NFL Players Who Died Before Turning 50

Among sports stars in America, few are as beloved as professional football players. From the early days, when Jim Thorpe and George Halas were the kings of football, through the days of "Broadway" Joe Namath and Joe "Cool" Montana, and finally to the present icons like Von Miller and Patrick Mahomes, NFL players have often found a special place in the hearts of Americans. Perhaps it's due to the incredibly violent nature of the game, or maybe it's because of their outsized personalities and demeanors. Either way, they are undoubtedly revered and cherished by the public.

Maybe that's why so many of their untimely deaths have been so tragic. From the shooting death of a young Darrent Williams back on New Year's Day in 2007, to the tragic suicide of Junior Seau (pictured) five years later, too many former NFL players have died much too young. While this list is certainly far from complete, these are some of the tragic stories of NFL players who died before turning 50 years old.

Darrent Williams, 24

Even today, more than 15 years after it happened, the death of Darrent Williams still stings particularly hard for Colorado sports fans. As reported by The Washington Post, on New Year's Day, 2007, Williams was shot to death at the age of just 24 years old. He had been attending a New Year's Eve party with other Denver area sports stars, and his death hit other Broncos players very hard. The Broncos had just played their final game of the season earlier that day, an overtime loss in which Williams was injured.

Williams had only been in the league for two seasons by that point, but he had already made a name for himself as a standout defensive back and starter. While it was unclear at the time why he had been shot, a picture started to emerge in the aftermath. According to the Associated Press (via CBS Colorado), Williams had been involved in an altercation with gang members while at the party. 

Eventually, gang member Willie Clark was convicted in the slaying, and he was sentenced to more than 1,100 years in prison. In Williams' honor, the city of Denver created the Darrent Williams Memorial Teen Center in 2008, and the Broncos annually give out the Darrent Williams Good Guy Award in his memory.

Reggie White, 43

Few NFL players have the incredible pedigree and have received the accolades that former defensive end Reggie White has. In his 15 seasons, White made it to 13 Pro Bowls, was named an All-Pro 10 times, and won Super Bowl XXXI with the Green Bay Packers (via the Pro Football Hall of Fame). With a nickname like "The Minister of Defense," he is widely regarded as one of the best defensive players in NFL history. He was named to two NFL All-Decade teams and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006, and during his career he was feared by pretty much every opposing coach and quarterback he faced.

Unfortunately, after his illustrious career came to an end following the 2000 season, White passed away just a few years later. As reported by The New York Times, White died on Boxing Day, 2004, at the age of just 43. The Packers website later reported it was a combination of sarcoidosis and other ailments, such as sleep apnea, that caused a "fatal cardiac arrhythmia" that killed White in his sleep. White left behind a wife and two children at the time of his passing, and his memory is still honored by the league today.

Derrick Thomas, 33

Another one of the best defensive players in NFL history to die prematurely was former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, who passed away at the age of 33. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, during his 11-season career, Thomas had more than 120 sacks, scored 4 touchdowns, was the 1989 Defensive Rookie of the Year, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2009. Thomas was an absolute force for the Chiefs during his career, and he was known for his incredible pass rushing skills as well as his high football IQ.

However, on January 23, 2000, just after finishing the 1999–2000 NFL season, Thomas was involved in a serious car wreck (via The New York Times). The Times reported that Thomas had been driving a bit too recklessly for the icy conditions while on his way to the airport when he lost control and his car slammed into the median. One of the passengers was killed, and Thomas was paralyzed from the chest down as the result of a broken spine.

A beloved member of his community, Thomas had previously been named both the NFL Man of the Year in 1993, and been given the Byron (Whizzer) White Humanitarian Award in 1995. He died just over two weeks after the car crash, on February 8, 2000, after suffering from an episode of cardiorespiratory arrest. The medical cause of death was a type of blood clot known as saddle embolus.

Sean Taylor, 24

Sean Taylor, former defensive back for the Washington Commanders, was the victim of a home invasion back in 2007. While staying at his Miami-area home that November, he was shot by the intruders when he tried to fight back against them with a machete (via The New York Times). Taylor was immediately airlifted from his house to a nearby hospital, but later succumbed to his wounds. He was only 24 years old at the time. Previously, Taylor had almost been shot after an altercation in 2005, which also saw him on the receiving end of felony assault and battery charges, but they were later dropped.

Prior to his death, Taylor had already made a name for himself as a controversial player. According to Biography, he was fined by the NFL multiple times during his short career, and at one point was accused of spitting at another player during a game.

In November 2013, Taylor's killer, Eric Rivera Jr., was found guilty of his murder. Reportedly, Rivera had singled out Williams' residence for the robbery, and was one of five assailants. Williams' wife and daughter were present at the robbery but were not injured. Rivera was later given more than five decades in prison following his conviction (per the NFL).

Marquise Hill, 24

Just prior to their unprecedented undefeated regular season in 2007, tragedy struck the New England Patriots. As per The New York Times, that May, just a few months before the season began, one of their players was found dead. The player was 24-year-old defensive end Marquise Hill, and he had been with the team for three seasons dating back to 2004. Reportedly, Hill and a friend had been riding water scooters on Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana when they ran into a very strong current and were forced off their crafts.

According to ESPN, Hill may have suffered a concussion when he fell off the scooter, though he was not impaired or under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. The area Hill and his friend were in was reportedly incredibly deep and had strong currents. Sources told reporters that Hill's friend did not know how to swim, and that Hill had died while saving her from drowning. Neither was wearing a life preserver.

He was engaged at the time of his death and also had a young son. In addition to his time on the Patriots, he was also a member of the Louisiana State University (LSU) Tigers, with whom he won the 2003 National Championship.

Eric Turner, 31

On May 28, 2000, in one of the most shocking deaths in NFL history, Eric Turner died of abdominal cancer (via the Associated Press). Previously a defensive back for the Oakland Raiders, Turner was only 31 years old when he passed away. Just two weeks prior to his death, Turner had made a public statement saying he was not sick, making his passing even more stunning. Immediately, former teammates and coaches made statements expressing their admiration of Turner as a friend and teammate, as well as anguish over his sudden and surprising death.

Prior to playing on the Raiders, Turner had also been a member of the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. He was a multiple-time Pro Bowler and was previously a very high draft pick. The New York Times reported that Turner had lost 70 pounds within a few months due to the cancer, and that while many of his teammates may have been aware of his illness, they did not think it was going to take his life so quickly. Turner had played in the NFL as recently as the 1999 season for the Raiders, and was widely praised by former players for his football abilities.

Walter Payton, 43

One of the most exciting and durable players in NFL history, Walter Payton's death at the age of 43 was traumatizing for legions of Chicago Bears fans who had followed his career. Payton played 13 seasons in the NFL, every one of them with the Bears, and he is widely regarded as one of the best running backs of all time (via the Pro Football Hall of Fame). During his career, "Sweetness" racked up more than 16,700 rushing yards, made it to nine Pro Bowls, was a two-time MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, and won Super Bowl XX. He had the most rushing yards in NFL history at the time of his retirement in 1987, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993.

Payton died in late 1999 due to complications with bile duct cancer (via The New York Times). He had first publicly announced he was sick earlier that year in February, but the details of his cancer were not revealed until after he had died. Many of his former teammates, opponents, and coaches praised Payton for both his on- and off-field persona, noting that he was an incredible football player and great person.

Pat Tillman, 27

In 2002, in one of the most patriotic and heroic moves possible, NFL star Pat Tillman enlisted in the U.S. Army (via Biography). A former student at Arizona State University and member of the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman was one of the best linebackers in the league when he decided to unofficially retire. In 2000, he recorded the most tackles in Cardinals history, and he endeared himself to fans by staying with the team instead of flocking for greener and more lucrative pastures. Tillman joined the Army after the September 11th terrorist attacks and subsequent U.S invasion of Afghanistan later that year.

Tillman enlisted with his younger brother, with them both eventually becoming Army Rangers, and Tillman served in both Afghanistan and Iraq during his time in the service. Unfortunately, Tillman was killed while fighting in eastern Afghanistan by fratricide, also known as friendly fire. Initially, Army authorities tried to cover up the incident and put out reports indicating he was killed by enemy forces. 

An ensuing scandal broke out over the Army's false reporting, and it was determined that Tillman's unit had been mistaken for enemy soldiers when they were killed. Tillman earned both a Purple Heart and Silver Star during his time in the military.

Joe Delaney, 24

Joe Delaney's death is one of the most saddening and tragic in NFL history. Just 24 years old at the time, Delaney made the ultimate sacrifice when he lost his life trying to save three boys (via The New York Times). Delaney was spending time at a local park when he noticed a group of youngsters playing in a water hole. After seeing them go under, he jumped in and tried to rescue the boys, saving one of them. Though paramedics tried to revive him, it was too late, and he was dead by the time he reached the emergency room.

Delaney had been a standout running back in the NFL prior to his death. After an outstanding rookie season, he was diagnosed with an eye injury but was still an active player at the date of his untimely death. He had also been a standout football player at Northwestern State University in Louisiana prior to his time in the NFL. He reportedly left behind several family members, including a wife and three children.

Gaines Adams, 26

Another active NFL player at the time of his passing, Gaines Adams was just 26 years old when he died. A member of the Chicago Bears as a defensive lineman, Adams died from a heart attack on January 17, 2010 (as reported by the Associated Press via The New York Times). He had gone into cardiac arrest that Sunday morning, and reportedly had an enlarged heart. Before making it to the NFL, Adams was a star player for the Clemson Tigers in college, most remembered for his game-clinching defensive touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in 2006.

Though he had struggled to make much of an impact defensively since entering the NFL, Adams was still highly regarded by his teammates and coaches. Among people who spoke on his behalf were former teammates Brian Urlacher and Ronde Barber, former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell called him "a terrific young man," while Barber lamented his tragic death at such a young age (via the Los Angeles Times).

Junior Seau, 43

For two decades, Junior Seau was one of the most feared tacklers in the entire NFL. Known for his incredible football IQ, leadership of teammates, and hard hitting, Seau has long been seen as the epitome of the perfect linebacker (via the Pro Football Hall of Fame). He made it two Super Bowls, losing both of them, but he was an All-Pro every season from 1991 to 2000. Seau spent the majority of his career with the San Diego Chargers, but he also played for the Miami Dolphins' and New England Patriots' defenses. In 2015, he was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In the summer of 2012, Seau died by suicide with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest (via the Los Angeles Times). His body was discovered by his girlfriend, and his family and friends were shocked and devastated at the announcement. The following January, after extensive testing, it was determined that Seau had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has become increasingly linked to violent professional sports such as football. In 2018, Seau's family settled a lawsuit against the NFL over his death (via NPR).

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Chuck Hughes, 28

The death of Chuck Hughes (pictured above, #85) on October 24, 1971, rocked and shocked the sports world. As reported by The New York Times, Hughes died while playing in an NFL game for the Detroit Lions. Hughes had just caught a pass when he suddenly collapsed three plays later, while on his way back into the huddle. He is the only NFL player to have died in the middle of a game. Hughes was only in the game because starter Larry Walton had been forced out with an injury. He was only 28 years old and had been in the NFL since the 1967 season.

It later emerged that Hughes had died from arteriosclerosis and an acute coronary thrombosis. Hughes likely didn't know he had arteriosclerosis heart disease, which does not have visible signs, and which is uncommon in someone as young as he was. He left behind a wife and a young son, and though he had previously complained about chest pains, he was thought to be relatively healthy at the time of his death.

Steve McNair, 36

On July 4, 2009, the sports world woke up to the sad news that former NFL quarterback Steve McNair had died. The New York Times reported that he was shot to death along with Sahel Kazemi, a young friend of his who was staying at his condo. Just days prior, Kazemi had been arrested for driving under the influence, and McNair was reportedly a passenger. His death was immediately declared a homicide by detectives, but at first they did not name Kazemi as the killer — though it was later determined it was her.

McNair had played the majority of his 13-year career for the Tennessee Titans, though he also played in Baltimore for the Ravens. In addition to his on-field accolades, which included three Pro Bowls as well as a Co-MVP with Peyton Manning in 2003, he was also known for his activities off the field, which included philanthropy and charity (via The Tennessean). He had his own youth charity, the Steve McNair Foundation, and was 2005 nominee for the NFL's Man of the Year award.

Ronnie Hillman, 31

Just days before Christmas in 2022, former Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman tragically passed away from cancer; he was just 31 years old at the time. A former member of the Broncos 2015 Super Bowl team with Peyton Manning, Hillman was first known to be sick on December 20, when former teammate Orlando Franklin posted a message on social media about Hillman being in the hospital. Another former teammate, Derek Wolfe, also relayed that he had cancer and had recently contracted pneumonia (via

He was pronounced dead the following day on December 21. According to a statement from his family posted to his Instagram, Hillman had a form of cancer known as renal medullary carcinoma, which usually affects young African-American people who have another disorder known as sickle cell trait. 

The Broncos released a statement on his passing, calling him "soft-spoken with a warm smile" and remembering his achievements during the historic Super Bowl season. Previously, Hillman had been a running back at San Diego State University, and he also played for the Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers (via

Alex Collins, 28

As a result of a tragic motorcycle accident, former Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens running back Alex Collins died on August 13, 2023. Collins played in the NFL from 2016–2021 after an incredibly successful career at the University of Arkansas. He amassed over 2,000 total yards during his career and scored 19 total touchdowns. His last season in the NFL was in 2021, but he continued to play professional football. Collins played in the United States Football League for the Memphis Showboats in 2023, recording 98 rushing yards and 1 rushing touchdown.

The Seahawks announced Collins' passing through a post on X (formerly known as Twitter), which included a statement from his family calling Collins a "larger-than-life personality" and expressing deep sorrow. According to news reports, Collins was in his home state of Florida when the accident happened, and was riding a Suzuki sport-bike. It was unclear who was at fault for the accident, but Collins hit a large SUV at a high rate of speed and died at the scene from his injuries. Collins was just 28 years old at the time, and was survived by his family.

Mike Williams, 36

Wide receiver Mike Williams had an explosive rookie season. Drafted out of Syracuse in the fourth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2010, Williams caught a total of 65 passes and converted those into 964 yards and 11 touchdowns his rookie year. That last figure set a team record for receptions, and that helped push Williams into second place in voting for that year's Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Williams would ultimately play 63 games across a five-season NFL career, all but one of those years with the Buccaneers, amassing 223 catches, 3,089 yards, and 26 touchdowns.

In early September 2023, Williams suffered serious injuries, including partial paralyzation, in a construction accident in Hillsborough County, Florida. On September 7, doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa removed Williams from the ventilator controlling his breathing, and on September 12, 2023, he died. The former NFL standout was 36 years old.

Matt Ulrich, 41

Captain of the Northwestern University football team, Matt Ulrich went unselected in the 2005 NFL Draft, but the Indianapolis Colts signed the offensive guard anyway. Part of the line in support of star quarterback Peyton Manning, Ulrich played in 10 regular-season games over the course of two seasons for the Colts. He really made it count with his last game as a professional, helping his team beat the Chicago Bears 29 to 17 in the 2007 Super Bowl.

After leaving the NFL, Ulrich moved to Montana to raise a family but remained sports-adjacent, helping start the biological testing chain DexaFit and serving as an advisor to the Harvard Football Players Health Study. On November 8, 2023, Colts owner Jim Isray announced on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Ulrich had died. "Matt was with us only two seasons, but left his mark on many," Isray wrote. "I hear he was a great dad — and he was a Super Bowl champ." Ulrich was 41 years old. No cause of death was given at the time of the announcement.

D.J. Hayden, 33

Derek Sherrard "D.J." Hayden almost never made it to the NFL. A star cornerback at the University of Houston, Hayden suffered a life-threatening injury during a practice in 2012 after colliding with another player. The athletic trainer had him rushed to the ICU where doctors performed open heart surgery on the vena cava blood vessel, saving his life.

Though his college playing days were over, Hayden miraculously managed to rehabilitate himself, becoming a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders. Hayden eventually spent nine seasons in the league as a cornerback, playing through the 2021 season. His best season was in 2015, when he started 13 games, had an interception and a forced fumble, and combined for 70 tackles.

Sadly, Hayden's amazing life story was cut short on November 11, 2023, when he died after a car crash in downtown Houston. Hayden was riding in an SUV with several others when a different car plowed into them after running a red light. Four were pronounced dead at the scene and two more later died at the hospital as a result of their injuries.

While authorities did not release the names of the victims, the University of Houston announced that two of his former teammates were also killed in the crash. Hayden was only 33 at the time of his death and just two years removed from his NFL career.