Athletes Who Were Forever Changed By Their Teammates' Death

Athletes take on a great deal of responsibility playing on some of the biggest stages in the world. With the watchful eyes of sports fans worldwide on them, the game's pressure takes its toll. To be considered one of the greatest not only does it take hard work and dedication, but the support of an athlete's teammates. College and professional sports have seen plenty of legendary players forge lifelong friendships with their teammates, on and off the track, field, or court. 

Some of the most iconic athletes have left us too soon, however. Tragedy doesn't discriminate, and many sports legends have died unexpectedly. Their teammates are left to mourn their loss and navigate the game without their beloved teammate. It's not an easy feat, and many team members have had an uphill battle grieving. We're taking a look at athletes who were forever changed by their teammates' death.

Ray Lewis dedicated his life to Steve McNair after his death

Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was shocked after receiving news that his former teammate Steve McNair had been shot in 2009. McNair was found dead in what was dubbed a murder-suicide after he was shot in the head by his girlfriend Sahel Kazemi. The woman had been dating the NFL player, who was married at the time, for a few months after meeting him at the restaurant she worked in Tennessee. Kazemi died of a single gunshot wound to her head and was found lying next to her former lover at the scene.

Lewis was enjoying a Fourth of July celebration at his Florida home when he got a text message relaying the news of McNair's death. "We were sitting out back of my home in Florida and watching the ocean. I remember the line I said right before I got the text, and it was: 'It's amazing that people can't slow down in life enough to realize how peaceful this really is,'" the former NFL star admitted (per ESPN). "So I'm going on about that, and I look down and I'm like, what?!" 

Lewis went on to speak at his former teammate's memorial service, and he said at the time that he hoped to honor McNair in more than just football. "I dedicate my life to him — just life, just life, just life. Seasons? Naw. That's a lifetime legacy. Seasons, they fade. Lifetime, man," he said.

John Terry posted a tribute to his former team mate Christian Atsu

John Terry lost a good friend when his former teammate Christian Atsu died following an earthquake in Turkey. Atsu, who played alongside Terry for Chelsea was marked missing following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the country in February 2023. His former agent Nana Sechere later confirmed the Ghanian soccer player, who was 31 years old, had been found under the rubble of the natural disaster. 

After hearing the news, Terry, who was Chelsea's former captain, took to social media to express his condolences. "RIP my friend," he wrote (per Daily Mail) alongside a broken heart emoji. Atsu, who was signed with the Turkish league Hatayspor when he died, touched the lives of many of his former teammates. "'It was a pleasure to share our time together and you was one of the nicest people I've met in football from opening schools back home to just having a constant smile day to day," said former Premier League player Dwight Gayle.

Larry Bird said Dennis Johnson was the best teammate he ever had

Former Celtics star Dennis Johnson's unexpected death left many of his teammates in shock. In 2007, the former NBA guard, who was coaching the Austin Toros at the time, collapsed suddenly at the end of his team's practice. After attempting to resuscitate Johnson for over 20 minutes, he was transferred to a hospital and later pronounced dead due to cardiac arrest. The former NBA star was 52 years old at the time of his death. Toros spokeswoman Perri Travillion admitted that Johnson was joking about a parking ticket before his heart attack. "We were laughing," she said. "He just collapsed."

Johnson's former teammate Larry Bird suffered a huge loss following the tragic death, as the two players were close during their NBA careers. Bird and Johnson were remembered for their iconic play in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals when Bird stole Isaiah Johnson's pass and lobbed it to Johnson for the winning basket against Detroit. The former Celtics player, who went on to coach the Indiana Pacers, remembered Johnson's iconic legacy. "Dennis was a great player, one of the best teammates I ever had, and a wonderful person," he said. "My thoughts and condolences are with his family at this difficult time." Johnson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010 and his wife Donna and Bird were both in attendance during the ceremony. "It's disappointing that he's not here,” Bird said during a media session at the time, adding, "but still, he's there."

Delaney Crawford was speechless after losing three of his teammates

A mass shooting on the University of Virginia campus left a football team in shock. UVA football players Lavel Davis Jr., D'Sean Perry, and Devin Chandler were killed in 2022 after suspected gunman Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. reportedly opened fire on a charter bus full of students. David Jr., Perry, and Chandler died instantly and two other students were injured during the tragedy. As of the time of writing, Jones Jr. awaits trial and faces three counts of second-degree murder, three counts of using a handgun in the commission of a felony, and two counts of malicious wounding, according to UVA Police Chief Tim Longo (per CBS 19 News). Jones Jr. was a former member of the UVA football team's roster in 2018 but did not appear in any games that season.

UVA football players took to social media to share their condolences following the shooting. "I'm speechless," tweeted UVA quarterback Delaney Crawford. Fellow UVA quarterback Jay Woolfolk wrote, "Lost for words." Terrell Jones also shared a tribute, tweeting, "3 great players... but 3 even better great men off the field love y'all boys." Tony Elliott, UVA's head coach, spoke to Newsweek following the incident saying, "These were incredible young men with huge aspirations and extremely bright futures. Our hearts ache for their families, their classmates, and their friends. These precious young men were called away too soon. We are all fortunate to have them be a part of our lives."

Allyson Felix doesn't want Tori Bowie to die in vain

Olympic gold medalist Tori Bowie died unexpectedly in 2023, shocking sports fans around the world. The former track star was found unresponsive in her bed at the time, and it was later revealed that she died due to childbirth complications. The runner was eight months pregnant at the time, and she was in labor at the time of death. Authorities found Bowie upon a wellness check that was requested after she had been missing for days. According to an autopsy report by Associate Medical Examiner Chantel Njiwaji, the three-time Olympic gold medalist noted possible complications including eclampsia and respiratory distress. As per the National Institutes of Health, Eclampsia occurs when a "mother's high blood pressure reduces the blood supply to the fetus," which causes the woman to "develop seizures or coma." 

Fellow Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix spoke out following her former teammate's death in the hopes to raise awareness. In an essay for Time, the former track star brought attention to the maternal mortality rate for Black women, which according to the CDC, is nearly 3 times higher than it is for White women. "When I became pregnant, my doctor didn't sit me down and tell me, 'these are things that you should look for in your pregnancy, because you are at a greater risk to experience these complications,' Felix wrote. "I'm hopeful that things can get better. I'm hopeful that Tori, who stood on the podium at Rio, gold around her neck and sweetness in her soul, won't die in vain."

Tom Brady mourned the loss of his back-up quarterback

Tom Brady was one of many in the NFL community to share a tribute to former New England Patriots Ryan Mallett following his unexpected death. Mallett, who served as Brady's backup quarterback for three seasons, died in 2023 after being caught in a riptide, according to the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office. The former NFL star, who coached the White Hall High School football team following his NFL career, was swimming with friends in the Gulf of Mexico before he drowned in the tragic incident. "One of the individuals, an adult male, went under and lifeguards say he was not breathing when pulled out," the police report read. "Lifesaving measures were immediately undertaken but the man was pronounced deceased at the Destin Emergency Room."

Brady took to his Instagram Story following the news, writing (per People), "We lost a great man. Praying for the Mallett family and all their loved ones tonight." J.J. Watt, who was Mallett's teammate when he was traded to the Houston Texans, also shared his condolences. "Horrible news to read about Ryan Mallett. Gone way too soon. Rest in Peace brother," he tweeted.

Nolan Smith got emotional over the loss of Devin Willock

Nolan Smith got emotional over the death of his former teammate Devin Willock while speaking at the NFL scouting combine in 2023. Willock, who played football for the University of Georgia, was killed in a car accident months before the combine. The former college football star was ejected from the vehicle after not wearing a seatbelt. According to the police report obtained by the New York Post, the crash occurred close to UGA's campus after the vehicle was speeding in Athens around three in the morning. The car struck a Georgia Power pole before colliding with another pole and hitting a tree. Willock, who died on the scene, was in the vehicle alongside three others, including former UGA football player Warren McClendon. The offensive lineman was wearing a seatbelt and sustained minor injuries after the crash. 

Smith spoke out about the crash for the first time during the NFL event, as per News 4 Jax. "I'm sorry to his mama. No one should live like that, no one should deserve to die like that," he said, adding: "I said it earlier, Devin, I love you baby, (No.) 77, you're living forever. 'Do it for Dev,' that's what I tell them boys at Georgia. 'You lost a brother, do it for Dev.'" 

The Philadelphia Eagles player went on to admit: "Most people think it's just a game, those are my brothers I go out there with...It's more than a game. Most people think it's just a game. Especially at Georgia, man, that connection piece is real."

Jim Kaat was stunned over the death of Thurman Munson

Jim Kaat was left speechless following the shocking death of his former Yankees teammate Thurman Munson. The tragic incident occurred in 1979 when the Yankees catcher was piloting an airplane that crashed before reaching the runway at Akron-Canton Airport. The aircraft burst into flames following the crash before Munson could be rescued. According to the National Transportation and Safety Board, the former Yankees player was not wearing his seat belt during the accident. The board determined that the plane crashed due to pilot error, adding that Munson failed to reach the appropriate landing speed. 

Munson got his pilot license a year prior to the fateful crash. "It put a great deal of strain on me," Thurman's former wife Diana said of her husband's hobby. "It was unnerving to know that he was up in the air." She went on to add: "I was worried that he didn't have enough hours or wasn't as qualified as I wanted him to be," she admitted.

The MLB player's former teammate Kaat told the New York Times he was heartbroken following the news. "Who do you call? What do you do?" Kaat said, admitting he learned of the crash by turning on the afternoon news that day. "It's just a horrible experience that you have to go through." Kaat, who pitched for the Yankees and went on to be a sports broadcaster, went on to admit: "You're just stunned," adding, "You start thinking, 'This can't be real, can it?'...There's no playbook for this sort of thing."

Steve Blass called Roberto Clemente a hero

To many MLB fans, former Pittsburgh Pirates player Robert Clemente died a hero. His former teammate Steve Blass thought so, telling ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series, "It's not just a death, it's a hero's death. A lot of athletes do wonderful things – but they don't die doing it." Clemente, who played in 14 World Series games throughout his career and took home two wins, died while giving back to his community. The Puerto Rican native was working with relief efforts following a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua in 1972 when a plane he boarded en route to the country exploded after takeoff. No survivors were recovered from the crash.

Following his tragic death, Clemente was inducted into the Hall of Fame after the Baseball Writers Association of America waived the five-year waiting requirement. He was the first Puerto Rican MLB player to be inducted. To this day, Blass still remembers receiving the news of Clemente's death. "There was no sleeping after that," he told the New York Times. "As the morning unfolded, it was if the shoulders of the city of Pittsburgh slumped." The former MLB pitcher and his teammates attended the memorial service for their teammate in Puerto Rico, where Blass gave the eulogy. "The grieving is universal, but it's also so personal," Blass admitted. "It's all of those things."

Lakers players were devastated after Kobe Bryant's shocking death

There's no doubt that legendary NBA player Kobe Bryant's death stunned the nation. Widely to be considered one of the greatest athletes to have ever lived, sports fans across the globe mourned the loss of the former Lakers star following his tragic death. Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others died in 2020 following a helicopter crash in Los Angeles. The accident occurred due to a pilot error when Ara Zobayan, who was operating the aircraft en route to Mamba Sports Academy, crashed into a hillside. National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said that the aircraft missed clearing the mountainous terrain by 20 to 20 feet. The helicopter was not supplied with a warning system to alert Zobayan of a potential crash.

While the rest of the world was left in shock by the unexpected crash, Bryant's former teammates were more than devastated. Despite the sports world attempting to make sense of the unexpected death, tributes from NBA players poured in following the news to honor Bryant. "Beyond devastated ... my big brother ... I can't, I just can't believe it," tweeted Bryant's former teammate Pau Gasol. "As I try to write this post, my mind is racing. I'm in disbelief and have been crying all morning over this devastating news that Kobe and his young daughter, Gigi have passed away in a helicopter crash," tweeted Magic Johnson. The iconic former Lakers player is survived by his daughter Natalia and his widow Vanessa.