 1980s, he started high school at Mt. Olive High School, where he took on several sports, including track, basketball, baseball, and football, according to his official website. Though he participated in multiple sports, McNair shined in football and was pursued by many colleges by his senior year. He ultimately settled on Alcorn State University, where he played from 1991 to 1994. Per Pro Football Reference, in 1995, he was picked number three overall in the 1995 NFL Draft by the Houston Oilers, which later became the Tennessee Oilers and the Tennessee Titans.

McNair spent most of his time with the Tennessee team and notably led the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000. In 2006, he was traded to the Baltimore Ravens, where he finished his career after 2 Seasons with the team. Post-retirement, McNair spent time with his wife and children but was ultimately swept up into an affair that would tragically end his life. On July 4, 2009, McNair was shot in a murder-suicide by his jealous girlfriend, Sahel Kazemi.

Tyler Skaggs

In his short-lived career, pitcher Tyler Skaggs was associated with two major league teams: the Los Angeles Angels and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Skaggs was a star player in high school and was selected by the Angels as the 40th overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft. His stint with the Angels organization was brief, and he was later traded to the Diamondbacks, where he played from 2012 to 2013. It was in Arizona that he made his professional debut against the Miami Marlins, and was named Diamondbacks' minor league pitcher of the year, per The LA Times.

In 2013, Skaggs found himself back with the Angels, but in 2014, he suffered a partial tear to his ulnar collateral ligament, which led him to have Tommy John Surgery that same year. He returned for a few games in the 2016 season but was out again for three months in the 2017 season after an oblique injury. Skaggs had a successful 2018 season, but his 2019 season was unfortunately cut short by his sudden passing. According to The Sun, Skaggs died in a Southlake, Texas hotel room of "asphyxia after he choked on his own vomit while under the influence of fentanyl, oxycodone and alcohol." It was later determined that former Angels Communications Director Eric Kay provided Skaggs with the drugs. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison in October 2022, per a press release from The Texas Attorney General's Office.

Derrick Thomas

Some may not know of Derrick Thomas or his accomplishments, but the NFL linebacker is still considered to be one of the best pass rushers of all time, even 23 years after his death. Thomas made a notable career with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he played for a total of 10 years and 11 seasons, and participated in nine Pro Bowl events, per ESPN. In his professional career, there is no denying Thomas's accomplishments, which included a total record of 126.5 sacks and 642 tackles, according to Bleacher Report.

Thomas started sports at a young age, and as a young adult, headed to the University of Alabama, where he became a star player. During his three-year collegiate career, Thomas had 52 sacks — an unofficial record, as sacks weren't an official stat until after he left college. Thomas was then selected as an All-American, per The New York Times. He was chosen as the sixth overall pick by the Chiefs in the 1989 NFL Draft and went on to become one of the franchise's most beloved players.

Following the end of the 1999 season, 33-year-old Thomas had plans to watch the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis with friends. As he drove down the snowy and icy Interstate 345 on January 23, 2000, Thomas flipped his car and had injuries to his neck and back which left him paralyzed from the chest down. While in recovery, he suffered a pulmonary embolism and died on February 8, 2000.

Sarah Burke

At the young age of 29, Sarah Burke was regarded as a pioneer in the world of skiing and superpipe events. Burke started skiing when she was only 5 years old, and as a young adult, she often participated in moguls skiing competitions with male athletes, as reported by CBC. When she was a teenager, she fought ESPN to include the women's halfpipe in the Winter X-Games, which was added in 2005, per SportsNet.

In 2005, Burke's professional career took off, as she earned a gold medal in the 2005 FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships. Just two years later, Burke had an incredible streak in the Winter X Games, earning five consecutive gold medals from 2007 to 2011 in the women's ski superpipe category, per Bleacher Report. In addition to those accomplishments, Burke was also the first woman to land a 1080 in a competition, according to ESPN.

In so many ways, Burke was unstoppable. But on January 10, 2012, she experienced an accident that cut her life short. While practicing a halfpipe routine in Utah, something that she had arguably done countless times, Burke fell and ruptured her vertebral artery. Despite medical efforts to repair the artery, Burke was declared brain dead and succumbed to her injury on January 19, 2012, per ABC News.

Chris Henry

During his time with the Cincinnati Bengals, wide receiver Chris Henry had a rough reputation. Despite his athleticism, he was often arrested for drug and alcohol use, suspended by the NFL for violating rules and known for his hot-headed temper. He was a multi-sport athlete at Belle Chasse High School, where he played football, basketball, and track, according to his West Virginia University roster. In 2002, he started playing for the West Virginia University football team, where he had six 100-yard receiving games, and 1,878 receiving yards, per WVU Stats.

After being ejected and suspended from games at West Virginia, Henry's career prospects did not look good. But in 2005, the Bengals allowed him to have a pre-draft visit, and the team later selected him in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, as reported by Fox News. While in the NFL, Henry's quick temper and string of bad decisions led to him being waived by the Bengals in April 2008. Months later, the organization re-signed Henry for a two-year contract in August 2008, after he appeared to want to change his ways, per ESPN.

Henry played for one more season with the Bengals before he died after falling out of a pickup truck driven by his fiancée Loleini Tonga, according to The Huffington Post. The 26-year-old and Tonga had allegedly been in a domestic dispute when the incident occurred.

Dan Snyder

Canadian hockey star Dan Snyder had a short career with the Atlanta Thrashers that came to an end after his death in 2003. He began playing hockey as a teen with the Owen Sound Platers, an Ontario junior hockey team, as reported by CBC. Though his stats weren't initially impressive, he was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers as a free agent in 1999. In addition to being a free agent, Snyder was also a part of the Orlando Solar Bears and Chicago Wolves, where he was a pivotal part in helping the teams earn the Turner Cup and Calder Cup, respectively.

In the 2002-2003 season, Snyder scored 10 goals out of the 36 games he played and appeared to be on track to develop his skills as a player. Four years into his professional career, the young player's life ended after his fellow teammate and friend, Dany Heatley, crashed his Ferrari into a brick wall on September 29, 2003, according to ABC News. Though Snyder initially survived the accident, he went into septic shock and died after being in a coma for six days. He was 25 years old.

Jerome Brown

Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Jerome Brown was known for his boisterous personality and aggressive athleticism on the field. Born in February 1965, Brown grew up being a bit of an enigma, loving sports while also being an active member of his church choir as a drummer, as reported by Sports Illustrated. In high school, he was idolized by teammates and was named to Parade magazine's All-American team as a senior. Following his senior year, Brown played at the University of Miami and was later drafted ninth overall in the 1987 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Brown's career with the Eagles was nothing short of impressive. From 1987 to 1991, he made the Pro Bowl twice, earned the All-Pro honor twice, and had a total of 29.5 sacks out of 76 games played, per Pro Football Reference. The 27-year-old star's career and life ended abruptly on June 25, 1992, when he lost control of his Corvette and crashed into a tree, killing himself and his 12-year-old nephew, as reported by Sports Illustrated.

Ryan Mallett

The shocking news of Ryan Mallett's death was a sudden blow to the NFL community. The pro-athlete started his college career at the University of Michigan in 2007 but later transferred to the University of Arkansas a year later in 2008. At Arkansas, Mallett broke several records, including the most passing yards in a season at 3,627 and five touchdowns, per the Arkansas Razorbacks' official website. He played for the collegiate team from 2008 to 2010 and was selected by the New England Patriots in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, according to ESPN.

Mallet's career with the Patriots was short-lived, and by 2014, he was traded to the Houston Texans, where he played for 2 Seasons. He was released in 2015 and signed with the Baltimore Ravens and played until 2017. After a brief hiatus, Mallett returned to football and was chosen by the XFL's Spring League team to start as the team's quarterback, per the official website. Following his stint in the XFL, Mallett began coaching the White Hall High School football team in 2022.

As Mallett was settling into life after the NFL, he tragically drowned while swimming with his girlfriend in the beach waters of Destin, Florida, per NBC News