9 Athletes Who Had Their Careers Cut Short By Tragedy

Tragic accidents, premature death and serious injury permeate the history of sports — Will Smith's new film, Concussion , is merely the most recent examination of the ways that life and limb are on the line for so many athletes. But while numerous athletes have had their careers cut short or lives radically changed by misfortune or injury, there are a number of athletes who were cut down so cruelly in their prime that they still remain haunting, tragic figures years or even decades after their deaths. Just in the last year, we've seen the death of Australian cricket player Phillip Hughes, base jumper Dean Potter and IndyCar driver Justin Wilson, all of whom died while participating in their chosen sport. In the list of the all-time greats, there are many who've faced an end far less fitting than a standing ovation and peaceful retirement.

But injury while playing isn't the only culprit, either. Some of the most tragic stories in athletic history didn't have anything to do with what happens on the grass, court or field. Why do these stories stick with us so? Is it because it's poignant to know that our sports heroes are ultimately fragile and human? No matter the reasoning behind our fascination, stories of tragic sports deaths stay on our minds. Here are nine that we'll never forget.

1. Len Bias

ESPN called the 1986 death of Len Bias, a 22-year-old NBA star, "the day innocence died." Basketball legend Larry Bird described it as "one of the cruelest things I've ever heard." Bias, a college basketball star, had just been selected as the second overall pick to play with the Boston Celtics, but two days later he was dead in his dormitory at the University of Maryland — from a cocaine overdose. In a twist, the friend who called 911, Brian Tribble, was later found guilty of being a major-level drug dealer and sentenced to ten years in prison.

2. Laurence & Maribel Owen

The deaths of Laurence and Maribel Owen and their mother (also named Maribel) were as shocking as they were sad. The Owen sisters were viewed as the bright new future of figure skating in America in the 1960s, and Laurence, the dominant champion, competed at the 1960 Winter Olympics. She made the front cover of Sports Illustrated in 1961 — but two days after its publication, she, her sister and her mother (also the girls' coach) died in a plane crash as they flew to the 1961 World Championships.

3. Ernie Davis

Unlike many sports tragedies, Ernie Davis's death wasn't due to his being in the wrong place at the wrong time or pushing his physical limits too far. The first African-American sports player to win the Heisman Trophy, Davis was on the cusp of his professional career in 1961, brought on by the Cleveland Browns immediately out of college. However, at the age of just 23, he was diagnosed with leukaemia, and rapidly deteriorated, passing away in May 1962. After his death, the Browns permanently retired the jersey he would have worn, number 45.

4. Curt Hennig

Curt Hennig, known as "Mr. Perfect," was one of the most dominant figures in American wrestling history, serving as world champion a whopping four times. He fought Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and other stars of the WWE pantheon throughout the '90s. However, while he was working to win another world title in 2003, he took a toxic cocktail of steroids, painkillers and cocaine, and was found dead in a hotel room in Florida at the age of 44.

5. Flo Hyman

Flo Hyman is occasionally used as an example to illustrate the problems of undiagnosed heart problems in athletes, which have caused numerous deaths over the years. Hyman, a professional volleyball player who won silver at the 1984 Olympics, was playing for a Japanese team in 1986 when she suddenly collapsed on the court and died. It was discovered, after a series of autopsies, that the 31-year-old actually suffered from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that has severe consequences for the heart valves and aorta. One sign of Marfan syndrome is unusual height; Hyman measured 6 foot 5 inches.

6. Eric Show

Baseball player Eric Show's tragedy wasn't that of a career cut down in its prime, but a gifted athlete who was unable to triumph over his addictions. Show is now most famous for pitching the ball that Peter Rose hit to make his 4,192nd career hit in 1985 — which was record-breaking at the time. This devastated Show. After a series of injuries and bad incidents, Show became addicted to amphetamines, crystal meth and finally cocaine. He died at 37 while in rehab, of an overdose of cocaine and morphine.

7. Larry Chappell

Baseball player Larry Chappell was a player for the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and the Boston Braves back in the 1890s. He, like so many other athletes of the late 19th and early 20th century, had his career cut short by World War I and preventable disease. He died of the Spanish influenza epidemic while fighting in France in 1918.

8. Lillian Board

Sprinter Lllian Board was one of the most promising track-and-field athletes in British history, and completely dominant in her brief span as a champion. She had a hoard of medals – silver from the 1968 Olympics, and two golds from the 1969 World Championships – in her chosen events, the 400m and 800m, and was a favorite to go into the next Olympics to snag the gold. Considering she'd only been 19 when she won the silver, it seemed a reasonable hope.

But Board was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1970, and despite using alternative medicines to try for a cure – including a stay with Dr. Josef Issels, who advocated "clean living" and lots of vegetables as a way to cure cancer – she passed away in December, aged 22.

9. Lou Gehrig

People learn about Lou Gehrig in one of two ways. Either they're baseball fans who are in awe of his hitting prowess — he played a record-breaking 2,130 consecutive games — or they know of the disease now named after him, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is sometimes called Lou Gehrig's Disease. Gehrig was one of the heroes of baseball in the '30s, becoming one of the most famous Yankees players in history. However, on July 4 1939, in a packed stadium, he gave the most famous speech in baseball: the "Luckiest Man Alive" speech, in which he announced his retirement. He'd been diagnosed with ALS two weeks beforehand, and would die of the motor neuron disease in 1941.

Images: Wikimedia Commons (4)