Even if we don’t personally know our favorite athletes, it’s common to have a strong affinity for them. So, when one of our favorite superstar professional athletes dies too young, it’s a gut punch that’s hard to get over.
In his final game of the 1972 season, Roberto Clemente collected the illustrious 3,000th hit of his career. While it was an accomplishment worth celebrating, there was zero indication that Clemente was playing in his final game. After Nicaragua’s horrendous earthquake, Clemente jumped at the chance to provide aid to those in need.
Unfortunately, Clemente and four others on the plane with him died as it was trying to return to the airport. There have been rumors that the MLB will retire Clemente’s #21 the same way they did Jackie Robinson’s #42, but that’s yet to happen.
The “Iron Horse,” Lou Gehrig, was a part of the best dynamic duo in baseball history alongside Babe Ruth. In his final season, Gehrig, 35, showed no signs of slowing down, considering his numbers were still well above the league averages. But it was evident during the following season that something was slowing down the man who played over 2,130 games in a row.
Gehrig learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), forcing him to call it quits before he would have liked. The Hall of Fame inducted Gehrig the same year he retired, foregoing the required five-year waiting period. The only other player to earn that honor was Clemente. Two years later, Gehrig died a week before his 38th birthday.
Pat Tillman was a professional football player for the Arizona Cardinals who hung up his cleats to serve the country in Afghanistan. The courageous act of leaving the NFL to go overseas and fight for this country makes Tillman an American hero worth celebrating. Sadly, Tillman died in 2004, and the cause of his death is still not entirely known, although circumstantial evidence indicates it may have been friendly fire.
When everyone got the notification that Kobe Bryant, one of the game’s best shooting guards, had died in a plane crash, it didn’t feel real. Kobe felt untouchable on the court, making him one of the most beloved players in the NBA. Regrettably, we all learned it was true and that Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and seven others died in the 2020 Calabasas crash.
While all the deaths preceding Earnhardt on this list are equally as sad, there’s something about the shock of watching it live during the biggest race of the year. “The Intimidator” was doing all he could to keep his teammate, Michael Waltrip, ahead in the Daytona 500. When Earnhardt was in the fourth turn, Sterling Marlin gave Earnhardt a bump, causing him to hit the wall at 180 mph. While Waltrip went to victory lane, it was the furthest thing from his and every racing fan’s mind.
There are other superstar professional athletes who died too young, but these five leave a legacy that will live on forever, and we miss them dearly.