Sports Stars Who Died Right At The Peak Of Their Fame

It’s a thrill to watch sports stars competing. But even in the tightly controlled world of
professional athletics, accidents do happen, both on and off the field.These sports stars
died right when they were hitting the top of their game. It may not have been too surprising initially
when Davey Allison died in a crash. He was a NASCAR driver and the son of the
great Bobby Allison, who retired in 1988 after a near-fatal car crash, and brother of Clifford
Allison, who died in a crash in a 1992 practice race. The type of crash that killed Davey, though,
probably wasn’t the one people were worried about. During Allison’s 1992 season, he stacked up
win after win after win. As 1993 rolled on, he was in great position
for the Winston Cup crown and on his way to becoming a NASCAR legend. On July 12, 1993, though, he was piloting
a helicopter into the Talladega Superspeedway when something went wrong and the craft crashed
on its left side. Alison was only 32 years old. After his death, thousands came out to line
the route of his funeral, including hundreds of cars stretching for miles and miles. Roberto Clemente is probably the best Puerto
Rican baseball player of all time. A Pittsburgh Pirate for his whole career,
he smashed down barriers for Latino baseball players with almost as much force as he smashed
balls into the stratosphere. Clemente won 12 Golden Gloves and four National
League batting titles, all while posting a career batting average of .317. Yet, for all his sporting prowess, he was
equally famous off the field for his charity work. He spent his down time coaching underprivileged
youth in Puerto Rico and heading up charity relief efforts in Latin America. But in one of those twists of fate that make
you question the meaning of existence, it was this charity which led to his death. Just before Christmas 1972, Nicaragua was
hit by a catastrophic earthquake. Despite being at the height of his career,
Clemente headed up relief efforts, including personally flying out on a cargo plane. On New Year’s Eve, that plane went into the
sea. Clemente’s body was never found. You are a great tribute to society to America
to Pittsburgh, and obviously to Puerto Rico. And I wish you good health and good luck and
thanks for all the great memories.” In 1975, Don Wilson was famous as a pitcher
for the Houston Astros. He had a reputation of inconsistency, but
he was capable of kicking insane amounts of backside. Soon, however, he would be famous for a far
less happy reason. Wilson could’ve been up there with the greats. All the way back in 1965, when he was only
19, observers were remarking on his mysterious ability to make the ball do whatever he wanted. By the time he hit the big leagues, he was
throwing pitches that defied the laws of physics, weaving and curving like something out a game
of Quidditch. He was also famous for, along with one of
his white teammates, becoming the first pair of integrated roommates in the majors. On the afternoon of January 5, 1975, police
responded to Wilson’s garage to find him slumped inside his car, dead from carbon monoxide
poisoning, his bloodstream full of alcohol. His son was also dead – as carbon monoxide
leaked into an upstairs bedroom above the garage, while his wife and daughter were critically
ill and his wife had an injured jaw she couldn’t explain. Officially, Wilson’s death was ruled an accident,
but rumors persist that he killed himself or that this was a domestic dispute turned
deadly. If you’re a Yankees fan, just reading the
name Thurman Munson can send a shiver down your spine. One of the greatest catcher of the 1970s,
he racked up accolades like most people rack up wrinkles and receding hairlines. He was a seven-time All-Star, three-time Golden
Glove winner, and two-time World Series champion, while also nabbing the 1976 AL MVP Award. On August 2, 1979, Munson was perhaps the
most popular Yankee on the team. On that hot, sultry day, he took off in his
plane to show off his piloting skills for two friends. At that point, he’d been flying for a year
and a half and was on his fourth plane. Unfortunately, while practicing touch-and-go
landings, Munson unintentionally stalled the plane and crashed into some trees. Although he survived the crash, he didn’t
survive the subsequent fire. Shattered, burned, and broken, he died of
smoke inhalation before help could arrive, though his two friends managed to survive. His death was so shocking that the Yankees
left his locker untouched until their stadium was demolished in 2010. A founding member of Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling,
Plum Mariko was once one of the biggest sports stars on the Asian scene. Although she played second fiddle to bigger
names, she was still a big enough draw to headline shows. After a period away from the ring in the ’90s
due to injury, she returned looking like her star could finally go supernova, if only she
could get over some gaps in her memory and strange headaches she kept having. Although she wasn’t aware of it, Plum was
suffering from the effects of brain damage, the result of a lifetime of being smashed
head-first into a mat. Supposedly, she didn’t tell Japan Women’s
Pro Wrestling about her problems, fearing they’d retire her. On August 15, 1997, Plum was hit by a finishing
move known as “the Ligerbomb,” which is basically the wrestling equivalent of having a 10-ton
truck go to town on your body. No one is quite sure if the move went wrong
or if it just triggered something that was going to happen regardless, but Plum hit the
mat and didn’t get up. She was just 29 years old. Baseball legend Lou Gehrig was so famous that
the disease that killed him, ALS, is still popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” When he passed in 1941, his place in the public
consciousness transcended the sports world, but remarkably, he achieved that level of
fame after he’d passed his physical peak. When Gehrig succumbed to ALS, people saw him
go in just two years from a great baseball player to a man incapable of even tying his
own shoelaces. The change was so shocking, and so sudden,
that everyone with even a vague interest in sports took notice. When Gehrig was forced into early retirement
by his illness in 1939, people were so moved that they came in droves to watch him give
a famous farewell speech that was unforgettably touching. When he died two years later, his number was
the first to be retired in baseball history. “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man
on the face of the Earth.” There’s a minor twist to this story. In 2010, Wired reported on research suggesting
Gehrig may not have actually had ALS. So that’s how famous Gehrig was: Even a disease
he may not have had wound up named after him. A sprinter from Somalia, Samia Omar was one
of only two athletes the war-ravaged nation sent to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Desperately underequipped, she nonetheless
qualified for the 200-meter dash at the age of 17. She stood on the starting block in her loose
T-shirt, donated sneakers, and black leggings, and watched as her competitors proceeded to
disappear in a cloud of dust. Omar placed last, by several seconds. But the crowd didn’t care. Seeing how hard she was trying, they gave
her the biggest cheer of the entire night. However, Omar was embarrassed by the applause. It made her realize how poor training was
back in Somalia, and she returned determined to improve things for the 2012 London Olympics. Sadly, her future would turn out to be far
less uplifting than the reception she received. Although she was famous back home, Omar found
herself by 2010 living in a displaced persons camp after militant group al-Shabaab overran
the capital of Mogadishu. She decided to make a break for Europe, hoping
to get the training she craved. She spent a year being smuggled from Somalia
to Libya, finally boarding a boat bound for Italy in spring 2012. But she never made it – after the boat ran
out of gas, a rescue boat threw some ropes to get people to safety, and in the chaos,
Omar was accidentally knocked into the water and she tragically drowned. There’s a good argument to be made that Tom
Simpson was Britain’s greatest cyclist ever. But hanging over his legacy is the manner
of his death, and it’s possible connection to performance enhancing drugs. But it wasn’t until his untimely death at
the age of 29 that it was discovered he was regularly using amphetamines. The year was 1967, and Simpson was riding
the 13th stage of the Tour de France. Just five years before, he’d become the first
Brit to ever wear the fabled yellow jersey. In the meantime, he’d also become the first
British road race world champion, BBC sports personality of the year, and the winner of
a galaxy of smaller races, titles, and trophies. He’d also turned his bloodstream into a steady
flow of alcohol and speed. Simpson was nearing the summit of a mountain
when he appeared to have suffered a massive heart attack and fell from his bike after
veering across the road. So determined was he to win that he begged
to be put back on his bike. After a short distance more, his bike began
to wobble. He was held up by spectators, who discovered
that he was unconscious, with his hands locked onto his handlebars. They escorted him to the side of the road
and laid him down. This time, he didn’t get up. Officially, Lloyd Seay competed in only a
handful of races in his lifetime. Unofficially, his life was one long race,
gunning it away from the long arm of the law. Before he became a professional racer, he
was a professional bootlegger in Georgia, and his life sounds like something out of
a Dukes of Hazzard prequel. Sheriffs told stories about how Seay sometimes
paid his speeding fines upfront to save time when he was gunning back from a moonshine
sale. Seay has been called NASCAR’s “greatest driver
who wasn’t,” as he died six years before NASCAR existed. Even in 1941, the year that he passed away,
people knew that he was destined for a memorable legacy. In his first big season, he won the Daytona
Beach Road Course, the High Point Speedway, and the Lakewood Labor Day event within 15
days of each other. He was just starting to get noticed on the
national stage when he got in an argument with a cousin over money and was shot dead
at the age of 21. In 2006, the London Telegraph described British
runner Lillian Board as a “golden girl not so much touched by stardust as smothered in
the stuff.” It’s a description that shows how potent her
memory still is decades after her death. She exploded onto the athletics scene at the
1968 Mexico City Olympics, winning a silver medal in the 400 meters at the age of 19. The next year, she nabbed a gold in the 800
meters at the European Championships and was a part of the winning U.K. team in the 400-meter
relay. Everyone was certain that she’d get the gold
at the 1972 Olympics. But just as Board was becoming Britain’s top
female sports star, she started developing weird back pains. It turned out that she had developed bowel
cancer, which was diagnosed in 1970. She passed away on the day after Christmas
that year. She was only 22. Board’s legacy lives on through the Lillian
Board Trophy, which is awarded annually for outstanding cancer fundraising.

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