Sports Icons and Stars Who Died in 2020

by Jennifer Shea
sports-icons-stars-who-died-in-2020

This year has been full of grief for many families, and professional sports saw its share of loss, too. Some sports stars passed away at a ripe old age, while others had their lives cut tragically short by accidents or illness.

In no particular order, here are some of the sports figures who passed away in 2020.

Diego Maradona, Soccer

The legendary Argentinian soccer player Diego Maradona died of heart failure at age 60 last month. Two weeks earlier, he had undergone surgery for a subdural hematoma, or a brain blood clot.

Prosecutors are still investigating the circumstances of his death amid concerns about medical negligence. But as the Associated Press reported, Maradona had wrestled with cocaine addiction and obesity that strained his heart.

Before his doping scandals set in, however, Maradona was a fast, creative and unpredictable scorer, making him an unbeatable offensive player. For a time he was considered possibly the best soccer player in the history of the game.

Kobe Bryant, Basketball

Retired Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant died after his helicopter crashed on a hillside in Calabasas, California this past January.

The helicopter was flying through thick fog at the time. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter and seven other people also perished in the crash.

When Bryant retired in 2016, he was the third-leading scorer in NBA history, according to the Associated Press. In his retirement, Bryant launched a production company and joined the entertainment industry, making his loss a particularly painful one for the city of Los Angeles.

David Stern, Basketball

David Stern was a passionate basketball fan and a shrewd lawyer who served as NBA commissioner from 1984 to 2014. During his tenure, he transformed the NBA from a national league with a bad reputation to a global phenomenon with TV deals, corporate sponsorships and superstars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

“David Stern is the No. 1 force, the No. 1 reason why this league is where it is today,” Miami Heat president Pat Riley told USA Today in 2014. Stern also helped launch the WNBA in 1997.

He died this past January at age 77 shortly after experiencing a brain hemorrhage and emergency brain surgery.

Gale Sayers, Football

Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers died this September at age 77. In 1977, he became the youngest player ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 34.

Nicknamed the “Kansas Comet,” Sayers averaged 5 yards per carry over the course of his career and led the league in rushing twice, according to ESPN. Beyond the field, Sayers’ friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo inspired the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song.”

Sayers retired in 1971 after suffering a serious knee injury. He died at his home amid a battle with dementia.

Nancy Darsch, Basketball

Nancy Darsch was a veteran of Division 1 basketball, the Olympics and the WNBA. She worked as an assistant for two U.S. women’s teams that won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1996. And she reportedly always had a smile on her face when she showed up to work.

“The players really enjoyed her,” WNBA coach Brian Agler, who coached the Seattle Storm with Darsch as his assistant when they won the 2010 WNBA title, told ESPN. “Great basketball mind with a tremendous work ethic. She took great pride in helping grow the game at the professional level.”

Darsch passed away this November at age 68. She died of Parkinson’s Disease.

Sid Hartman, Sportswriter

Twin Cities sportswriter Sid Hartman passed away this October at the age of 100. His final column ran on the day that he died.

He had written about Minnesota sports for 74 years. And he had a special talent for getting to know the people he was writing about, according to Sports Illustrated.

But Hartman’s skills extended beyond the printed page. When he was only 27, he became acting general manager of the Minneapolis Lakers – now the Los Angeles Lakers – and helped turn the team into the NBA’s first dynasty. The Vikings also named the media entrance to U.S. Bank Stadium after him.

Hartman died peacefully in the presence of his family.

Don Larsen, Baseball

Don Larsen became the only major league baseball player in history to pitch a perfect game in the 5th game of the 1956 World Series.

The New York Yankees right-hander helped the Yankees win the World Series and got about $35,000 in endorsements and TV appearances as a result, ESPN reported. He retired all 27 Brooklyn Dodgers players who came up against him.

But Larsen was otherwise an average player, and he was known for his partying off the field. He divorced his first wife Vivian after she gave birth to their child and settled down with Corrine Bruess, who tamed his wild personal life. After his stint with the Yankees, Larsen played for Kansas City, Chicago (White Sox), San Francisco, Houston, Baltimore and Chicago (Cubs). He worked for a San Jose paper company after his baseball career ended. Larsen died of cancer at age 90. 

Anthony Stewart, Basketball

College basketball coach Anthony Stewart died at 50, right after his son transferred schools to play for Stewart’s team. The University of Tennessee at Martin coach was found dead this November. His cause of death was unknown.

Stewart had coached at UT Martin since 2014. During his tenure there, the Skyhawks won 94 games, including three straight 20-win seasons, per The Southern.

“He always stressed the development of the entire person, well beyond athletics,” UT Martin Chancellor Dr. Keith Carver said. Before UT Martin, Stewart coached at Long Beach State, Wyoming, Southern Illinois and Ohio University.

Jamie Samuelsen, Sports Radio

Jamie Samuelsen was the co-host of the “Jamie and Stoney” morning show on Detroit’s WXYT. He had also appeared on WDFN, WRIF, WCSX, the Fox 2 TV station and as a regular contributor to a Freep.com blog, the Detroit Free Press reported.

Samuelsen had worked in sports radio in the Detroit area for over 25 years. He died at age 48 after battling colon cancer for about 19 months.

He had kept news of his cancer under wraps to protect his children, Caroline, 16, Josh, 14, and Catherine, 11. Samuelsen reportedly died peacefully surrounded by his family.

Bob Nevin, Hockey

Bob Nevin played 18 seasons in the NHL and enjoyed a 19-year hockey career. He led the Toronto Maple Leafs to two Stanley Cup championships.

“He was very creative as a winger who made great plays… and he was very responsible in his own end,” former Maple Leafs forward Dave Keon told NHL.com.

Nevin went on to serve as captain of the New York Rangers before he got traded to the Minnesota North Stars in 1971 and then the Los Angeles Kings in 1973. With the Kings, he reached his NHL career-high of 31 goals and 41 assists in the 1974-75 season.

He was also one of the first NHL players to try out contact lenses. According to the Associated Press, in one 1962 game against Chicago, he lost a lens, and the game stopped as everyone fell to their knees and searched the ice for it. They never did find it. Nevin died in September at age 82.

Mario Henderson, Football

Mario Henderson was an offensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders from 2007 to 2010. More recently, he had been working with special needs students at a Florida high school and as an assistant for the football team, per Bleacher Report. He died at age 35 of unknown causes.

“The Raiders Family is heavy-hearted following the passing of Mario Henderson, who was a third-round draft pick and played four seasons with the Silver and Black,” the team, which has since moved to Las Vegas, said in a statement. “Everyone will miss Mario’s sense of humor and passion for football and life.”

New York Giants kicker Graham Gano tweeted that Henderson “was a joy to talk to and always brought laughter wherever he went.” Henderson started in 28 of his 44 games with the Raiders.

Alex Pullin, Snowboarding

Alex Pullin was a two-time world championship snowboarder who represented Australia in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The 32-year-old drowned while spearfishing on Australia’s Gold Coast this July. He was free diving without oxygen, and rescuers found him wearing a weight belt, News.com.au reported. Authorities believe he experienced a shallow water blackout around 10:30 in the morning.

Pullin was reportedly a frequent visitor to that particular beach. A snorkeler discovered him on the ocean floor and helped pull him from the waters, whereupon paramedics performed CPR for 45 minutes. Unfortunately, they could not revive the snowboarder. 

Luce Douady, Climbing

Luce Douady died after falling during a climbing expedition this June. The 16-year-old French climber had great potential and had already won the youth world championship in bouldering last year.

She was with friends in southeastern France, in the French Alps, when she tumbled off a cliff, according to USA Today. When she fell, she was walking along a trail between two climbing areas; the trail had a handrail, but it wasn’t enough to stop her fall.

Douady had also made her debut in the senior World Cup in 2019, per NBC Sports, and came in 5th place in her event. 

Ashley Cooper, Tennis

Ashley Cooper was an Australian tennis great who won four Grand Slam singles titles over the course of his career. He died at age 83 after a long illness.

Cooper led Australia’s Davis Cup team to a win over the U.S. in 1957. And he won the Australian, Wimbledon and U.S. championships in 1958, the Associated Press reported. In 1959, he suffered a back injury that forced him to give up tennis. But he stayed involved in the sport by working as an administrator.

“Ashley was a giant of the game both as a brilliant player and an astute administrator, and he will be greatly missed,” Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said after his passing this May.

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