Few things are more tragic than not being able to see someone deliver on the promise of their passion or their career. On no stage is that more evident than in that of professional sports, in which careers are tracked from an early age and the hopes of fans, friends and family alike hinge on the successes of individuals whose lives and careers can end up being cut short by tragedy.
10. Payne Stewart
Stewart’s 1999 death in a Lear Jet crash was shrouded in mystery. The plane went down hundreds of miles off-course with no explanation. It turns out that the stylish golfer and five others had died when the flight lost cabin pressure. However, the plane flew pilotless for four hours carrying the bodies before crashing in South Dakota. The crash occurred in the prime of Stewart’s career, as the 42 year-old was just months off of his second victory at the US Open.
9. Hank Gathers
In 1990, the Loyola Marymount star fell victim to a pre-diagnosed heart condition mid-game. Following a dunk, he fell to the ground in convulsions, and was pronounced dead hours later. He was widely regarded to be a lottery pick in that summer’s upcoming draft, so the untimely death of the college standout left millions wondering what might have been.
8. Reggie Lewis
In the 1993 off season, Celtic forward Reggie Lewis collapsed and died during a workout three years after Hank Gathers died of a similar heart condition. In Lewis’ last game as a Celtic, he collapsed unconscious, but continued to play basketball against medical advice. The Celtic captain never had the chance to return to the NBA and is untimely passing marked the second tragedy involving a Celtic in nearly a decade.
7. Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt remains one of NASCAR’s most beloved personas, as demonstrated by the outpouingr of love and support from his fans years after his 2001 death after crashing into the wall of the fourth turn at the Daytona Speedway. His death was a harrowing reminder of the dangers inherent in all facets of auto racing, but he did not die in vain. Following his death, several implementations were made to provide more safety for NASCAR drivers. Further, his legacy also lives on in his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., arguably the most popular driver in the history of the sport.
6. Roberto Clemente
Clemente enjoyed a long, 18-season career before dying in a plane crash during a humanitarian mission to his Nicaragua. Clemente was delivering supplies to victims of an earthquake during his off season. Though his best years were behind him (he won NL MVP in 1966), the nature of his death, as well as his Hall of Fame baseball legacy have cemented him as one of baseball’s most enduring goodwill ambassadors.
5. Pat Tillman
Following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman walked away from a very promising football career in order to enlist in the US Army. During a conflict in Afghanistan, Tillman was hit by friendly fire and killed. The Army initially claimed that he was killed by enemy fire, but an investigation into his death eventually proved otherwise. His death put a face on the cost of the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq for many Americans, and his selfless act in enlisting is regarded by many to be an enduring act of patriotism in the wake of his death.
4. Pelle Lindbergh
Lindbergh was early in his career as a goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers when he died after driving drunk and crashing his Porsche into the wall of a school. Coming off of a strong season in 1985, the Vezina trophy winner was the leading vote getter for the ’86 All Star game when he died. Due to the circumstances of his death, the Flyers opted not to retire his number, but out of deference, no Flyer has worn #31 since his death.
3. Len Bias
In perhaps the most harrowing case of squandered talent on this list, Bias was the number one pick in the 1986 draft for the Celtics, and celebrated his good fortune by drinking and snorting cocaine over the next two days. He overdosed, resulting in his death, which left Celtic fans and Americans overall saddened and stunned over the reckless behavior and wasted potential. Len Bias became national example of the dangers and high price of drug abuse over the next few years and led to Congress’ Anti-Drug Act.
2. Derrick Thomas
Though he was in the twilight of his career, Thomas’ death hit hard football fans generally and Chiefs fan specifically, having been the face of the franchise (and linebackers everywhere) for almost a decade. Driving to the airport, Thomas flipped his SUV, killing his passenger and paralyzing himself. Three weeks later, he died from a blood clot in his chest. He was only 33 years old, but had established himself as among the leagues premiere defensive players. He was inducted into the hall of fame in 2009.
1. Drazen Petrovic
In 1989, long before it was a standard move, Petrovic made the transition from the European leagues to the NBA, playing for the Blazers and Nets in his brief career. However, in 1993, after average 22 PPG, he wrecked his car on the infamous autobahn in Germany, dying instantly. The Nets retired the small forward’s number at the end of the 1993 season, but that was little consolation to the European and American fans that never got to see Petrovic build on the promise of his potential.