Notable sports passings of 2016: This year, we lost some giants

We said goodbye to giants in 2016.

Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Pat Summitt, Gordie Howe — all legends, certainly in their respective sports of which they became champions and icons, but also in the bigger collective of fans’ minds and hearts.

But there were others, of course. Baseball was robbed of one of its brightest young stars when Florida Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was killed in September. We lost a former Heisman Trophy winner, the architect of the Chicago Bears’ famed 46 defense and a handful of notable TV commentators from baseball to basketball to tennis.

Here’s a look back at some notable losses in sports this year.


Lawrence Phillips, Jan. 13. The former Nebraska football star was found dead in his California prison cell. He’d been serving time since 2008 for two separate 2005 incidents in which he assaulted his then-girlfriend and also hit three teenagers with his car at a youth football game. And in September 2015, he was charged with first-degree murder after his cellmate was found strangled to death inside their shared cell. Phillips was 40.

Ted Marchibroda, Jan. 16. He never won a Super Bowl, and he lost more games than he won as a head coach, but Marchibroda will be remembered as an offensive innovator who installed Buffalo’s no-huddle offense in 1990 that spawned four straight Super Bowl appearances for the Bills. He went 87-98-1 as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens from 1992-98. He was 84.

Bill Johnson, Jan. 21. Johnson was the first American to win an Olympic medal in Alpine skiing, taking the gold in 1984 in Sarajevo when he was 22 years old. He died from an illness at 55.

Danny Akers, Jan. 25. Akers, the son of former Texas football coach Fred Akers and himself a former Longhorns quarterback, passed away after a four-year fight with cancer. He was 54. “It’s just a heartbreaker,” Fred Akers said.


Dave Mirra, Feb. 4. The X Games legend who owned the most career X Games medals through the summer of 2013 was found dead in Greenville, N.C., the victim of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 41.


Bud Collins, March 4. No one knew more out there about tennis history, or could tell it to us in a more engaging way, than Collins, who started his journalism career in 1963 with the Boston Herald and Boston Globe before embarking on a 40-year TV career for CBS and NBC. He passed away at the age of 86 after battling Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Breakfast at Wimbledon isn’t the same without him.

Joe Garagiola, March 23. Another popular broadcaster, Garagiola turned to TV after his nine-year MLB career ended and became a staple of NBC, where he and Vin Scully shined in the booth during the 1980s. In all, he called nine World Series. He was 90. To honor him, the Arizona Diamondbacks this season wore a black patch on their sleeves with “JOE” written in the center.


Will Smith, April 9. An All-American defensive end who helped lead Ohio State to the 2002 national championship, Smith was a first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2004. He played 10 years for the Saints, winning a Super Bowl to pair with his national championship. He was killed at the age of 34 in a road rage incident in New Orleans.

Pearl Washington, April 20. The former Syracuse basketball star, who found his game and nickname on the courts in Brooklyn, took his “shake and bake” crossover all the way to the NBA, where he was the 13th overall pick of the 1986 draft by the New Jersey Nets. Washington, whose real name was Dwayne, was nicknamed Pearl after Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. Washington died from brain cancer. He was 52.

Chyna, April 20. Born Joan Lauer, the former professional wrestler known as the “Ninth Wonder of the World” — Andre the Giant had already claimed the status of eighth wonder — rose to fame in the late 1990s. She died at the age of 45 from an accidental overdose of a tranquilizer and a prescription sleeping pill.

Blackie Sherrod, April 28. The revered Texas journalist who for more than six decades forged a reputation as one of the state’s best sportswriters, most notably with the Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times Herald and his “Scattershooting” columns, passed away from natural causes in his Dallas home. He was 96.


Bryce Dejean-Jones, May 28. The New Orleans Pelicans’ 23-year-old guard was shot to death after he broke down a door to a Dallas apartment. The man living in the apartment shot him. No charges were filed; police believed he mistook the apartment for his girlfriend’s apartment, which was in the same complex. The former Iowa State standout, who also had played at USC and UNLV, was a Los Angeles native.


Muhammad Ali, June 3. Ali, born Cassius Clay, passed away at the age of 74 after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s. Simply put, he was one of the sports world’s most polarizing, and important, figures — an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight boxing champion whose conversion to Islam, outspoken stance against the Vietnam War and subsequent resistance to the draft placed him at center stage of American sports and politics. In the ring, he was 56-5 with 37 knockouts and 19 decisions. He graced Sports Illustrated covers 37 times, second only to Michael Jordan, and was widely considered one of the most important sports figures of the 20th century.

Kimbo Slice, June 6. Slice, a mixed martial arts fighter who starred for both the UFC and MMA, left a big mark on the MMA world with his celebrity and larger-than-life personality. He became an Internet sensation in MMA after trying out boxing and wrestling careers, a crossover star known for his “Junk Yard Training” series on Youtube and his various TV projects. He died of heart failure at 42.

Gordie Howe, June 10. There’s a reason why Howe, who played more than 30 professional seasons, including 25 with the Detroit Red Wings, was called “Mr. Hockey.” The Hall of Famer was a 23-time all-star and held a lot of the sport’s season and career records until Wayne Gretzky came along. He still holds NHL records for most games and most seasons played. He died at the age of 88 at his son’s house in Ohio.

Pat Summitt, June 28. The coach who guided Tennessee women’s basketball into one of the nation’s great college sports success stories, Summitt led the Lady Vols from 1974 to 2012, winning eight national championships and becoming the first NCAA coach — man or woman — to win 1,000 career games. She never had a losing season in her 38-year coaching career, and was awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. She died at the age of 64 after a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Buddy Ryan, June 28. Ryan, the father of current NFL coaches Rex and Rob Ryan, is considered one of the biggest defensive innovators in NFL history. While probably most well known as the man behind the Chicago Bears’ famed “46” defense of 1985, Ryan also served as head coach of both the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles. He won two Super Bowls, as the Bears’ defensive coordinator in 1985 and as the New York Jets’ defensive line coach in 1969, and also led the defenses of the Buffalo Bills and Houston Oilers. His career record as a head coach was 55-58-1. He was 85.


Marion Campbell, July 13. Campbell, the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles (1983-85) and Atlanta Falcons (1987-89), also played on the Eagles’ last NFL championship team, in 1960. His career record was 34-80-1. He was 87.

Nate Thurmond, July 16. Known to fans as “Nate the Great,” Thurmond played 14 years in the NBA, mostly for the Golden State Warriors. He was a seven-time All-Star and holds two distinctions: He was the first player in NBA history to officially record a quadruple-double, and in 1965 he had a 42-rebound game. The Hall of Famer was named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. He died at the age of 74 after a short battle with leukemia.

Dennis Green, July 21. Green, who spent 13 years as an NFL head coach with the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals, led teams to the playoffs in eight of 10 seasons from 1992 to 2001, including appearances in the NFC championship game in 1998 and 2000. He trails only Hall of Famer Bud Grant on the Vikings’ all-time list of games coached, wins and winning percentage. He died from a heart attack at the age of 67.


Tom Wilson, Aug. 10. As a player, Wilson was Texas Tech’s first-ever first-team All-Southwest Conference quarterback. In 1978, as Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator, he stepped in after head coach Emory Bellard resigned mid-season and went on to lead the Aggies to two bowl games. His final season at A&M was in 1981, after a 21-19 run as coach. He eventually moved back into high school coaching at Palestine and Corsicana. He had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in 2015. He was 72.

John Saunders, Aug. 10. The veteran ESPN and ABC journalist and anchor succeeded Dick Schaap as host of “The Sports Reporters” in 2001 and also handled studio host duties for coverage of the NFL, NHL, MLB and college football. He was 61.

Hubbard Alexander, Aug. 28. A three-time Super Bowl winner as a Dallas Cowboys receivers coach, Alexander also won a pair of national championships on the staff of the Miami Hurricanes. Alexander coached receivers, yet actually played center at Tennessee State. He was 77.


Jose Fernandez, Sept. 25. The Florida Marlins’ ace, who had won 16 games with 253 strikeouts while making the All-Star Game this season, was killed in a boating accident in Florida when a boat carrying him and two other passengers slammed into a jetty of rocks at a high speed in the early morning hours. The other two passengers also were killed. Fernandez, who just five days earlier had posted a photo on Instagram of his girlfriend, who was pregnant with their child, was 24.

Arnold Palmer, Sept. 25. Credited with bringing the country club sport of golf to the general public in the 1950s and 1960s, Palmer was one of the giants in golf — and sports — history. He won 62 PGA Tour tournaments, including seven majors, and is credited with giving golf its version of the Grand Slam after winning the Masters and U.S. Open in 1960. He played his last Masters in 2004, then began taking part in the ceremonial tee shot on the first day until this year’s tournament. His death drew immediate responses from across the spectrum, from Tiger Woods to Presidents Barack Obama (“Thanks for the memories, Arnold”) and George W. Bush (“He was a great American whose friendship — and swing thoughts — will be missed”). He was 87.

Prospect Point, Sept. 30. At 38, Prospect Point was the oldest living thoroughbred in North America until he died in South Carolina. He had 72 starts in his racing career, winning seven times and earning $28,553 in prize money. His last race was in 1985 and he lived the final five or six years of his life as a pasture pet.


Dennis Byrd, Oct. 15. Byrd, who starred at Tulsa before getting drafted in the second round by the New York Jets in 1989, was paralyzed during a 1992 game against the Chiefs when he collided with a teammate while trying to sack quarterback Dave Krieg. That ended the defensive lineman’s four-year career. Through rehabilitation and therapy, Byrd later learned to walk again. Most of us last saw him during the 2010 playoffs, when he gave Jets coach Rex Ryan his old No. 90 Jets jersey that he’d worn the day of his injury and then addressed the team prior to its divisional playoff game with the Patriots. The Jets won, 28-21. Byrd was killed in an Oklahoma car accident. He was 50.


Stan Huntsman, Nov. 23. The longtime track and field coach who led college programs at Ohio (1975-70), Tennessee (1971-85) and Texas (1985-95) and guided the U.S. men’s team to the 1988 gold medal in Seoul, coached 41 individual NCAA champions and 201 All-Americans. He was 84.


Joe McKnight, Dec. 1. The former USC standout played for the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs before moving on to the Canadian Football League in 2016. The Saskatchewan Roughriders signed him in September, and he rushed for 150 yards in his first career CFL start in October. He was killed in an apparent road rage incident in Louisiana at the age of 28.

Rashaan Salaam, Dec. 5. The 1994 Heisman Trophy winner from Colorado was a first-round pick in 1995 by the Chicago Bears. He had a four-year NFL career with the Bears and Cleveland Browns. He was found dead in a Boulder, Colo. park. Foul play was not suspected. He was 42.

Steve Sexton, Dec. 12. The former president of Churchill Downs, who oversaw a $120 million renovation project for the Kentucky Derby’s home in 2005, also served as the first CEO of Circuit of the Americas. He was there as the Formula One track was being built in southeast Travis County and stayed on at COTA through the first two U.S. Grand Prix races. He was 57.

Craig Sager, Dec. 15. The veteran TBS and TNT sideline reporter became a staple of NBA broadcasts, as well known for his engaging on-court interviews with players and coaches as his well-publicized battle with leukemia and his outlandish wardrobe. No suit — brightly-colored, checkered, plaid, paisley, whatever — was too outlandish for him. He was 65. The night that he died, players from the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls wore tribute T-shirts that looked like one of his signature suits. Sager would’ve loved it.

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