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Untimely Deaths of Sports Figures from the 80s and 90s

In professional sports there have been many tragedies from serious injuries to even death. Some athletes that lost their lives at a too early age died from illnesses, some from being murdered, others from drugs. There was even a case of a football player losing his life right there on the gridiron.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, here are 10 athletes that died before their time.

Thurman Munson

This New York Yankees catcher was one of the best not just for the Yankees but also in the history of Major League Baseball. An avid pilot, tragically Munson crashed his plane on August 2, 1979, before that season could end. Before his death, he had played in 97 games during the 1979 season with a batting average of .288. His lifetime average in 11 seasons was .292. In 1976 he was named the American League Most Valuable Player as he batted .302 with 105 RBIs striking out just 38 times in 616 at-bats. Thurman Munson won three Gold Glove Awards, was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1970, was a member of two World Series championship teams, and made the All-Star game seven times. He was just 32 at the time of his death.

Len Bias

This athlete who died very young may be the most senseless death on this list. Len Bias was a star basketball player for the University of Maryland and became a star there. When the 1986 draft rolled around, Bias was considered a definite top 10 selection and in fact, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics with the overall second pick. Before he could even take the court for the Celtics, Bias was preparing for his NBA future by negotiating a deal with Reebok for an endorsement deal that would have been worth $1.6 million. On June 19, 1986 Bias and a good friend, Brian Tribble were hanging out in a dormitory room shared by Bias and others and made the ill-fated decision to snort some cocaine. While having a conversation with basketball teammate Terry Long, Bias collapsed after suffering a seizure. Tribble did call 911 paramedics could not get his heart to respond and at the hospital, the same occurred. He was pronounced dead at 8:55 am with the cause of death listed as cardiac arrhythmia due to cocaine ingestion.

Steve Prefontaine

In this athlete, you had one of the greatest long-distance runners in history. Steve Prefontaine’s accomplishments are many. At the 1968 and 1969 Corvallis Invitationals held in Oregon, Prefontaine finished first in the two-mile run setting first an Oregon high school record and then in 1969 breaking the United States high school record with a time of 8:41.5. Among his events from 1971 to 1975, he had 21 first place finishes. At the 1972 Olympics, Prefontaine finished fourth in the 5,000 meters. He was training for the 1976 Olympics when tragically he crashed his car and perished in the accident on May 30, 1975.

Roberto Clemente

If you are a Pittsburgh Pirates fan like me, were and alive in 1972, then you remember that year’s New Year’s Eve as a tragic one. That is the night that Roberto Clemente boarded a plane headed for Nicaragua to help earthquake victims but his plane crashed into the ocean and the wreckage nor the bodies of those onboard ever recovered. Clemente was one of the all-time greatest players ever, perhaps the finest defensive right fielder to ever play the game. He was subsequently inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and his final hit total was exactly 3,000.

Ernie Davis

1961’s Heisman Trophy was awarded to Syracuse University’s Ernie Davis. That season Davis rushed for 823 yards averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He scored 12 times on the ground and twice more from passes. On 16 receptions he had 157 yards. Two years prior in 1959, Syracuse won the national title behind Davis’s seven yards per carry average. In the 1962 NFL draft, Davis was the first overall pick by the Washington Redskins who turned around and traded the top pick to the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, Ernie Davis never got to play in an NFL game. During the summer of 1962 after suffering from a swollen neck it was discovered that Davis had developed acute monocytic leukemia. There was no cure and sadly, at the age of 23 Davis passed away on May 18, 1963.

Salvador Sanchez

As a big boxing fan growing up, I clearly remember watching Salvador Sanchez fight. He was an amazing boxer. His record was 44-1-1 with 32 knockouts and Steve Prefontaine before him, Sanchez was driving his sports car (a Porsche 928) on August 12, 1982, when he crashed along a highway in Mexico that killed him instantly. Sanchez was just 23 years old and was the reigning WBC and featherweight champion. He was on a 25-fight win streak and during that run had defeated many outstanding fighters. He scored a TKO over Danny Lopez and defeated Juan Laporte. My most memorable fight involving Sanchez was his showdown with Wilfredo Gomez. He completely dominated Gomez and beat him silly finishing the challenger by way of a TKO in the eighth round. Sanchez also TKOd Felix Trinidad, and in his final fight knocked out the great Axumah Nelson by TKO in the 15th and final round in Madison Square Garden. To this day, Salvador Sanchez is one of the greatest boxers I’ve ever witnessed.

Brian Piccolo

If you enjoy tear-jerker movies and get choked up easily, watching “Brian’s Song” (the original) will do this to you. The true story of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo is a very sad one. A promising young running back that was part of a tandem with Hall of Famer Gayle Sayers. Piccolo managed to make it through three seasons from 1966 to 1968 and then cancer struck him down cutting his season short in 1969. When the cancer ended his life, Piccolo was only 26 years of age. His jersey number 41 was retired by the Bears.

Chuck Hughes

Throughout the history of the National Football League, there has been just one single death that took place on the field. Chuck Hughes was a wide receiver who played college ball at the formerly known Texas Western College now renamed the University of Texas at El Paso. There he set the record for most all-purpose yards in one game with 401 set in 1965. An NCAA record of 34.9 yards per reception for one game also in 1965. That season he set the collegiate mark of all-purpose yards average per game with 204. Hughes is a member of the UTEP Athletics Hall of Fame. Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1967 he played two seasons in Philly before being traded to the Detroit Lions. On October 24, 1971, Hughes crumpled to the turf in the fourth quarter and was convulsing with the great Dick Butkus standing over him pleading for help. Despite efforts to revive him, and an ambulance coming to rescue him, Chuck Hughes expired at 5:34 that day and his autopsy revealed he was suffering from advanced arteriosclerosis revealing one of his coronary arteries was 75% blocked.

Lyman Bostock

Lyman Bostock played Major League Baseball for two teams, the Minnesota Twins and California Angels. In four seasons he batted .311 and had 102 doubles. He also stole 45 bases and knocked in 250 runs. Baseball was in Bostock’s blood as his father Lyman Senior was a professional player in the Negro leagues from 1938 to 1954. After a divorce when he was young, Lyman Junior grew up with his mother and never established a renewed relationship with his father. On September 23, 1978, Bostock was in a car with a woman named Joan Hawkins, someone Bostock had tutored when she was younger. Her ex-husband Leonard Smith who had trailed the two believed Bostock was having an affair with his ex-wife. Smith pulled alongside Bostock’s vehicle and fired one shot from a gun into the back seat where Bostock and Hawkins were sitting. The bullet hit Bostock in his right temple and he died two hours later in the hospital. He was only 27.

Benny Paret

There have been deaths in the sport of boxing as a result of punches being landed but none of them may match the brutality of what happened to Benny Paret. The Cuban-born welterweight was a solid fighter but never won a world title with his final record at 35-12 with 10 knockouts and three draws. On March 24, 1962, was challenging Emile Griffith for the NYSAC, NBA, and Ring welterweight titles. The fight lasted 12 rounds but in the final round, Griffith put on a horrifying beating to Paret and by watching the replay it leaves you wondering why Paret’s corner didn’t throw in the towel or why the referee did not step in and stop the onslaught. The beating he took put Paret in the hospital and 10 days later after being in a coma, Benny Paret succumbed to the injuries dying from massive brain hemorrhaging at the age of 25.


About the author

Harv Aronson

Harv Aronson was born and raised in Pittsburgh but now lives in Florida with his beautiful wife Melissa.

Harv currently writes for Abstract Sports, the Sports History Network, Yinzer Crazy website, and the magazine Gridiron Greats. Harv wrote the published book "Pro Football's Most Passionate Fans" and as a professional writer has had articles published in an array of sports publications.

Harv loves all sports but football and baseball are at the top of his interest. His passion is for sports history. You can visit Harv's website at and you can reach him at [email protected]

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