Athletes We Lost In 2023

Time passes for everyone, no matter how fit and famous they are. Because of this, every year is full of tragic news about familiar names passing away — and quite possibly the most shocking news of this variety is about athletes. The world is used to seeing these people in their absolute physical prime, performing feats that the average person can only dream of and possibly even making history on the way. As such, unexpectedly seeing their obituaries can be particularly somber. 

2023 has seen more than its share of death, and unfortunately, a number of the world's greatest sports figures have also passed away this year. Some of them lived a long and fruitful life. Others died shockingly young, with years of active sports and decades of life still potentially ahead of them. Let's take a look at some of the most prominent athletes we lost in 2023.

The following article contains mentions of domestic abuse.

Bobby Hull

National Hockey League Hall of Famer Bobby Hull became known as one of the greatest ice hockey players of his era. Starting in 1957, Hull played 16 years in the league to the tune of 610 goals and 560 assists, spending all except his two final seasons with the Windy City's own Chicago Blackhawks. Apart from his NHL accolades, he was a force to be reckoned with in the World Hockey Association, and his son Brett also became a well-known player. Hull passed away on January 30, at the age of 84. 

Hull was a bona fide legend on the ice, but his personal life was somewhat less exemplary at times. In 1987, the Chicago Tribune reported that the athlete had pleaded guilty to a 1986 incident where he assaulted a police officer who was investigating a noise complaint. A related battery charge fell through after his third wife — the alleged victim — refused to testify. This wasn't the only time Hull faced domestic violence allegations, as his second wife has also accused him of multiple instances of abuse, leading to their separation in 1970 and divorce 10 years later (per ESPN). In 1998, Hull also had to publicly deny that he had expressed concerns about Black population growth and made positive remarks about Adolf Hitler in an interview with a Russian newspaper, the Moscow Times, during a visit to Russia (via the Los Angeles Times). 

Elena Fanchini

Elena Fanchini's death on February 8 came at a young age, as the Italian alpine skiing star passed away at just 37 years old. The cause of her death was cancer. 

A successful athlete and a two-time World Cup winner, Fanchini also took home the silver medal in the women's downhill skiing event at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in 2005. In addition, she was an Olympic athlete who represented her country in the Turin Olympic Winter Games in 2006, as well as the 2010 event in Vancouver and the 2014 one in Sochi. The cancer diagnosis cut her attempts to attend the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics short, and while she subsequently attempted to return to the sport, she ultimately retired in 2020. 

The news of Fanchini's death was a blow to her old teammates, some of whom learned the news while preparing for the 2023 World Championships. "Yesterday we did the [second] training run but inside we were deeply shaken," Fanchini's friend and teammate Sofia Goggia described the heart-wrenching situation to Olympics. "I focused on my skiing but once I came back to my hotel I cried [non-stop] for three hours." 

Dick Groat

Few athletes get to create a legacy as one of the greatest to ever play their sport. Even fewer have a chance to do so while playing what they insist isn't even the sport they're best at. Yet, such was the case with Dick Groat, who died in hospital at age 92 on April 27. He had a stroke two days after finding out about his induction into the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame.

Adept at both basketball and baseball from a young age, it seemed at first that the former was Groat's true calling. He achieved considerable success during his time with Duke University's basketball team, becoming a two-time All-American. Eventually, however, he started gravitating toward baseball... though only because Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Branch Rickey told him he couldn't focus on both sports simultaneously.

While Groat himself always felt that his true talent was in basketball, he ended up choosing baseball. Judging by the two World Series championships, one league MVP award, and numerous other accolades the shortstop won throughout his 14-year pro career, it wasn't exactly a bad call. 

Tori Bowie

In the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Tori Bowie competed in three events — the 4x100 meter-relay race and the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints. She took home a gold, a silver, and a bronze medal, respectively. She also won two World Championships in 2017, along with numerous smaller competitions over the course of her career. What's more, she was also a talented long jumper, winning the NCAA championship in 2011. 

Unfortunately, Bowie's life was cut short in a particularly sad fashion at just 32. On May 2, representatives of the Orange County Sheriff's Office found her dead in her home. Bowie was eight months pregnant at the time of her death, had gone into labor, and passed away due to complications.

The news struck a particular nerve with Bowie's Olympic teammate Allyson Felix. In response to the tragedy, she wrote an article in Time calling attention to preeclampsia – a blood pressure complication during pregnancy that played a part in Bowie's death. Felix herself struggled with the condition in 2018, and it's a considerable pregnancy risk for Black women (per Mayo Clinic). In the article, Felix expressed hope that her friend's fate, while tragic, would act as a catalyst to improve Black women's maternal health care.

Jim Brown

Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown died on May 18 at the age of 87. Brown's wife, Monique, announced the news on Brown's official Instagram account. "He passed peacefully last night at our LA home," part of the statement read. "To the world he was an activist, actor, and football star. To our family, he was a loving and wonderful husband, father, and grandfather. Our hearts are broken..." 

The statement's list of Brown's accolades is no overkill. Though he was only 30 when he transitioned from football to acting, he had already created a legacy as one of the game's greats as the Cleveland Browns' record-breaking running back. Brown went on to become a familiar face in Hollywood, appearing in no less than 58 shows and movies in both acting roles and as himself. Some of his best-known roles include Fireball in Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Running Man," Montezuma Monroe in the Al Pacino sports drama "Any Given Sunday," and Robert T. Jefferson in the 1967 war film "The Dirty Dozen." He was also a prominent social activist and advocate for the Black community. 

Despite his accomplishments, Brown's legacy is complicated. Over the decades, he faced multiple domestic abuse charges — though he was only convicted for a 1999 incident where he smashed his wife's car windows (via the Los Angeles Times). He was sentenced to six months in jail, serving less than four. 

Nikki McCray-Penson

Nikki McCray-Penson was part of the winning women's basketball teams in two consecutive Summer Olympic Games. However, Olympic golds from Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 were just part of her résumé. She went from a stellar youth talent in the University of Tennessee to a nine-season career in the WNBA and a place in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. After ending her playing career in 2006, McCray-Penson became a basketball coach, winning the Conference USA Coach of the Year award for the 2019-2020 season for her role as the head coach of Old Dominion's women's basketball team. 

McCray-Penson's life also had its troubles. In 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and in 2021, she left her coaching position at Mississippi State University, citing health reasons. "Over the past several weeks, I have been faced again with health concerns I had hoped were behind me," she wrote in a statement (via Hail State). "In light of these developments, I have decided to step away from coaching in order to devote my full time and energy to addressing those issues. Although I look forward to returning to coaching when I am able, I believe this is the best decision for me and my family at this time."

Unfortunately, McCray-Penson's wish to return to coaching was short-lived. While she joined Rutgers as an assistant coach in 2022, she passed away on July 7, 2023, at the age of 51. 

Mikala Jones

Surfing is a perilous sport that requires interacting with one of the most powerful natural forces — the sea. Unfortunately, this can sometimes end in tragedy. This happened on July 9 when Hawaiian professional surfer Mikala Jones died during a surfing trip to Indonesia when the fin of his surfboard slashed a large cut in his thigh, slicing open his femoral artery. 

Fin lacerations are a relatively common injury among surfers since the power of the sea can easily drive a sharp fin through flesh — but this one was particularly bad. Jones remained calm and requested assistance. However, while others were able to rescue him from the choppy waters, it soon became clear that the surfer had lost too much blood. Despite attempts to save his life, Jones died at the hospital.

A two-time U.S. champion before turning pro, Jones was well known for the thrilling images and videos he shot while surfing, providing an exciting first-person view of the sport for surfing enthusiasts and laypeople alike. He was 44 years old when he died. 

Jim Hines

Runners competing in the 100-meter sprint shave off tiny fractions of the world-record time on occasion, but there's only one man who could say he took the seconds game to single digits. He was Jim Hines, the first athlete to run 100 meters in under 10 seconds. Hines first achieved a hand-timed 9.90 seconds at the U.S. Championships in 1968, and later that year, replicated the feat with electronic timing at the Summer Olympics to the tune of 9.95 seconds. That record wasn't broken until 1983, and while Mexico City 1968 was the only time Hines appeared on an Olympic stage, it earned him two gold medals — one from his solo sprint, and another for the 4x100-meter relay. Hines passed away on June 3, at age 76.

Despite his sprinter accolades — along with two seasons playing in the NFL — Hines didn't live the kind of wealthy, luxury-filled life one might associate with today's athletes. In a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he expressed a belief that his Olympic success was overshadowed by one of the most memorable moments from Summer Olympics history: Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Black Power salute on the podium. "America thought we knew about it," Hines said. "There were 48 Blacks on the team and two knew it was going to happen. Most of us felt the best way a Black athlete could make a statement was by going and doing his best."

Dick Butkus

Iconic Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus died at the age of 80 on October 5. According to a coroner's report (via CBS News), the cause of death was a stroke. 

Fast, powerful, and dedicated, Butkus received copious individual honors throughout his NFL career — which earned him a spot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible for selection. He didn't disappear after his playing career ended in 1973, either. On the contrary, Butkus worked as a prolific sports commentator and actor who appeared in more than 60 TV shows and movies over the years.

Despite the many All-League selections, Pro Bowls, and awards Butkus won, he never got a chance to play in the Super Bowl. Regardless, the Hall of Famer didn't dwell on this particular lost opportunity. After all, as he told the Chicago Sun-Times, he knew perfectly well that football is a team game, and the Bears as a whole didn't exactly perform well during his time with the team. ”You know, I never thought much about it,” Butkus said about the Super Bowl. ”I mean, to do something like that, you have to have the other 50 guys all in, too."

Bobby Charlton

Sir Bobby Charlton was one of the best-regarded soccer players in history. An obvious talent since childhood, he played his way into the ranks of English giant Manchester United while he was still in school, scored twice in his debut first-team match in 1956 despite playing with a sprained ankle, and went on to spend almost his entire playing career there. 

This presented him with both incredible highs and unthinkable lows. Charlton's United won every possible prize a club could win, but he was also aboard the plane that crashed and killed eight players, three members of the team staff, and numerous others in one of soccer's most tragic events – the 1958 Munich air disaster. Charlton, who was only 20 at the time, survived with minor injuries, but the weight of the tragedy burdened his shoulders for the rest of his life. 

On the pitch, Charlton thrived. Apart from his successes with Manchester United, he was an instrumental part of the national soccer team that won the FIFA World Cup during the 1966 tournament — on their home soil, no less. After he retired as a player in 1973, he continued to work with the game in several roles, notably as a director for Manchester United and in various ambassadorial roles. Charlton was 86 when he passed away on October 21. According to a coroner's report (via the BBC), he had sustained injuries after an accidental fall.

Betsy Rawls

World Golf Hall of Famer Betsy Rawls might not have the name recognition of some of the widely known team sports athletes on this list, but her sports accolades stand up to just about anyone... especially since she never really intended to become a pro golfer in the first place. Rawls, who died on October 21 at the age of 95, initially only played for personal amusement while studying physics at the University of Texas. However, success as an amateur and a victory in the 1951 U.S. Women's Open — during her first year as a professional, no less — marked the start of a path that would turn her into a Ladies Professional Golf Association legend.

Rawls went on to win eight majors and 55 LPGA tour events in total... along with numerous awards and honors, including the United States Golf Association's Bob Jones Award. After she stopped competing in tournaments in 1975, she spent decades working behind the scenes as a tournament director. 

Willie Hernández

Former MLB star Willie Hernández died on November 20, aged 69, after a history of heart issues. The pitcher's team, the Detroit Tigers, announced the death of their former star player with a statement that reminisced on his accomplishments. "A 13-year Major League veteran, including his final six seasons wearing the Olde English 'D', Hernandez was a key member of the Tigers 1984 World Series championship team, earning American League MVP and Cy Young Award honors that season," part of it read (via CBS News). "He was also selected to three AL All-Star teams during his six seasons in Detroit."  

As this statement readily indicates, Hernández's 13 MLB years brought him plenty of success. He had already pitched for the Chicago Cubs since 1977, moving to Detroit by way of the Philadelphia Phillies. 1984 was his first season with the Tigers, and suffice it to say, the move was a success. To put the difficulty of finishing up a season with a trifecta of the Cy Young Award, the American League MVP, and a World Series victory in full context, only three players in history have managed it. Apart from the aforementioned accolades, the team even chose Hérnandez as the Tiger of the Year in the victorious 1984 campaign. 

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.