Athletes we lost in 2020

It's an odd and baffling thing when our collective heroes die. Those unique, special people who achieve fame, fortune, and glory by surpassing other skilled and talented athletes to become absolute legends in their chosen sport, seem untouchable if not immortal. After all, they've conquered the physical realm and pushed their bodies as far as they could go to impress, inspire, and entertain the world with their mind-boggling athletic accomplishments. But while the stats, video footage, and memories of what athletes do on the court, field, diamond, ring, or track, will live forever, those men and women will not. They're just like the rest of us, on this planet only temporarily and subject to the whims of the universe and the eventual frailty of the human body.

In 2020, as it is in every other year, the world lost a number of individuals who left an indelible mark on their sport.

Don Larsen was perfect when it mattered most

Don Larsen helped the New York Yankees reach four (of their eight) World Series in the 1950s, winning two. The journeyman pitcher also made brief stops with the St. Louis Browns, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Athletics, and San Francisco Giants, among others, and his stats won't put him into Hall of Fame contention: His win-loss record is 81-91 (including a league-worst 21 losses in 1954) and he struck out only 849 batters. 

But Don Larsen will forever be a special part of baseball lore, because according to the Los Angeles Times, he's the first — and so far, only — pitcher to throw a perfect game in the World Series. In Game 5 of the 1956 championship round, Larsen didn't give up any hits, walks, or commit any errors. The Yankees went on to win it all in seven games, and Larsen was named the Most Valuable Player of the World Series. 

After playing his final big-league game in 1967, Larsen switched careers to paper goods sales before retiring to Idaho in the early '90s. Larsen passed away from esophageal cancer on New Year's Day at the age of 90.

Rocky Johnson grappled with greatness

Even before the "Hulkamania" of the '80s, wrestling was hugely popular in America, and there were few athletes as important to the sport as Rocky Johnson. Born Wayde Bowles in Canada in the 1940s, CNN says he was out on his own by the age of 14, and found solace and purpose with boxing at a Toronto community center before a local wrestler encouraged him to switch sports. The man referred him to a wrestling school run by a trainer who'd launched the careers or several pros, such as Ivan Koloff and Killer Karl Krupp. In the mid-1960s, the renamed Rocky Johnson (taken from boxing legends Rocky Marciano and Jack Johnson) became a star in the National Wrestling Alliance along with other regional, televised circuits, becoming one of the most popular and recognizable wrestlers of his generation.

According to the WWE, Johnson joined the then-WWF in 1983 and built up rivalries with the likes of Greg "The Hammer" Valentine and Adrian Adonis, and with Tony Atlas comprised The Soul Patrol, the first African-American duo to win the organization's tag team championship belt. Johnson retired in 1991, but his influence remains prominent: He trained his son, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who inducted his father into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008. 

Rocky Johnson died at his Florida home on January 15, 2020, at the age of 75.

Kobe Bryant was the most iconic basketball player of his generation

Every generation gets a basketball icon to call its own, a single player that makes a case for themselves as the greatest of all time: Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and, for fans who followed the NBA in the early 2000s, Kobe Bryant

As the Guardian reports, the achievements of the player who called himself the "Black Mamba" because he likened his relentless, victory-above-all-else mentality to that of a deadly snake, are staggering. Entering the league at just 18-years-old, he played 20 seasons, all of them with the storied Los Angeles Lakers. In that time, he won five NBA titles, led the league in scoring twice, made it onto 18 all-star teams and 15 All-NBA squads, was named the league MVP in 2008, and finished his career in third place on the all-time scoring list. As he wore two jersey numbers during his career — #8 and #24 — the Lakers went ahead and retired both after Bryant wrapped up his career. Not one to leave quietly, the ultra-competitive Bryant scored an astounding 60 points in his final game, which isn't even his best single-game performance. That would be the 81-point show he put on against the New York Knicks in 2006.

On January 26, 2020, Bryant was traveling to his youth basketball complex in California when the helicopter crashed, killing all nine people on board, including Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. 

Chris Doleman struck fear into the hearts of quarterbacks

Chris Doleman was a dominant defensive dynamo, one of the NFL's strongest points-preventer in the 1980s and 1990s. Drafted out of the University of Pittsburgh in 1985 with the fourth overall pick by the Minnesota Vikings, quarterbacks hated getting sacked by the defensive end and linebacker because he sacked so many guys. In 1989, he led the NFL with 21 sacks, at the time, the second-highest number in a single season. During stints with the Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers, he led his squad in sacks — nine for the falcons in 1995, and 15 for the 49ers in 1998. His career total of 150.5 sacks placed him fifth on the all-time list. Doleman's achievements didn't go unnoticed — he was voted to the Pro Bowl eight times and was a first-team All-Pro selection on two occasions. The member of the Vikings Ring of Honor was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.

According to the NFL, Doleman struggled for two years against glioblastoma, an especially aggressive form of brain cancer, undergoing tumor removal surgery in 2018. Sadly, Doleman lost the fight on January 28, 2019, at the age of 58.

John Andretti successfully went into the family business

The Andrettis are the first family of IndyCar racing. Mario Andretti dominated competitors in the '60s, with son Michael following suit in the '80s. Mario's twin brother Aldo raced, and so did his son, John Andretti. And in 1991, John Andretti did his family proud by capturing the first race of the IndyCar season. Then in 1994, he became the first racer to compete in the storied Indy 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 ... on the same day. It's a test of endurance so difficult that it's only ever been attempted three times since. From the mid-'90s on, Andretti concentrated on NASCAR, winning the 1997 Pepsi 400 and a 1999 contest at Martinsville Speedway. But always an Andretti, he never completely turned away from IndyCar, going on to race in five more Indy 500s.

Andretti struggled long and mightily against illness, having received a stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis in April 2017. He subsequently launched an online campaign (#CheckIt4Andretti) to persuade others to go get potentially lifesaving colonoscopies. In March 2018, he disclosed that he was cancer-free, but just two months later, he reported that the cancer had returned and spread. He passed away on January 30, 2020, at the age of 56.

Poeti Norac was a surfing champion and just getting started

Hailing from the French town of Les Sables-d'Olonne, Poeti Norac was an athlete to watch, a rising star in the rapidly growing sport of professional surfing. After learning how to surf from her father in the shortboard style at the age of six, Norac turned professional while still a young teenager. She also made a vital switch that was key to her success — moving from the short to the longboard style. In that division, Norac racked up a series of victories, including ten wins in the Coupe de France, notably the 2017 100% Girls competition. In the French national championships, Norac finished in second place in 2018 and third in 2016, and according to CNN, she'd recently moved to Australia to better pursue her sport in a more competitive venue.

On February 7, 2020, the French Surfing Federation confirmed to media outlets that Norac had died on the Sunshine Coast of Australia the previous weekend. The cause of death for the surfer was not immediately disclosed. Norac was 24 years old.

Tony Fernandez brought a World Series championship to Canada

After a couple of American League East titles in the 1980s, the Toronto Blue Jays went to the next level in the early '90s, winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. Infielder and hit machine Tony Fernandez was there for almost all of it, playing for Canada's first MLB franchise from 1983 to 1990, rejoining in 1993, and eventually retiring from the game in 2001. Fernandez spent 12 of his 17 pro seasons in Toronto, and he was named an All-Star five times and was awarded a Gold Glove (for his fielding prowess, primarily at shortstop) four times. Offensively, Fernandez put up near-Hall of Fame numbers, cracking more than 2,200 hits with a lifetime .288 average and nearly 250 stolen bases. He's still the Blue Jays' all-time leader in games played, hits, and triples.

Fernandez struggled with kidney disease since 2017, and eventually, he developed pneumonia and was put into an induced coma. On February 16, 2020, he was taken off of life support and passed away. Fernandez was 57.

Mickey Wright was one the greatest golfers ever

It's not an understatement to say that Mickey Wright dominated her sport the way Serena Williams or Tiger Woods have at the peak of their careers. In 1999, the Associated Press named Wright the Female Golfer of the Century, and Golf Magazine called her the greatest of all time in 2009. After joining the LPGA in 1955, Wright won her first tournament the following season, and then her career exploded. Between 1958 and 1966, she won 13 majors — that's the most any woman would ever accumulate on the LPGA tour. 

In every year from 1961 to 1964, Wright won at least ten tournaments each season. Her 82 total wins is second only to the 88 by Kathy Whitworth. Even before she went pro, Wright was a phenom, winning the 1952 USGA Girls' Junior Championship and the World Amateur title in 1954. Lingering foot issues led to Wright's retirement from the pro tour in 1969, but she still played occasionally, winning one more tournament in 1973. Three years later, she was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Wright suffered a fall in early 2020 and had been hospitalized for a few weeks, suffering a fatal heart attack on February 17. The golf great was 85.