Violent deaths bookend year in sports
Vail, CO Colorado
The calendar had barely turned to 2007 when a spray of bullets hit the stretch limousine carrying Darrent Williams. The Denver Broncos cornerback was leaving a New Year’s Eve party at a nightclub. He was hit in the neck and dead at 24.
Fast forward to the year’s closing weeks and the same grim scene played again, the NFL and its extended family left to sort out grief and anger, mourners filing into a church one more time and trying to make sense of it all.
Sean Taylor, a Washington Redskins safety, was shot in his leg at his Florida home in what police say was a botched robbery. A bullet damaged his femoral artery and he died at a hospital following surgery. He, too, was 24, the two deaths bookends to the year in sports.
Redskins players began wearing decals on their helmets with Taylor’s No. 21. The Broncos ended practices shouting Williams’ signature phrase, “All ready!”
“As a culture, as a country, we’ve got to start respecting life,” Broncos safety John Lynch said at his teammate’s funeral.
Williams and Taylor didn’t get much time to savor life, and they were not the only athletes dying young in 2007.
There was Damien Nash, a 24-year-old running back who died after a charity basketball game, leaving the Broncos to grieve yet again. There was Marquise Hill, another NFL player gone at 24. The New England Patriots defensive end fell off a jet ski in Lake Pontchartrain.
Joe Kennedy, a journeyman pitcher, woke up at his in-laws’ home in Florida, collapsed leaving the bedroom and died at a hospital at 28. Mike Coolbaugh, 35, was struck in the head by a line drive as he stood in the first-base coach’s box during a minor league game in Arkansas. He died at a hospital about an hour after he was struck.
There was boxer Diego “Chico” Corrales, rugged and exciting in the ring, laid out in an open casket at 29 after a Las Vegas motorcycle crash in which he was driving drunk.
And there was Ryan Shay, who had big hopes for Beijing but collapsed on the streets in New York during the Olympic trials. The 28-year-old marathoner had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart but cleared by doctors.
“The thing that made him such a great runner may have killed him,” father Joe Shay said.
Eddie Robinson got to live to 88, long enough to become a landmark in American sports. He spent nearly 60 years at Grambling, where he put a remote and predominantly black Louisiana school in college football’s bright lights and was the gold standard in his sport with 408 victories.
Robinson was out front in the segregation battles and sent more than 200 players to the NFL, many with a diploma. There were about 5,000 people at his funeral, across the street from the school stadium.
“I don’t know if I would be where I am today if there had been no Eddie Robinson,” former Grambling and NFL quarterback Doug Williams said. “He put that spark into everyone, that will to be more, to be the best.”
Bill Walsh died at 75 after a career in which he won three Super Bowls with Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. Walsh was the NFL’s resident coaching genius, with his West Coast offense of quick passes and innovative schemes.
He didn’t become an NFL head coach until he was 47, but made up for lost time by winning six division titles and two coach of the year awards on the way to the Hall of Fame.
“I always said that he was an artist and all the rest of us were blacksmiths pounding the anvil, while he was painting the picture,” Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said.
Bill France Jr. presided over an empire. He succeeded his father as NASCAR chairman in 1972 and in three decades galvanized his sport like no other. And if people didn’t care for France’s decisions, well, that was too bad. He ruled this kingdom.
A sport with Southern roots sprouted at tracks from New England to California. TV ratings soared, the corporate dollars flowed. France was not in good health the last decade and died at 74.
“There’s not enough words to describe what he’s meant to this sport and what he’s done for it,” two-time series champion Tony Stewart said. “I guarantee it’s the biggest loss in racing since Dale Earnhardt, and it’s probably bigger.”
Baseball deaths in 2007 could fill a lineup card. The Yankees had the left side of the infield with Clete Boyer and Phil Rizzuto, and Hank Bauer in left field. Joe Nuxhall, the youngest major leaguer at 15, could throw a few innings, then call a few more in the broadcast booth. Lew Burdette, Steve Barber and Clem Labine could join the rotation, with Rod Beck in relief. Ed Bailey would be behind the plate, with Shag Crawford calling balls and strikes, and Bing Devine making the front-office moves.
Any mayhem would fall in Bowie Kuhn’s lap. The lawyerly commissioner died at 80 after a tumultuous reign in which he tangled with owners and union leaders during a time of unprecedented expansion and booming contracts.
Football lost Darryl Stingley, 55, who was paralyzed after a fierce hit in a 1978 exhibition game. Max McGee scored the first touchdown in Super Bowl history after a night of partying. He was 75 when he fell off a roof clearing leaves.
Indiana mourned a beloved football coach in Terry Hoeppner. Also gone: Ernie Ladd, Lamar Lundy, Jim Ringo and Dick Nolan. Sam Dana, the NFL’s oldest player, made it to 104.
In basketball, Dennis Johnson, a clutch, gritty guard for terrific Boston Celtics teams, died at 52. There were the deaths of Kentucky great Ralph Beard and coaches Skip Prosser, Ray Mears and Butch Van Breda Kolff.
Villanova basketball star Howard Porter died at 58 after he was found severely beaten in an alley. Jimmy Walker, the Providence great who played nine years in the NBA, died from lung cancer.
The Olympics said goodbye to a pair who defined their sports ” discus thrower Al Oerter and shot-putter Parry O’Brien. Another sensation was Eddie Feigner, 81, the barnstorming softball star with “The King and His Court.”
In hockey, Gump Worsley, the Hall of Fame goalie who didn’t wear a mask until his final season, died at 77. In golf, 1967 Masters champ Gay Brewer died, while in horse racing it was five-time Kentucky Derby winner Bill Hartack.
Another Kentucky Derby winner left as well. Barbaro was finally put down after an eight-month ordeal following his Preakness breakdown. Few in racing ” equine or human ” captured hearts the way Barbaro did. But his owners knew there was nothing more to be done.
“Certainly,” Gretchen Jackson said, “grief is the price we all pay for love.”
Bill France Jr., 74; Bobby Hamilton, 49; Benny Parsons, 65.
Ed Bailey, 75; Steve Barber 67; Hank Bauer, 84; Rod Beck, 38; Clete Boyer, 70; Lew Burdette, 80; Tommy Byrne, 87; Mike Coolbaugh, 35; Shag Crawford, 90; Bing Devine, 90; Art Fowler, 84; Vern Hoscheit, 85; Joe Kennedy, 28; Ernie Koy, 97; Bowie Kuhn, 80; Clem Labine, 80; Max Lanier, 91; Joe Nuxhall, 79; Phil Rizzuto, 89; Bill Robinson, 64; Vern Ruhle, 55; John Vukovich, 59.
Ralph Beard, 79; Gene Gibson, 82; Stu Inman, 80; Dennis Johnson, 52; Alec Kessler, 40; Ray Mears, 80; Howard Porter, 58; Skip Prosser, 56; Dave Smalley, 72; Butch Van Breda Kolff, 84; Jimmy Walker, 63.
Diego “Chico” Corrales, 29; Jack Leonard, 89.
Alex Agase, 85; Ray Beck, 75; Sam Dana, 104; Jim David, 79; Keeley Dorsey, 19; Bill Forester, 74; Ralph Heywood, 85; Marquise Hill, 24; Terry Hoeppner, 59; Ken Kavanaugh, 90; Bucko Kilroy, 86; Ernie Ladd, 68; Lamar Lundy, 71; Max McGee, 75; Jim Mitchell, 60; Damien Nash, 24; Dick Nolan, 75; Jim Norton, 68; Johnny Perkins, 54; Jim Ringo, 75; Eddie Robinson, 88; Tommy Spinks, 58; Darryl Stingley, 55; Sean Taylor 24; George Webster, 61; Bill Walsh, 75; Darrent Williams, 24; Bill Willis, 86; Ernie Wright, 67.
Gay Brewer, 75; Maureen Esther Orcutt, 99; Don Massengale, 69; Norman Von Nida, 93.
Dave Balon, 68; Gaetan Duchesne, 44; John Ferguson Sr., 68; Tom Johnson, 79; Max McNab, 83; Sam Pollock, 81; William Wirtz, 77; Gump Worsley, 77.
Dale Baird, 72; Bill Hartack, 74; Cynthia Phipps, 62; Warren Stute, 85. (Horses: Barbaro, 4; Gato Del Sol, 28; George Washington, 4; John Henry, 32; Slew o’Gold, 27.)
Ryan Shay, 28; Ted Corbitt, 88.
Herb Carneal, 83; Dave Fay, 67; Bill Flemming, 80; Shav Glick, 87; Jim Karvellas, 71; George Kiseda, 80; Jack Lang, 85; Larry Whiteside, 69.
Marai Cioncan, 29; Charlie Grimes, 71; Richard Jewell, 44; Maria Lenk, 92; Keba Mbaye, 82; Herb McKenley; 85; Parry O’Brien, 75; Al Oerter, 71; Yelena Romanova, 43; Janice-Lee Romary, 79; Jean Saubert, 65; Robert Taylor, 59; Willye White, 67; John Woodruff, 92.
Alan Ball, 61; Jupp Derwall, 80; John Doherty, 72; Gino Pariani, 79; David Vanole, 43.
Eddie Feigner, 81.
J. Robert Cade, 80.
Gloria Connors, 82.
Chris Benoit, 40.