With echoes of violence and crackling gunfire, sports says goodbye to some of its best in 2009

By Fred Lief, AP
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sounds of violence: sports deaths in 2009

Sports in 2009 looked down the barrel of a gun.

From Tennessee to Georgia to Nicaragua, gunfire crackled in July. The causes differed — a romance gone wrong, a robbery botched, a self-inflicted wound — but the outcome did not. A gun was the weapon of choice, and all were dead: a former star quarterback and two ex-boxing champions.

Steve McNair was dozing on his sofa in his Nashville condo one weekend when his 20-year-old girlfriend shot him four times. McNair was married with four sons. Police say the woman, Sahel Kazemi, was “spinning out of control” and suspected McNair was seeing someone else. The carnage did not end there. Kazemi turned the semiautomatic pistol on herself.

McNair was 36 and had left the NFL a year earlier. He spent 13 seasons in the league and was the heart of the Tennessee Titans. His closing drive in the 23-16 loss to St. Louis in the 2000 Super Bowl was one of the most riveting finishes in the history of the title game. He was a Pro Bowl player four times. He shared the MVP award in 2003. McNair was fierce on the field and generous off it.

“I’m going to miss you, No. 9,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.

Vernon Forrest grew up in Georgia and fought in the 1992 Olympics with Oscar De La Hoya. He became a three-time champion and was the first to beat Shane Mosley. His manager said he was at a gas station when approached for money. Atlanta police said the 38-year-old boxer exchanged gunfire with two robbery suspects and was shot several times in the back. In a sport where bravado rules, Forrest had been known for his modesty and keeping the volume low.

“I viewed Vernon as a great competitor in the ring and an even greater man outside the ring,” De La Hoya said.

Weeks earlier, Alexis Arguello was found dead at his home in Managua, the city where he was elected mayor a year earlier. Investigators said a single gunshot wound to the chest pointed to suicide. Arguello was dead at 57 after a career in which he galvanized boxing fans. He won titles in three divisions. His two bouts with Aaron Pryor in the early 1980s were pulsating, brawling tests of will.

“Those were great fights we had,” Pryor said. “This was a great champion.”

Boxing is brutal every year, but especially so this time. In July, former champion Arturo Gatti died at 37 at a Brazilian resort. Police initially suspected his wife but later determined Gatti hanged himself. Months later, in a grisly parallel, Darren Sutherland, who won a boxing bronze medal for Ireland at the Beijing Olympics, was found hanged at his home.

The sport also lost Ingemar Johansson at 76. The Swede jolted boxing by knocking out Floyd Patterson to win the heavyweight title in 1959. Greg Page, another heavyweight champ, died at 50 of complications from a brain injury during a 2001 fight. Jose Torres, the inspirational light heavyweight champ from Puerto Rico who became a writer, died at 72.

Baseball could fill a lineup card with its departed from 2009: On the mound, Nick Adenhart, Mark Fidrych, Carl Willey and Tom Sturdivant throw to Johnny Blanchard behind the plate. George Kell, Whitey Lockman and Woodie Held make the plays in the infield, while “Old Reliable” Tommy Henrich roams the outfield with Dom DiMaggio and Dusty Rhodes. Herman Franks, Preston Gomez and Danny Ozark direct the moves from the dugout, with Carl Pohlad watching from the owner’s box.

And Harry Kalas announces from the booth that the ball is “outta here!”

The promise of youth resonated with the deaths of Adenhart and Fidrych, days apart in April. Fidrych brought a burst of life to the game. He was Rookie of the Year in 1976 for the Tigers, talking to the ball and smoothing the mound with his hands. Nothing was the same after that season, injuries exacting a toll. He died at 54, suffocated in an accident while working under a dump truck in Massachusetts.

Adenhart was a 22-year-old rookie for the Angels, having finally made it to the big leagues. Hours after throwing six scoreless innings, he was killed in a car crash. His death became a rallying point for his teammates all the way to the postseason, his jersey with the team every day.

“It makes you take into consideration that not every day is promised,” Angels pitcher Jared Weaver said. “And you have to go out there, every out, and give it everything you have.”

Chicago Bulls fans had a rough day on Feb. 26. They learned of the deaths of former coach and broadcaster Johnny Kerr at 76 and Norm Van Lier, 61, one of NBA’s best defensive players in the 1970s.

Randy Smith, a blindingly fast guard, died at 60. Marvin Webster, the shot-blocking “Human Eraser,” was gone at 56. College basketball coach Kay Yow’s gallant fight with cancer was over at 66. The NBA said goodbye to two owners: Bill Davidson of the Pistons and Abe Pollin of the Wizards, whose name he changed from the Bullets because of the ties to violence.

Wayman Tisdale, the former Oklahoma All-American who spent a dozen years in the NBA before shifting rhythms and becoming a jazz musician, died at 44.

“He was the nicest man in the world with the biggest heart and an even bigger smile,” former Pacers teammate Reggie Miller said.

In football, Jack Kemp, the star Buffalo Bills quarterback who went on to a life in national politics, died at 73. Doc Blanchard, the 1945 Heisman Trophy winner and Army’s Mr. Inside, was 84. Lou Saban had one of the fullest resumes in sports — the longtime NFL and college coach and New York Yankees president died at 87.

The Detroit Lions mourned former coach Monte Clark, 72, and Hall of Fame lineman Lou Creekmur, 82. Forest Evashevski, the former Michigan star who coached Iowa to two Rose Bowl victories in the 1950s, was 91. Dante Lavelli, the receiver who helped the Cleveland Browns build a post-World War II dynasty, was 85.

Jasper Howard and Chris Henry didn’t see old age. Howard, a 20-year-old cornerback for Connecticut, was stabbed during a fight outside a school dance. Henry, the Cincinnati Bengals receiver, died at 26 near the year’s end, falling from a pickup truck during what police said was a dispute with his fiancee.

NCAA president Myles Brand, who tried to contain the “arms race” in college sports but might be best remembered for firing Bob Knight while at Indiana, died of pancreatic cancer at 67.

Tennis lost a giant in Jack Kramer at 88. He won Wimbledon in 1947 and the forerunner of the U.S. Open in 1946 and ‘47. He went on to promote the sport for more than a half century, an industry unto himself.

In horse racing, Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel died at 68, running his stables while concealing his cancer from most of his colleagues. The race also ended for two Kentucky Derby winners: Alysheba (1987) and Lil E. Tee (1992).

Reggie Fleming, who played a gritty 12 seasons in the NHL, died at 73. The New York Times reported he had had brain damage stemming from repeated head trauma, linking hockey for the first time to a condition usually found in boxers.

Germany was shaken by the suicide of Robert Enke, the 32-year-old national goalkeeper who stepped in front of a train. Toni Sailer, the mighty Austrian skier who won three gold medals at the 1956 Olympics, died at 73.

This year also marked the last swings for Jerry Sacharski at 93. He was the architect of T-ball, introducing baseball to millions of kids. Sacharski also taught public school in Michigan and coached high school baseball.

“Everything that he did,” son Will Sacharski said, “the purpose was to teach something.”

Contributing to this report were Associated Press Writers Lucas L. Johnson II in Nashville, Tenn.; Jonathan Landrum Jr. in Atlanta; Filadelfo Aleman in Managua, Nicarauga; and James Prichard in Albion, Mich.

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