José Fernández was one of the most talented pitchers in Major League Baseball. Aged just 24, he had already been named 2013 Rookie of the Year and played in two MLB All-Star Games. On 20 September, Fernández announced that his girlfriend, Carla Mendoza, was pregnant with the couple’s first child, and the day after he followed this news with one of his best ever performances against the Washington Nationals. On the morning of 25 September, however, fans woke to the news that Fernández was dead.
Outside of Marlins Park, where the baseball star had built his formidable reputation, the streets were bedecked with flowers as fans and casual observers alike struggled to come to terms with what had happened. Three men had been killed in a boating accident, but the fact that one was a superstar sportsman led to trauma and disbelief across the world. This trauma may be explained by the unique place that sport holds in our collective consciousness.
While it is of huge social and economic importance to so many, the fact remains that any sport is, ultimately, just a game. A tragic reminder of this came in 1994 when Colombian footballer Andrés Escobar was murdered after costing his team a match against the United States. In the aftermath of his death, the footballing world united in grief, and in Colombia, 120,000 people turned out for Escobar’s funeral. In 2002, a statue in his memory was erected in Medellín, and every year to this day, supporters bring photographs of the player to matches. Escobar’s death was cause for the kind of collective anguish that only the premature death of a sportsperson can deliver. As well as being the actors in a vastly popular social phenomenon, the men and women who are known for their achievements in sport seem to be masked by a veneer of invincibility.
Any British football fan can recount the story of the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, in which eight members of Manchester United’s “Busby Babes” team were killed in a plane crash. The young and exceptionally talented team was tipped to dominate world football in years to come, and when it was reported that the core of the group had been killed, it was scarcely believed. Perhaps the most mourned death of them all was that of player Duncan Edwards. Aged just 21, the brilliant midfielder was already considered one of England’s best and would surely go on to be among the greatest of all time. Doctors were amazed at the young man’s strength as he fought for his life in the hospital, even insisting that he mustn’t miss the next game. When Edwards finally passed away over two weeks after the crash, his death was mourned all over the country. The respect sports fans have for Edwards was shown in 2002, when he was an inaugural inductee in the Football Hall of Fame.
The shock of sudden deaths of athletes has been experienced time and time again. The death of Lou Gehrig from the disease which now carries his name is still a figure in the memories of any sports fan 75 years on. In 1970, the “golden girl” of British athletics, Lillian Board, died suddenly of cancer aged just 22. Charismatic golfer Payne Stewart died in 1999 when his Learjet suffered depressurisation just weeks after he helped the US Ryder Cup team to a comeback victory. NFL star Sean Taylor, 24, was shot by an intruder and later died of his wounds in 2007. Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes died in 2014 when a ball struck him on the head.
Even deaths that have come in particularly dangerous sports are treated with shock and disbelief. Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, considered among the best drivers of all time, had already won three world championships when he crashed during a 1994 race. Found in his cockpit was an Austrian flag to commemorate his friend and fellow driver, Roland Ratzenberger, who had died in qualifying the day before. In 2012, free-skier and six-time X-Games gold medalist Sarah Burke was killed in a training accident. Not only was she one of Canada’s most prominent sportswomen, but also a pioneer in the sport of free-skiing who had successfully lobbied for the women’s halfpipe to be included in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Had she survived, Burke would surely have been the favourite in this event.
Deaths such as these shatter the illusions of invulnerability that we build up around sportspeople, and now and again we are heartbreakingly reminded of just how vulnerable they can be. The pressure that comes with sporting stardom, be it the pressure to perform, to please others, to meet expectations or correctly handle newfound wealth, can weigh heavily on some. Sammy Wanjiru was an immensely talented long-distance runner who won the 2008 Olympic marathon in record time. However, he suffered from a failure to control his spending and descended into alcoholism, ultimately leading to his death aged just 24. Welsh football legend Gary Speed suffered from depression but kept it to himself, perhaps because of the illusion that sports stars should be in some way tougher than the rest of us. In 2011, he committed suicide at the age of 42.
The veneration we have for sports and those who play them often leads us to forget that athletes are human beings as well. It is only thanks to the huge part sport plays in the lives of many that when a sportsperson dies, the shock and sadness is so profound. Doubtless Fernández will not be forgotten, just as the memories of so many others who have died, and will do so in the future, live on.