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Over time, sports leagues and athletic associations work to improve equipment and processes to make their sports safer for athletes. However, on rare occasions, an athlete dies playing the game he loves. Some sports, such as boxing, naturally contribute to more tragic deaths. Athletes have died at some point in virtually all major sports, though.
5 Pistol Pete Maravich
One of the most famous examples of an athlete dying playing the sport he loves was the 1988 death of professional basketball legend Pistol Pete Maravich. Widely regarded as the best college basketball player ever, and the college game’s all-time scoring leader, Maravich died in a pick-up game after he had retired from the NBA. His death was attributed to a congenital heart defect.
4 Chuck Hughes
Even more surprising than baseball’s record of in-game deaths is the fact that the NFL has experienced only one in-game death in its history, according to “Complex Sports.” In 1971, Detroit Lions wide receiver Chuck Hughes collapsed on his way back to the huddle and died of cardiac arrest. His family’s history of heart ailments was the more likely culprit. Several high school, college and pro players have died during training and practices, often due to extreme heat in preseason workouts.
3 Ray Chapman
Only two professional baseball players have died during games, according to “Complex Sports,” and none since Ray Chapman collapsed and died after taking a pitch to the head in 1920. Chapman’s death is significant in that it led to the evolution of batters wearing helmets during games. A rush of pitchers being struck by line drives has sparked discussions in 2013 about pitchers wearing protective head wear as well.
2 Sarah Burke
Winter X-games athletes put their lives at risks virtually every time they train or compete. Halfpipe skier Sarah Burke, a pioneering athlete in winter extreme sports, died nine days after hitting her head during a training fall in January 2012. She was 29 years old. Other extreme sports athletes have suffered major brain injuries, including snowboarder Patrick Pearce in 2009. He recovered but has been unable to return to competitive snowboarding, as of July 2013.
1 Bill Masterson
Hockey is known as an aggressive, often violent sport. However, Bill Masterton is the only NHL player to have died in a game, according to a July 2011 “Complex Sports” article. Masterton, who played for the Minnesota North Stars, died of a brain hemorrhage in January 1968 after being checked and landing head first on the ice. Though it took a while, the NHL made helmets mandatory in the 1979-80 season. In his honor, the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy is awarded annually to the NHL player who shows the most perseverance and dedication to the sport.