Athletes Who Died Under Suspicious Circumstances

Professional athletes are a strange breed, combining the celebrity lifestyle of the Hollywood elite with the physical standards of those toys and cartoon characters we were all told were unrealistic as kids. When these towering personifications of the triumph of the human spirit die, it's made all the more tragic. In short, it's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

It seems like a famous athlete's life can generally go one of two ways: Either they live out their golden years shilling Subway in 30-second TV spots, or they go out with a bang. It can be hard to put your finger on the reason, but whether it's due to the high-stakes lives they live or the fact that everything that can kill you gets so much more attainable once you're rich, athletes have a tendency to die hard. When the circumstances of their deaths get murky, we're colored intrigued. Here's a list of some of the strangest sports deaths that left the public puzzled.

Pat Tillman - friendly fire?

For a hot minute, Pat Tillman was the square-jawed mascot for Bush-era patriotism, and with good reason. At just shy of 6 feet and a hair over 200 pounds, Tillman looked like a Rob Liefeld comic book cover. During his NFL career, he played for the Cardinals, at one point even turning down a higher-paying contract out of loyalty to his team. The kid was a mensch.

Then, after 9/11, Tillman quit the NFL to join the army with his brother, Kevin, who himself dropped out of a contract with the Cleveland Indians. The two became Army Rangers, graduating from what many consider to be the most elite military training program on Earth. Two years after he enlisted, Tillman was killed, with initial reports stating that he died in combat.

Well, he definitely died in combat, but what wasn't revealed until later was that his death was a result of a friendly fire mishap. Speculation circulated that the details of the tragedy were covered up by the Bush administration in order to keep the public from equating an all-American hero with a preventable atrocity.

Arturo Gatti - murder or suicide?

There's no two ways about it. Arturo Gatti was a juggernaut. Across the span of his 16-year fighting career, he went 40-9, winning more than three quarters of his bouts by knockout. He slowed down for a while, eventually attempting a comeback in 2007 where he lost by TKO. After that, he said he was done with fighting. Two years later, he was done with everything.

Gatti was found dead in a hotel room in Brazil in July 2009. The circumstances? He was hanged with a tummy full of alcohol and muscle relaxers. But did he do it himself? Or was it his wife, Amanda Rodrigues? You don't know? Neither do the police.

Initially, Rodrigues was charged with murder, partly because she had a bloodstain on her purse and partly because she couldn't explain how she'd been in the same room as Gatti for 10 hours without knowing he was dead. She was later let go. The death was ruled a homicide, then a suicide, and at this point remains an unsolved mystery.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Andres Escobar - bad score

Fans are a double-edged sword. It seems like a thin line separates the amused from the unstable. Their obsession can be a guiding motivator or an express train to the great hereafter.

Exhibit A: Andres Escobar. Escobar hailed from Colombia, where he played for the nation's soccer team. Colombia's chief exports, if you weren't aware, are violence and enthusiasm about soccer. And that's what you call foreshadowing.

During the 1994 World Cup, Escobar biffed it hard. He accidentally scored a goal against his own team, giving their opponents on the U.S. team a lead that they would carry to win the game.

The people of Colombia were less than enthused, and the rancor came to a head a little over a week later. Escobar was confronted in the parking lot of a club and subsequently shot multiple times. While there's some controversy over the reason for his execution, the consensus seems to be that it was in retaliation for his flub during the game, especially since the gunman reportedly shouted "Goal!" every time he fired.

Rikidōzan - Yakuza hit?

It takes a lot to instigate a cultural shift, and Rikidōzan was a lot of dude.

Born Kim Sin-rak in Korea in 1924, the man who would become known as Rikidōzan moved to Japan at an early age to try to break into sumo wrestling. He found out the hard way that many natives of Japan held deep prejudices against Koreans, and he dropped out of the world of sumo in 1950.

Shortly afterward, Sin-rak made the shift to pro wrestling, going by the stage name Rikidōzan. He swiftly gained stardom and acclaim, defeating American wrestlers in the ring and giving the Japanese people an icon to look up to during a bleak period in their history. He's now credited with being the determining factor in Japan's acceptance of pro wrestling.

And then, the weirdness.

In December 1963, was jamming at a nightclub when an enraged man approached and stabbed him with a blade covered in urine. Complicating matters was the fact that the assailant was a member of the Yakuza, the Japanese mob. Why did he do it? Hard to say. The prevailing theory is that the murder was in retaliation for a perceived slight against a fellow wrestler in the ring.

Fred Lane - killed for insurance money?

It's not a question of how Fred Lane died, but why.

This much we know: Lane was a running back for the Carolina Panthers for three years before being traded to the Colts in 2000. Shortly after the trade, his wife, Deidra, killed him. Lane was shot twice at point-blank range: once in the chest and once in the back of the head. Again, though, it's the particulars that make this case a mystery.

Why did she do it? Matter of opinion. The defense said Fred was a chronic spousal abuser and that Deidra was only acting in self-defense. Astute readers might wonder how someone can shoot a person in the back of the head in self-defense, and so did the prosecution, who claimed she was the abuser and that she only killed him for the insurance payout. Either way, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges and served just shy of six years in prison for his death.

Lorenzen Wright - disappeared

In his 13-year basketball career, Lorenzen Wright bounced around quite a bit, playing for the Clippers, the Grizzlies, and the Cavaliers, among others. Then, on July 18, 2010, he disappeared mysteriously.

What happened? According to his ex-wife, Sherra Wright-Robinson, he took off in the middle of the night with a wad of cash and a mess of drugs and never came home. If you think that sounds like exactly the sort of thing a B-list celebrity says about the spouse they murdered during a cameo appearance on Law and Order, you're not alone.

Ten days later, the body of Lorenzen Wright was found in the woods. For a long time, there were more questions than answers, but seven long years later, Wright-Robinson and a man with whom she attended church were arrested and charged with murder. The motivation? Hard to say exactly, but the million-dollar insurance payout sure seemed to be a factor. A trial is ongoing.

Greg Halman - reefer madness

At 24 years old, Dutch baseball player Greg Halman had already played for the Dutch national baseball team and had just recently made it to the American big leagues, playing as an outfielder for the Seattle Mariners in 2010 and 2011. Then, on a trip back home to the Netherlands to visit family, he was stabbed to death by his brother, Jason. Nobody seemed to see it coming.

What happened next was mind-boggling to anyone but the most dedicated of Harry J. Anslinger fans. The Dutch court and psychiatric community agreed: Jason couldn't be held responsible for his actions. He was out of his mind, in a state of temporary psychosis. The real culprit, they said, was the Demon Weed.

Yes, according to the defense, Jason Halman was driven momentarily crazy by marijuana. That was why he stabbed his brother. You know how most people get sleepy or hungry or giggly when they're high? Well, he apparently got stabby. Jason was let off on probation and agreed to enter counseling.

Vladimir 'Spider' Sabich - one more bullet

Spider Sabich was a crazy talented skier, but possibly a less gifted firearms enthusiast. According to his girlfriend, Claudine Longet, everything was going great between her and Sabich in Colorado on the afternoon of March 21, 1976. Sabich was showing her his pistol when it discharged accidentally, shooting him in the stomach and resulting in his death.

If you asked the police, however, they'd tell you that Longet had a heaping double scoop of cocaine in her bloodstream at the time, that her diary contradicted her claim that everything was hunky dory between the two, and that the gun in question (and this is important) had a defect that meant the trigger had to be pulled several times for it to fire. So, you know, there are two sides to every story.

Unfortunately, the cops botched big chunks of the case, like acquiring Longet's diary and blood sample without the proper paperwork. Longet ended up serving 30 days in prison, mostly on weekends, on criminal negligence charges. Then she married her defense attorney. Just like in the fairy tales.

Len Koenecke - death by D.B. Cooper

It had been a rough season for Len Koenecke. After a stunning first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, his stats had dropped precipitously and he was sent home from a road trip to Chicago in 1935. The reason? He was pretty drunk.

Koenecke hopped on a plane back home, where he continued to be drunk. As a matter of fact, he upped the ante, reportedly drinking a Paul Bunyan's worth of whiskey. Then he got into the sorts of misadventures you might expect a recently fired, angry alcoholic to get into on a plane, hitting a stewardess and needing to be restrained. Leaving what was left of his lucidity on the plane, Len was dropped off at the airport in Detroit.

When he woke up, Koenecke chartered a flight to Toronto in the hopes of catching up with his team. Then, and this is where you can't help but lose whatever connection you might have felt with this plucky underdog, he tried to hijack the plane. What happened next was maybe a little anticlimactic. He got bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher wielded by the pilot.