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10 sports greats who we lost before their time

At just 41 years old, Kobe Bryant's sudden death has stunned the world. Here are some other sports greats of the past we lost too soon.

NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were killed in a helicopter crash in California Sunday along with seven others. Bryant was 41.

The sudden passing of Bryant is made shocking not only by the nature of how he died but also because he was still young compared to other retired sports legends who are still alive today long after their playing careers were over.

It's not the first time the sports world has struggled with the passing of a respected, accomplished athlete who was taken before their time. Here are ten others and why we remember them.

Lou Gehrig, 37

Gehrig, the New York Yankees great who put up 493 home runs and nearly 2,000 RBIs, died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS. It is best known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." During his retirement ceremony at Yankee Stadium, Gehrig famously said, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

Pat Tillman, 27

Tillman wasn't among the greatest defensive backs to play football. His legend came after when he gave up the riches of the NFL to enlist in the U.S. Army after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Tillman went on to become a Ranger. He was killed on duty in Afghanistan, the victim of friendly fire.

Pat Tillman (U.S. Army)

Dale Earnhardt, 49

The man known as "The Intimidator" won a record-tying seven NASCAR titles. He died at the 2001 Daytona 500 when he crashed into the wall on the race's final turn. The investigation into his death led to safety improvements for all drivers.

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dale Earnhardt of Kannapolis, N.C., holds up seven fingers in Victory Lane after winning his seventh 125-mile qualifying race in a row at Daytona International Speedway Thursday Feb. 15, 1996 in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

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Roberto Clemente, 38

The 12-time All-Star and 1966 National League MVP recorded exactly 3,000 regular season hits in his 18-year career. He died in a small plane crash traveling from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua to help with earthquake relief in 1972. His body was never recovered.

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, shown in a posed portrait in 1957. (AP Photo)

Payne Stewart, 42

Stewart was a three-time major champion known for his throwback fashions on the course, including T. Barry knickers and Tam O' Shanter caps. Stewart died in 1999 along with five others after their private plane lost cabin pressure and eventually crashed in South Dakota. 

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Sunday, June 20, 1999, file photo, Payne Stewart, of Orlando, Fla., celebrates after winning the U.S. Open golf championship at the Pinehurst Resort & Country Club's No. 2 course in Pinehurst, N.C.(AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

Junior Seau, 43

The linebacker was a 10-time All-Pro and was named to the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team playing for the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots. Seau died by suicide. It was determined Seau suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. The brain disease has come under increased scrutiny after it was linked to repetitive head trauma like those experienced by football players. Since then, some athletes have chosen to end their careers early because of concerns about brain trauma.

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2010, file photo, New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau (55) warms up on the field before an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

Steve Prefontaine, 24

Prefontaine was a long-distance runner known not only for his dominance on the track but also for his charisma and exuberance. Unlike others who would pace themselves early, Prefontaine insisted on running hard from the start. The style mostly served him well in college, winning seven NCAA titles combined in track and cross-country. But it came back to bite him in the 1972 Olympics. He ran out of steam late in the 5,000 meters and finished fourth. Prefontaine died in a car crash in 1975. 

Credit: Tony Duffy
Steve Prefontaine #254 leads the field during the 3 mile race at the AAU Championships on 25th June 1971 at Hayward Field, Eugene, Oregon, United States.(Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

Derrick Thomas, 33

The fourth overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft had a stellar career for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was a 3-time All-Pro at linebacker, a member of the NFL's 1990s All-Decade Team, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, and the 1993 NFL Man of the Year for his work off the field. In 2000, four days after being involved in a car crash the left him paralyzed, Thomas died after a blood clot traveled to his lungs.

Credit: AP
Kansas City Chiefs' linebacker Derrick Thomas happily walks off the field after the Chiefs' 27-20 win over the Los Angeles Rams in Anaheim, Calif., Nov. 10, 1991. (AP Photo/Bob Galbraith)

Hank Gathers, 23

The collegiate basketball star for Loyola Marymount University was projected to be an NBA Lottery pick. In the 1988-89 season, Gathers became the second NCAA Division I player to lead the nation on both scoring and rebounding in the same year. During the 1990 West Coast Conference Tournament, Gathers collapsed on the court and died due to a heart disorder.

Credit: AP
FILE - In this file photo taken Feb. 15, 1990, Loyola Marymount basketball player Hank Gathers pose before practice at the university's gym in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac, File)

Thurman Munson, 32

As a catcher for the New York Yankees, Munson was a 7-time All-Star, 1970 American League Rookie of the Year and 1976 American League MVP. Munson died in August 1979 after crashing his Cessna while practicing landings.

Credit: AP
Thurman Munson veteran New York Yankee catcher, and a second man died, Aug. 2, 1978 when a Cessna Citation plane crashed at Canton Akron Airport in Ohio. (AP Photo)