2021 was an incredible year in sports. However, it was also sad for many fans, families, and former teammates. Many icons, legends, and stars passed away and left behind grieving mourners. But this is a great time to reflect on their achievements to ensure we remember them.
Revered legends like Hank Aaron and John Madden unfortunately left us after winning the hearts of their many fans of years of accomplishments. Unfortunately, some athletes died young and never reached their full potential. Let’s pay each of these sporting icons respect by looking back at their careers via USA Today below.
25. Bobby Bowden
One of the greatest coaches in college football history, Bowden passed away in 2021 at the age of 91. He had a tremendous winning record with FSU and won two national titles. Bowden also enjoyed a ludicrous 40 winning seasons throughout his career. His longevity and sustained consistency are remarkable because football is a cutthroat business.
Bowden was a remarkable man and was extremely charitable. He also maintained a strong connection with Marshall University after the plane crash that killed their team. Doctors diagnosed him with cancer in July 2021 and he died of the disease after a short fight. However, he lived an incredible life and achieved more than most people could dream (via NPR).
Hagler passed away at the age of 66 as one of the greatest middleweight boxers ever. He had the nickname ‘Marvelous’ for a good reason. His career-defining performance came against Thomas Hearns in ‘The Fight.’ This fearsome and grueling battle that a piece out of both men. ‘Marvelous’ also had an iconic clash with Sugar Ray Leonard.
After he retired from boxing, the former champion entered the world of movies. Hagler suffered a single knockdown during his career and was one of the most durable fighters ever. Furthermore, he was responsible for one of the most famous lines in boxing: “It’s difficult to get up to do roadwork at five in the morning when you’re sleeping in silk pajamas” (via New York Times).
Clark’s death was one of the most shocking in 2021. This young man had the world at his feet but sadly never received the opportunity to reach his full potential. The freshman was an effective guard for the Kentucky Wildcats. He had genuine ambitions of making it into the NBA but Clark made a fatal decision. He ran a red light at a high speed in Los Angeles without a seatbelt.
In the end, he sadly crashed into a wall and died of his injuries. The NBA made him an honorary selection in the 2021 draft after his tragic passing. Kentucky Coach John Calipari said that the incident left him sickened. He told ESPN: “A young person who we all love has just lost his life too soon, one with all of his dreams and hopes ahead of him.”
Hayes was an NHL journeyman but a model professional. He spent seasons with the Bruins along with several other franchises. However, he passed away in 2021 when he was just 31. A postmortem revealed an overdose from fentanyl and cocaine in his system. This shocked the NHL because he had such a clean-cut image.
Hayes’ wife Kristen revealed her shock at the toxicology report to the Boston Globe: “I really thought it was a heart attack or anything that wasn’t that. It didn’t make any sense, so it was hard. I was hoping to get a different phone call when they called. I was hoping to get some clarity and I was shocked to hear that it was that. He never showed any signs of a struggle at home.”
Lugo spent 12 seasons in MLB where he bounced around multiple franchises. His longest tenures came with the likes of the Rays, Astros, and Red Sox. The shortstop was a reliable roster member and a respected professional. One blemish came when the Astros released him after he allegedly battered his wife. However, a court acquitted him of this incident.
Former Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks revealed his sorrow. He said: “Back in 2008 I was in extended spring training getting ready for my first season with the Lowell Spinners. He spent some time with us young kids in Ft. Myers during a rehab assignment. He taught us a lot about infield routines and how to be a professional” (via Daily Mail).
Esposito is a Chicago Blackhawks icon as well as an NHL legend. He was one of the greatest goaltenders ever and even changed the sport. The Ontario native popularized the butterfly style of dropping to the knees. Meanwhile, he became a distinctive figure on the ice with his unique protective mask. Esposito was a colorful character but also a brilliant player.
He won the Vezina Trophy on three occasions and also set the NHL record for most shutouts. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said: “From his arrival in the Windy City in the late 1960s through an illustrious playing career and decades as a franchise icon, Tony left an indelible mark — both on the ice and in the community — over the next 52 years” (via CNN).
Clark was a special kind of tough. He once famously played through a game with a punctured lung. That came against the Minnesota Vikings in 1999 when the tight end suffered the injury. He didn’t have a long career as he only played for five seasons with the Niners. But he was effective throughout that period after he arrived from Stanford (via NBC Sports).
The former tight end passed away at the age of 49. Furthermore, he displayed CTE-like symptoms before his early death. However, he was a devoted father to his three boys. After his passing, the family released a statement. They hoped for more research into the disease. It said: “It is our hope that through further research we can gain more knowledge surrounding CTE.”
Kivlenieks isn’t the most famous athlete on this list but he was one of the bravest. The Latvian goaltender played for the Columbus Blue Jackets in the NHL. He featured for the team throughout the 2019/20 season and was a popular member of the roster. He had high hopes of breaking through as a full-time starter but sadly they never came to fruition.
That’s because he passed away too soon at the age of 24 (via Sportscasting). However, he made a noble sacrifice as he protected his teammate Elvis Merzlikins and the latter’s pregnant wife. They attended a holiday party when an errant firework struck him in the chest. Allegedly, Kivlenieks deliberately dove in front of the projectile to protect those around him. It was the biggest save of his career and amazingly brave.
Gomez was one of the most popular baseball reporters in the United States. The Cuban-American passed away at 58 after a heart attack. He worked for ESPN for almost 20 years after joining in 2003. He became a familiar face during Barry Bonds’ home run marathon. Gomez adored baseball and devoted his entire life to covering the sport.
His former colleague Bob Ley tweeted about the tragedy. Ley wrote: “More than an elite journalist, Pedro Gomez was a good and decent man, so proud of his family, and his heritage. His loss is a hammer blow to all who knew this life force” (via The Independent). Several other ESPN writers made it clear that his death devastated them because he was such a good man.
A two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Eaton spent his entire career with the Utah Jazz. He had a phenomenal shot-blocking ability with an overall average of 3.51 blocks a game (via The Guardian). That remains an NBA record which shows how impressive he was. But it’s even more remarkable because he came late to the sport. Eaton worked as a mechanic before a college spotted him playing and convinced him to go to school.
It’s the kind of story that movies are made of. Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely that it would happen in modern sport because of the intense scouting in all age groups. Tragically, the 64-year-old died in a bicycle accident in Park City, Utah. The veteran NBA star enjoyed cycling and regularly took his bike out.
Schnellenberger is one of the greatest college football coaches ever. He had a very short spell in charge of the Baltimore Colts before turning his back on the pro game. Instead, he focused on developing some future greats including Joe Namath. Some of his best work came with Miami when he won a national title in 1983 after transforming their program.
Meanwhile, he brought Louisville’s program back to life and posted a winning record. After winning the Fiesta Bowl, he moved to Florida State and ignited their fortunes (via CBS Sports). Schnellenberger was the perfect example of a college coach who knew his place. His talents and approach were perfectly suited to the NCAA level. Finally, in 2021, he passed away at the age of 87.
Richard was a tremendous pitcher for the Houston Astros. Ultimately, his career came to an unfortunate end after he suffered a stroke in 1980. But he was a brilliant player and had a terrific record against the L.A. Dodgers. He featured in 10 regular seasons and maintained a 3.15 ERA. Furthermore, he had 1493 strikeouts in 1606 innings (via SBNation).
Former teammate Ed Wade told Our Esquina that Richard had Hall of Fame potential. “There’s no doubt that he would have been remembered as one of the game’s all-time greats,” Wade said. “I can remember Larry Bowa, the Phillies’ great shortstop, telling me that players used to try to beg out of games against the Astros, claiming to have “Ryanitis” and “the J.R. flu.”
It’s safe to say Elder changed the face of golf. In 1978, he made history when he became the first African-American ever to play at the Masters. This was an emotional moment for the mostly black staff at Augusta National. This came after his first Major win at the Monsanto Open. Elder endured a lot of racism throughout his career but rose above it.
He even toured the American South with his caddy. According to the Irish Times, the pair challenged many rich men to spontaneous high-stakes rounds of golf. Elder regularly pretended to be the caddy and shocked his opponents when he won. Golf is a sport that is very slow to change but Elder paved the way. He passed away in 2021 at the age of 87.
Greaves was a World Cup winner with England’s legendary 1966 team. He was a renowned sharpshooter despite his lack of pace. The Spurs legend was phenomenal at finding the perfect position and was lethal. Greaves holds the record for most goals in Spurs history. Nobody in the English top-flight has scored more goals than ‘Greavsie’ (via Daily Mail).
However, Greaves suffered a sad end to his life. In 2020, he endured a stroke that reduce his overall quality of life. His wife revealed that he even requested euthanasia because of his deterioration. She told the Daily Mail: “He was so charismatic, so funny. Now he’s a shell of the man he was. After his last stroke, I didn’t think he’d make it. And in a way, I think it would have been better if he’d gone.”
It’s difficult to overstate Chaney’s influence on Temple basketball. The school respected their former coach so much that they hosted his memorial service in 2021. This came after he passed away at the ripe old age of 86. He achieved an incredible amount in the college game. Chaney had an unexceptional career as a player as he trudged through the minor leagues.
Then, he turned his hands to coaching. After a spell in high school, he spent 10 years with Cheyney State. Then, he moved to Temple and became a national icon. He coached the team for over 1000 games across 24 years. Chaney entered the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2001 over 10 years before he retired. Ultimately Chaney passed away quietly with his family by his side (via Yahoo Sports).
It isn’t easy for defensive players to stand out in the NFL. Almost every year, quarterbacks and wideouts receive the plaudits. However, Huff changed the narrative. That’s because he was one of the most feared linebackers ever (via Washington Post). Huff spent most of his career with the New York Giants before a short stint with the Redskins. He was a bastion of destruction.
The Hall of Famer became an NFL champion in 1956. This was also an incredible game of football and he played a crucial role. Huff was a five-time Pro Bowler before he retired in 1969. He passed away at the age of 87 after a lengthy battle with dementia. Huff came from a family of miners and believed that football was safer than risking his life underground.
Unser was a legendary NASCAR driver with a career that spanned almost 30 years. He won the Indy 500 an incredible four times and was only the second man to achieve this feat. Meanwhile, he came from an elite dynasty of NASCAR royalty. His brother Bobby also won the Indy 500 as did his son, Al Jr. This is a remarkable achievement for one family.
However, Big Al suffered from liver cancer for 17 years. He died at home at the age of 82 after his long illness. It was sad that this cruel illness took its toll on a man who was once so full of life. But he achieved a lot in his chosen sport (via Autosport). Furthermore, he watched his son follow in his footsteps. This must have been a beautiful moment for the NASCAR legend.
Jackson tragically passed away in February after his former team won the Super Bowl. He enjoyed a successful playing career with the Chargers before a move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The three-time Pro Bowler was an excellent wide receiver. Finally, in 2018, Jackson retired after his numbers fell into decline. However, he was careful with his money and prepared for life after football.
Unfortunately, he didn’t enjoy the quality of life he desired. Jackson suffered from CTE. This horrible disease affected his memory and his mood. In the end, he succumbed to it. A brain scan confirmed the truth of the situation. Jackson’s widow Lindsey told the New York Times: “His whole plan in the N.F.L. was to set himself up to not have these struggles. It’s not the ending he wanted.”
Spinks was responsible for one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. He shocked the world when he won a split decision over Muhammad Ali in 1978. It was a dramatic moment but his boxing career immediately went downhill. Spinks lost the rematch and every title fight he competed in. But he was a great boxer and a familiar face with his memorable smile.
Sadly, Spinks passed away in 2021 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He received a lot of brain trauma throughout his boxing career and slurred his words. But prostrate cancer proved fatal after doctors diagnosed him in 2019. It was a terrible way for a once-great man to lose his life. Spinks was only 67 when left this world but he made a massive impact (via BBC).
Few people on this list showed as much loyalty to a franchise as Lasorda. He spent seven decades with the Dodgers as a player and also as a coach. The fact that they were in Brooklyn when he joined them says a lot. Then, he won a couple of World Series titles in Los Angeles as their head coach. It was a remarkable achievement because of his unwavering commitment.
Lasorda also helped his team to four National League pennants. He lived a wholesome life outside of baseball. He died at the age of 93 and left behind his wife of 70 years (via CNN). The Dodgers star passed away from natural causes. He had the respect of the baseball world and nobody had a bad thing to say about him. In the end, nobody can ask for more than that.
Brennan helped transform the fortunes of the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. He was the definition of a college football star. even if Brennan failed to light up the NFL. Brennan set multiple NCAA records and the Redskins selected him in 2008. He spent three seasons with Washington before moving to the Oakland Raiders. But he never played a regular-season game for either franchise.
Then he bounced around Canada without making much of an impact. Unfortunately, the former college star’s life deteriorated. Hawaiian police arrested him on DUI charges multiple times. Finally, in May 2021, Brennan passed away at the age of just 37. An autopsy revealed fentanyl in Brennan’s system. Tragically, a hospital rejected him because they didn’t have any beds (via Fox News).
This was one of the most tragic deaths in 2021. Thomas was an excellent wide receiver for the Broncos and won a Super Bowl. The four-time Pro Bowler also played for the Texans and the Patriots. He suffered a seizure in December and sadly passed away. Thomas was only 33 years old and retired six months earlier. The seizure occurred after a car crash in 2019.
Former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels revealed his agony when he heard the news. He spoke to ESPN and revealed that the loss affected him a lot. “He was the best person I have ever coached,” McDaniels said. “What an incredible human being. I’m so sad for his family and all who knew him. Loved DT.” There’s no doubt that Thomas left this world too early.
Baylor started his career in Minneapolis before the Lakers moved to Los Angeles. He was one of their greatest ever players and set an incredible number of records. Although he never won a championship ring, he was still a superstar. According to The Guardian, his shooting average was the third-highest in NBA history. Only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain had greater records than his 27.4 points per game.
The Lakers legend made the Hall of Fame in 1977. After this, fans and the NBA regularly recognized him as one of the greatest living players. Baylor’s family was by his side when he passed away at the age of 86. While his death was sad, he also lived a great life. Baylor departed to the adulation of fans who respected his incredible achievements.
Aaron was another massive loss in 2021. The MLB icon passed away at the age of 86 from natural causes. He lived an incredible life as an athlete and as a civil rights leader. First, Aaron was a brilliant baseball player. He held the home runs record for 33 years with a total of 755. Barry Bonds broke it in 2007 but that comes with an asterisk (via Herald & Review).
Many people regard the 25-time All-Star as one of the greatest ever. He won a World Series with the Braves in 1957. Meanwhile, Aaron was a crucial figure in American society. This was because of his standing as a black man in a white-dominated sport. Aaron received many death threats throughout his life but he never gave in. He lived a great life and departed with the love of most baseball fans.
Madden is an NFL icon for many reasons. After his playing career with the Eagles was cut short, he moved into coaching. After he cut his teeth in the college game, he joined the Raiders as a linebacker coach. In 1969, he eventually became their head coach and brought them glory. The franchise legend won Super Bowl XI in 1977 as he turned them into a powerhouse (via People).
He walked away because of illness and burnout after 10 winning seasons. Next, Madden moved into the world of broadcasting where he became an adored figure. The multi-Emmy Award winner became the face of the EA Madden NFL video game series. It’s safe to say that more children know his name because of a video game than his achievements as a coach. Madden passed away on December 28 at the age of 85 and left a lasting legacy as one of the true legends of pro football.