Athletes you may not know passed away
It’s odd when you reflect on the people and events that helped shape who you are in the present. There were likely times when someone did something that inspired you, motivated you, or changed your entire outlook on life. Maybe that person was just part of something in the background that didn’t even affect you personally but occurred at a very profound time in your life. Whatever the case, they’ve become part of who you are. Often you can go years without ever thinking of those people again. Then one day you find out that person died and it hits you like a ton of bricks.
It’s a sad fact of life that there are so many people who hold a special place for us — actors, musicians, and athletes we never actually get to know for real. To find out that inspiring athletic heroes have died is a definite blow, but it’s worth remembering how great these people were, too. With that in mind, here are a few of the best athletes you maybe didn’t know we lost.
Oscar Gamble and his incredible afro
It was hard not to be a fan of one-time Yankees outfielder Oscar Gamble. Not only is he famous for knocking over 200 runs out of the park, the man managed to play professional baseball with one of the coolest afros ever to get wedged under a helmet. He actually had an endorsement deal with Afro Sheen for a spell, until George Steinbrenner enforced more strict personal grooming standards. (There’s a reason that man was mercilessly mocked on Seinfeld.)
Gamble had played on seven different teams during his MLB run in the ’70s and ’80s, being traded from the Yankees to the Chicago White Sox in 1977 and then back to the Yankees from Texas in 1979. He was actually traded back to Chicago again for his final season in 1985. So both New York and Chicago either really loved Gamble, or really didn’t. But the fact he had 666 RBIs and 200 home runs, including 31 in his 1977 season alone, meant Gamble really was a great ball player.
Tragically, even though Gamble was only 68, he developed ameloblastic carcinoma, a rare jaw tumor. The tumor had been benign for some years, but in 2016 he underwent a series of operations in an attempt to stop it from spreading. On January 22, 2018, Gamble was admitted to a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, and passed away on the last day of the month.
Carol Mann hung up her clubs
It’s unfortunate that it’s taken so long for women’s sports to start rising to the prominence of men’s. That said, athletes like Venus and Serena Williams, Ronda Rousey, and Danica Patrick, among others, have really paved the way for future generations to take their rightful place. They follow in the footsteps of women like Carol Mann, who absolutely dominated at their sports. Mann won a staggering 38 times on the LPGA tour, including two major championships.
She also served as the LPGA president from 1973 to 1976, and later taught golf. The sport was definitely in her blood. She was even a golf analyst on major networks like ESPN, ABC, and NBC. If you wanted a pro’s perspective on the game, you went to Carol Mann. She’d been doing it since 1961 and you weren’t likely to find anyone with better insight.
On May 20, 2018, Mann passed away at her home in Texas at the age of 77. The Hall of Fame golfer’s legacy lives on with the Carol Mann Scholarship Fund that awards golf scholarships to a new generation of promising female golfers.
Bruno Sammartino went down for the count
If you were a fan of the burgeoning WWE back when it transitioned from the Hands of Vince McMahon Sr. to Vince McMahon Jr., you probably know the name Bruno Sammartino. He’s practically a legend in the wrestling world, and back before the WWE solidified wrestling as an international phenomenon, he sold out Madison Square Garden 187 times during his years in the squared circle. To even imagine anyone doing something like that these days is mind-blowing.
Sammartino was a major presence in the WWE’s early years and held the title twice. Later he would go on to be critical of the company. There was a period when Sammartino was an outspoken critic of the use of steroids and the environment created by Vince McMahon Jr. Slam! Sports quoted Sammartino as saying, “I didn’t want to be associated with it any more because the business that I had been in for 25 years had gone into the gutter.”
In 2013, Sammartino seemed willing to let the past die as he accepted induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. In later years, a string of health problems plagued the superstar, however. He’d had heart surgery in 2011 and in April 2018, after a two-month hospital stay, Sammartino passed away from multiple organ failure at the age of 82.
Hal Greer goes down a legend
If you’re a basketball fan and you don’t know Hal Greer, you need to familiarize yourself. Greer was an absolute powerhouse on the court and will be remembered as one of greatest Philadelphia 76ers in the team’s history. He spent 15 years with the 76ers, including five seasons when the team was still in Syracuse back in the ’60s. To this day Greer is the team’s career leader in field goals, field goal attempts, games, and minutes played. He retired from professional basketball with 21,586 points, another 76ers record.
During his time in Philadelphia and Syracuse, Greer made 10 straight NBA All-Star games, and had the honor of being the first player in team history to have his number retired. His hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, twice honored Greer — once by declaring a Hal Greer Day back in 1966, and then again in 1978 by naming a street after him.
On April 14, 2018, Hal Greer passed away after a short illness, according to NBA.com. Greer was 81 years old and survived by his wife, son, and two daughters. Though the man is gone, his legacy as one of the greatest 76ers and one of the greatest professional basketball players of all time will live on.
Edwin Jackson was gone far too soon
It was Super Bowl Sunday, February 4, 2018. Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson, 26, was in an Uber at around 4:00 a.m. He wasn’t feeling well, so his driver pulled over. Jackson and the driver, Jeffrey Monroe, were standing at the side of the road when a drunk driver swerved onto the shoulder and hit them both. They died at the scene.
Jackson had only started playing with the Indianapolis Colts in 2015, according to CNN. He had been a walk-on player at Georgia Southern University after excelling during his high school career. Even though his football career was still very young, he was exceptionally proud of it and very much dedicated to giving back to his community. He started something called the Edwin Jackson 53 Foundation which held clinics, fitness camps, and after-school programs for disadvantaged youth and those who didn’t have scholarships.
To get an idea of what kind of man Jackson was, you just need to know how he got the nickname “Pound Cake.” Jackson was set to meet with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 and missed a scheduled flight. In order to try to make up for ruining everyone’s schedule, he brought his mom’s pound cake for the entire defensive staff — a class move from a good man.
Jana Novotna bowed out gracefully
If you were compiling a list of the best tennis players in history, you’d have to include Jana Novtona. In her 14-year professional career, she won 24 singles titles, she was a 12-time Doubles Grand Slam winner and, in 1998, she took Wimbledon. She also won a silver medal at the 1988 Olympics, and a second silver along with a bronze in 1996. Novotna ranked first in the world for doubles for 67 weeks, according to the WTA. All told she had more than 100 titles to her name over the course of her inspiring career.
Novotna was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 but kept the news private. Having retired from the pro circuit in 1999, she only shared the information with those close to her. Novotna spent her final years at home with loved ones. She died on November 17, 2017, in the village of Omice in the Czech Republic, near her hometown. Reports say she was surrounded by friends and family at the time. Many former players and acquaintances were as shocked by the news of her passing as the rest of us.
Roy Halladay met with tragedy
Roy Halladay was only 36 when he announced his retirement from professional baseball. He left the game for health reasons citing a back injury, but it didn’t diminish his love for the sport. Shortly after his retirement he returned to the Phillies as a guest instructor and took on the same role for the Toronto Blue Jays. And what an instructor he was — this was a two-time Cy Young Award winner who had pitched not one but two no-hitters in the same season. That incredible feat took place in 2010, and Halladay was the first pitcher to manage it since Nolan Ryan back in 1973, according to Newsweek. The second game, against the Marlins, was a perfect game, only the 20th in the history of Major League Baseball.
On November 7, 2017, Halladay was flying a small, single-engine aircraft over the Gulf of Mexico. The plane went down off the coast of Florida around noon, and Halladay tragically did not survive. Autopsy results revealed a number of substances in Halladay’s system including morphine and prescription drugs. To honor Halladay’s memory, the Phillies suspended his number for the 2018 season, while the Blue Jays retired it completely.
Jake LaMotta rages no more
One of the most famous boxers in the history of the sport, Jake LaMotta became a household name after the 1980 film Raging Bull starring Robert DeNiro. Though he was skilled enough in the ring, it was that dramatic portrayal of his tumultuous life that turned him into a public figure. This was the film that won DeNiro an Academy Award and followed the tale LaMotta set out in his own no-holds-barred biography of stunning highs and cringe-worthy lows.
LaMotta’s career began back in 1941 and spanned 13 years. His record stands at 83-19-4, including 30 knockouts. He was a middleweight champ and was a pioneer of a brutal fighting style that saw him taking hits as hard as he was giving them. He’s been characterized as a bully and a brawler in the ring, but was also the first boxer to hand a loss to the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson.
The movie based on his life depicted LaMotta as a man who was as abusive outside the ring as he was inside. In 1970, LaMotta also admitted to intentionally throwing a fight so he could get a title shot. As he once stated in an interview, “I’m no angel.” LaMotta passed away on September 19, 2017, at the age of 95.
George 'The Animal' Steele bit his last turnbuckle
If you were a wrestling fan in the 1980s, you probably remember George “The Animal” Steele pretty fondly. His character was so bizarre and over-the-top it was hard not to smile while watching him. Bald on top yet inexplicably hairy down his back and massive arms, Steele would come to the ring with his tongue painted green and literally chew the padding off the turnbuckles. His nickname was “The Animal,” and he lived up to it every night he performed.
Steele, whose real name was William James Myers, spent more than 20 years in the ring. As the WWE rose to fame, his Animal character barely spoke at all, opting to mostly grunt. This was in stark contrast to the real-life Myers, a devout Christian with a master’s degree who was once a teacher, according to USA Today. He even appeared in a small but memorable role in the Tim Burton film Ed Wood.
Myers retired from wrestling in 1988 after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Though he later was able to live symptom-free, other health problems followed, and after a long battle with kidney failure, he died on February 16, 2017.
Have a drink for Arnold Palmer
To get an idea of just how big Arnold Palmer was, one need only consider the fact that there is a well-known drink named after him. It’s basically lemonade iced teac, and it’s existed since the 1960s. How many other people can you think of who have drinks named after them? It’s a pretty short list, and it speaks to the influence of one of the greatest golfers in the history of the game.
Palmer won seven major championships and 62 PGA Tour titles during his career. He is credited as being the most important figure in the history of golf by PGA.com. Before Arnold Palmer, golf was often dismissed by average people as a game only for the elite and the upper crust. While that reputation has persisted somewhat, the acceptance and popularity of the game exploded since Palmer became a star in the 1950s. And it’s because of Palmer’s charm and likeability that golf grew to be the phenomenon it is today. There would be no Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson without Palmer.
Just after his 87th birthday, on September 25, 2016, Arnold Palmer passed away from complications while awaiting heart surgery.
Gordie Howe has left the ice
There was a reason they called Gordie Howe “Mr. Hockey.” Few other professional athletes ever put as much into the game as Howe did. His career crossed five decades decades, from 1946 to 1980. That kind of longevity is unheard of. He played 1,767 games, all but 80 of them for the Red Wings. He still holds the record for most games played and most games played with one team, according to NHL.com.
Among Howe’s many accolades was the infamous “Gordie Howe Hat Trick,” which a player can earn by pulling off a goal, an assist, and a fight all in one game. Howe himself only did it twice, but he had a reputation as one of the toughest guys on the ice. In 11 of his 26 seasons in the NHL he racked up more minutes in the penalty box than he did goals.
Sports Illustrated recalls how Howe was quick to throw down on the ice but just as quick to apologize to anyone he injured as well. His son Mark was quoted as saying Gordie was the nastiest person he ever saw on skates, but totally different when he was off the ice.
Gordie Howe died on June 10, 2016, at the home of his son Murray. He was 88 and had been battling dementia for several years, as well as other health issues. Though gone now, there’s no denying Howe’s impact on the world of hockey and on the generations of players he inspired.
Kimbo Slice fought his hardest
Kimbo Slice, born Kevin Ferguson, exploded onto the fight scene in the early 2000s in the most unusual way imaginable. Slice was the star of numerous viral videos that depicted him in unsanctioned backyard fights where his power and ferocity made him a star. This was a man who looked like he could take anyone apart with his bare hands.
Critics would often come down hard on Slice, slamming his lack of skill and his reputation as just a brawler. UFC champ Frank Mir once said that every time Slice fought, it set the entire sport back. Despite that perspective, fans absolutely loved Slice. His appearance at Bellator 149 pulled in 2.5 million viewers, breaking the previous record of 2.4 million. UFC ran a fight on the same night that averaged under 1 million viewers, proving that Kimbo Slice was a valuable asset on a fight card.
Slice was scheduled to meet James Thompson at Bellator 158 on July 16, 2016. This would be a rematch of a fight in which Slice achieved a controversial win back in 2008. It was not meant to be, however, as Slice passed away on June 6, 2016 at the age of 42. He had been diagnosed with heart failure and doctors said he would need a transplant. While he may not have been the most technical fighter in MMA history, he was undoubtedly one of the most popular.
The king of the X-Games Dave Mirra
There are few stories in sports as tragic as Dave Mirra’s. Mirra helped legitimize the X-Games in the 1990s and was one of its early star athletes. He has the second-most medals in X-Games history, including 14 golds. After he retired from BMX in 2011, he moved onto Rallycross and finished fourth in the Global Rallycross Championship in 2013. Mirra was so popular he had his own PlayStation title: Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX.
On February 4, 2016, Dave Mirra’s body was found inside his Ford F-150 in Greenville, North Carolina. He had committed suicide at the age of 41, leaving behind a wife and two children. An autopsy revealed that Mirra suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. That’s the same condition most often associated with football players who have endured numerous concussions. Like them, Mirra had suffered severe head trauma on many occasions as part of his sport.
Mirra’s wife Lauren told ESPN that she had noticed personality changes in him during the final year of his life. After his death, Mirra was inducted into the National BMX Hall of Fame and the X-Games introduced a new event, the Dave Mirra BMX Park Best Trick competition.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).