The year 2023 witnessed the tragic and untimely deaths of several remarkable athletes across various sporting disciplines. Ranging from motorsports icons like rally driver Ken Block to baseball legends such as knuckleball maestro Tim Wakefield, the sporting world lost some of its most illustrious stars. Whether enduring fatal crashes like freestyle skier Kyle Smaine or succumbing to medical complications like former boxing champion Carlos Baldomir, these athletes’ lives were cut short in their prime.
As we mourn the loss of these champions on the race tracks, wrestling rings, baseball diamonds, and more, 2023 will be remembered as a year marked by grief in the world of sports. Their storied careers and accomplishments stand as their lasting legacies, but their deaths left a profound void in their respective sporting realms.
Ken Block, born November 21, 1967, was an iconic American rally driver, co-founder of DC Shoes, and owner of Hoonigan Industries. Renowned for his skills in rallying, skateboarding, snowboarding, and motocross, Block’s career soared after founding DC Shoes and later focusing on Hoonigan Industries.
In rallying, Block excelled, earning the Rally America Rookie of the Year award in 2005. He competed in the X Games and the World Rally Championship, achieving numerous podiums and victories. In 2010, Block made history as the first American driver in the World Rally Championship, driving for Monster World Rally Team. He gained further fame through his Gymkhana videos, showcasing precision driving.
Tragically, Ken Block, a famous athlete who died tragically at 55 on January 2, 2023, in a snowmobile accident near his Utah ranch. His snowmobile overturned on a steep slope, leading to his untimely demise. Hoonigan confirmed his passing, expressing that Block, a visionary, pioneer, and family man, would be greatly missed. In his honor, the number 43 was retired from the World Rally Championship.
Wayne Gino Odjick, born on September 7, 1970, was a Canadian NHL left winger renowned for his 12-season career from 1990 to 2002. Hailing from Kitigan Zibi, near Maniwaki, Quebec, he earned nicknames like “Algonquin Assassin” and “Maniwaki Mauler” for his enforcer role. Starting with the Vancouver Canucks, he played for the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, and Montreal Canadiens.
Odjick’s youth in Maniwaki, marked by racial tensions, influenced his role as a fighter on the ice. Drafted by the Canucks in 1990, he became a fan favorite, known for his enforcer role alongside high-scoring players. After stints with the Islanders, Flyers, and Canadiens, Odjick retired in 2002. Post-playing, he managed the Musqueam Golf & Learning Academy.
In 2014, diagnosed with AL amyloidosis, a rare terminal disease, he battled with an experimental treatment, significantly recovering. However, on January 15, 2023, Gino Odjick passed away from a heart attack at 52 in Vancouver, British Columbia. His untimely demise added another layer to the narrative of athletes who died of a heart attack, leaving the sports community mourning the loss of a beloved figure.
Among the well-known athletes are many popular wrestlers who died in 2023. Jay Briscoe is unfortunately one of them! He was born on 25 January 1984, and was a distinguished American professional wrestler, part of the renowned Briscoe Brothers in Ring of Honor (ROH). Notable for securing multiple championships, including two ROH World Championships and a record 13 ROH World Tag Team Championships, Jay, along with his brother Mark, left an indelible mark in the wrestling world. Despite controversies, including a temporary ban from major wrestling platforms due to past inflammatory remarks, Jay Briscoe’s legacy in the industry remained significant.
Tragically, Jay Briscoe passed away at 38 on January 17, 2023, in a car crash in Laurel, Delaware. The collision occurred when a Chevrolet Silverado 1500 veered across the center line, colliding head-on with Jay’s Chevrolet Silverado 2500. His untimely death prompted tributes from wrestling organizations, acknowledging his contributions to the sport. A Briscoe tribute show was aired, and both WWE and NJPW paid homage to his wrestling legacy. Jay Briscoe’s impact on the wrestling community and his memory endure through various commemorations and acknowledgments.
Kyle David Smaine, born on June 27, 1991, was an American freestyle skier known for winning a gold medal in the halfpipe at the FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships in 2015. Tragically, on January 29, 2023, at the age of 31, Smaine, one of the athletes who died young, lost his life in an avalanche on Mount Norikura near Tsugaike Ski Resort in Nagano, Japan. The avalanche also claimed the life of an Austrian skier, with five foreign skiers, including Smaine, caught in the snowslide.
Smaine, who was in Japan to promote winter tourism post the COVID-19 pandemic, was accompanied by fellow US skier Adam U when the avalanche struck. Despite efforts to escape, Smaine was thrown 50m by the air blast, resulting in his burial and tragic death. His friend Adam U miraculously survived, buried 1.5m deep for 25 minutes. The avalanche occurred on the eastern slope of Mount Hakuba Norikura, adding to the toll of severe winter storms in East Asia.
Lanny Mark Poffo, born on December 28, 1954, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was a renowned Canadian-American professional wrestler, poet, and actor. As a second-generation wrestler, his father being Angelo Poffo, and the younger brother of “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Lanny entered the wrestling scene in 1974. Early in his career, he achieved success in promotions like Big Time Wrestling, winning the NWA World Tag Team Championship with his father.
Transitioning through various territories, Poffo became a key figure in International Championship Wrestling (ICW) before joining the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in 1985. Initially known as “Leaping” Lanny Poffo, he later adopted the persona of The Genius in 1989. Beyond wrestling, Poffo was a published author, certified credit counselor, and motivational speaker. His legacy in the wrestling world and beyond endured until his passing on February 2, 2023, in New York City, at the age of 68, succumbing to heart failure.
James Timothy McCarver, born on October 16, 1941, in Memphis, Tennessee, was an esteemed American professional baseball catcher, renowned television sports commentator, and accomplished singer. His Major League Baseball (MLB) career spanned from 1959 to 1980, primarily with the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies. Notable for his pivotal role in the Cardinals’ 1964 World Series win, McCarver was a two-time All-Star and the first catcher since the 19th century to lead the National League in triples.
Traded to the Phillies, he formed a successful partnership with pitcher Steve Carlton, winning three division titles from 1976 to 1978. After retiring as a player, McCarver excelled in sports broadcasting, notably with Fox Sports, setting a record by calling 23 World Series and earning three Emmy Awards. He received the Ford C. Frick Award in 2012, entered the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2016, and the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2017. McCarver passed away on February 16, 2023, leaving a lasting legacy in both baseball and broadcasting.
Dick Fosbury, born on March 6, 1947, in Portland, Oregon, left an indelible mark on track and field as an American high jumper. Renowned for the “Fosbury Flop,” a groundbreaking technique, he clinched gold at the 1968 Olympics. Fosbury’s innovative approach involved a backward leap over the bar, revolutionizing high jumping.
Post-Olympics, he pursued a political career, running for the Idaho House of Representatives in 2014 and later serving as Blaine County Commissioner. Fosbury remained active in athletics, even teaching at jump clinics.
Graduating with a civil engineering degree in 1972, Fosbury co-owned Galena Engineering, Inc. In 2008, he faced a stage-one lymphoma diagnosis, undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. By March 2009, Fosbury announced remission.
A recipient of numerous accolades, including entry into the FICTS “Hall of Fame,” Fosbury’s legacy extended beyond sports. Tragically, on March 12, 2023, at the age of 76, he succumbed to a recurrent bout of lymphoma, leaving behind his wife Robin.
Joe Pepitone, born on October 9, 1940, in Brooklyn, New York, made his mark in baseball as a three-time MLB All-Star and three-time Gold Glove Award winner. Starting with the New York Yankees in 1962, Pepitone showcased his talent, including a memorable grand slam in the 1964 World Series. However, tensions arose in 1969, leading to a trade to the Houston Astros.
Retiring briefly, Pepitone returned to play for the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves before exploring a career in Japan, marked by off-field controversies. Post-baseball, he authored a revealing memoir and ventured into professional softball. Legal troubles followed, including a prison stint. Pepitone later coached for the Yankees, receiving a 1999 World Series ring.
On March 13, 2023, Joe Pepitone passed away at his Kansas City, Missouri home at 82, leaving behind a legacy that transcends both triumphs and tribulations.
Bushwhacker Butch, or Robert Miller, rose to fame as a New Zealand professional wrestler, notably as part of The Bushwhackers tag team in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). His wrestling journey included stints with The Kiwis and The Sheepherders across various promotions. The Bushwhackers, known for their comedic style and signature “Bushwhacker walk,” became beloved figures in the WWF during the late ’80s and ’90s. After departing the WWF in 1996, Miller continued to make special appearances in the wrestling circuit.
In his post-wrestling years, Miller faced health challenges, including a neck injury and sepsis. Retiring in 2001, he served as the commissioner for Kiwi Pro Wrestling. Tragically, Bushwhacker Butch passed away at 78 in a Los Angeles hospital on April 2, 2023, while attending WrestleMania 39 festivities, marking the end of a storied wrestling career.
Craig Breen, born on February 2, 1990, was a highly accomplished Irish rally driver, known for his success in the World Rally Championship (WRC). His notable achievements include winning the 2012 Super 2000 WRC and the WRC Academy Cup in 2011. Breen showcased his skills in various championships, earning recognition and accolades for his outstanding performances.
Tragically, on April 13, 2023, at the age of 33, Breen, an athlete who died suddenly, lost his life in a devastating crash during a pre-event test for the 2023 Croatia Rally. The incident occurred as Breen was driving his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 rally car, colliding with a pole on a road between Stari Golubovec and Lobor. Despite efforts to save him, Breen succumbed to fatal injuries. His co-driver, James Fulton, fortunately, emerged uninjured. Breen’s untimely death marked a somber day for the rallying community, leading to the retirement of his car number 42 from the remainder of the 2023 season as a tribute.
Tori Bowie, born on August 27, 1990, was an accomplished American track and field athlete, excelling in the long jump, 100 meters, and 200 meters. Her illustrious career included notable achievements such as a silver medal in the 100 m and bronze in the 200 m at the 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as gold medals in the 100 m at the 2015 and 2017 World Championships. She was a key member of the U.S. women’s 4 × 100 m relay teams that clinched gold at the 2016 Olympic Games and the 2017 World Championships.
Unfortunately, Tori Bowie, one of the athletes who died during their career, passed away on April 23, 2023, at the age of 32, from complications related to childbirth. After authorities conducted a wellness check at her home in Orange County, Florida, she was found dead, and an autopsy revealed eclampsia, respiratory distress, and high blood pressure as contributing factors. Her premature child was reportedly stillborn. Bowie’s medical records indicated her struggle with bipolar disorder.
Dick Groat, a versatile athlete born on November 4, 1930, left an enduring legacy in both professional baseball and basketball. An eight-time All-Star shortstop and two-time World Series champion, Groat played 14 seasons in MLB, notably with the Pittsburgh Pirates. His pivotal role alongside Bill Mazeroski made them a formidable keystone combination. Groat excelled on and off the field, earning accolades like the NL Most Valuable Player in 1960.
Beyond baseball, Groat played in the NBA for the Fort Wayne Pistons, showcasing his skills and earning fan admiration. His achievements extended to broadcasting, spending 40 seasons as the radio color analyst for Pittsburgh Panthers men’s basketball.
Groat’s personal life included a marriage to Barbara Womble, lasting 35 years until her death in 1990. On April 27, 2023, at the age of 92, Dick Groat passed away at UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh due to complications from a stroke suffered a week prior.
Vida Rochelle Blue Jr., born on July 28, 1949, was a prominent American professional baseball player, known for his left-handed pitching. His career spanned from 1969 to 1986, notably contributing to the Oakland Athletics’ dynasty with three consecutive World Series championships from 1972 to 1974. Blue’s achievements included winning the American League (AL) Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award in 1971.
Blue’s power pitching style, characterized by a formidable fastball, made him a six-time All-Star. Notably, he became one of only five pitchers in MLB history to start the All-Star Game for both the American League and the National League. His career saw him play for the Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, and Kansas City Royals.
Tragically, Vida Blue passed away on May 6, 2023, at the age of 73, in an East Bay hospital, succumbing to medical complications related to cancer, as confirmed by Athletics’ team officials.
Eldridge Wayne Coleman Jr., better known as “Superstar” Billy Graham, was a renowned American professional wrestler, born on June 7, 1943. He gained fame as the WWWF Heavyweight Champion from 1977 to 1978 and held three world championships in major wrestling promotions. Recognized for revolutionizing interviews in wrestling and his charismatic performance style, Graham was also a bodybuilding award-winner and a close friend of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Starting as a wrestler in 1969, Graham’s career spanned decades, leaving an indelible mark on the industry. He influenced wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and others, shaping their looks and styles. Graham faced health challenges, including hepatitis C, leading to a liver transplant in 2002. His later years were marked by liver disease, cirrhosis, and various hospitalizations. Unfortunately, “Superstar” Billy Graham passed away on May 17, 2023, at the age of 79, succumbing to sepsis and multiple organ failure after being placed on life support earlier that week.
Jim Brown, the legendary American football fullback, civil rights activist, and actor, passed away on May 18, 2023, at the age of 87. Born on February 17, 1936, Brown played for the Cleveland Browns in the NFL from 1957 to 1965, earning acclaim as one of the greatest running backs in history. He achieved numerous accolades, including three AP NFL Most Valuable Player awards and an NFL championship with the Browns in 1964. Brown’s impact extended beyond football; he was a civil rights advocate, participating in the Cleveland Summit during Muhammad Ali’s legal battles.
Retiring at the peak of his football career, Brown ventured into acting, earning praise as Hollywood’s first black action hero. He appeared in notable films like “The Dirty Dozen” and “100 Rifles,” making cinematic history with interracial love scenes. Despite facing assault allegations, Brown left an indelible mark on sports, entertainment, and activism, shaping the narrative for black athletes. Tributes poured in from sports icons and public figures, acknowledging his influence on and off the field.
Roger Lee Craig, born on February 17, 1930, in Durham, North Carolina, was an esteemed American pitcher, coach, and MLB manager, known for his significant contributions to baseball. He played for various teams, including the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets.
Transitioning to coaching, he became renowned for his expertise, notably as the pitching coach for the 1984 Detroit Tigers, who secured a World Series championship. Craig later managed the San Francisco Giants, leading them to their first National League pennant in 27 years in 1989. Despite his successful career, Craig faced challenges, including a stint with the struggling 1962-63 Mets. He retired but returned to manage the Giants, leaving behind a lasting impact.
Craig passed away on June 4, 2023, at the age of 93, leaving behind a legacy of excellence and influence in the world of baseball.
The Iron Sheik
The Iron Sheik, born Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri on March 15, 1942, in Damghan, Imperial State of Iran, was an Iranian-American professional wrestler, amateur wrestler, and actor. Renowned as the first Iranian champion in WWE history, he achieved fame during the 1980s WWF wrestling boom, notably for his villainous persona and rivalry with Hulk Hogan. Sheik won the WWF World Heavyweight Championship in 1983 and later formed a successful tag team with Nikolai Volkoff, securing the WWF Tag Team Championship at WrestleMania.
Beyond wrestling, The Iron Sheik gained popularity for his outspoken nature, vulgar language, and candid interviews, particularly targeting fellow wrestlers like Hogan and Brian Blair. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005. In his early life, Sheik was an accomplished amateur wrestler in Iran before emigrating to the United States. He also worked as a bodyguard for the Shah of Iran.
The Iron Sheik passed away on June 7, 2023, at his home in Fayetteville, Georgia, due to cardiac arrest, with congestive heart failure and hypertension as contributing factors.
Patrick Gasienica, the American ski jumper who competed in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, died in a motorcycle accident in Bull Valley, Illinois, on June 12, 2023, at the age of 24. Born on November 28, 1998, in the United States to Polish immigrants, Gasienica fostered his love for ski jumping at the Norge Ski Club in Fox River Grove. He looked up to famed Polish ski jumper Adam Malysz. At the 2022 Olympics, he ranked 49th on the normal hill, 53rd on the large hill individual, and 10th in the team event. In 2019, he participated in the World Championships, finishing 11th on the large hill.
The U.S. Ski Association expressed deep sadness at Gasienica’s passing, describing him as an incredible athlete and teammate. Teammates, including Decker Dean and Kevin Bickner, shared heartfelt tributes, remembering Gasienica as a close friend and brave individual who lived life to the fullest. The ski jumping community mourns the loss of this promising talent who left a lasting impact in a sadly short 24 years of life. Patrick Gasienica’s death occurred in a motorcycle accident, marking a devastating loss for the skiing world.
Terry Dee Funk, born on June 30, 1944, in Hammond, Indiana, emerged as an iconic figure in the realm of professional wrestling. The son of Dorothy and Dory Funk, a seasoned wrestler and promoter, Terry’s early life unfolded against the backdrop of the wrestling business. The family later relocated to Amarillo, Texas, where Terry and his brother Dory Jr. grew up steeped in the world of professional wrestling. After graduating from Canyon High School, Funk pursued higher education at West Texas State University, engaging in both amateur wrestling and football. Terry’s wrestling journey commenced in 1965 in his father’s promotion, Western States Sports, in Amarillo.
Quickly rising through the ranks, he and his brother achieved acclaim as a formidable team, becoming major draws by the end of the decade. This marked the inception of a career that spanned over 50 years, leaving an indelible mark on professional wrestling. On August 23, 2023, at a Phoenix-area hospital, Terry Funk passed away at the age of 79, concluding a legendary career celebrated on the August 25, 2023, episode of SmackDown.
Bray Wyatt, born Windham Lawrence Rotunda on May 23, 1987, left an indelible mark on professional wrestling. As a third-generation wrestler, he continued the legacy of his esteemed family. His WWE tenure, spanning 2009 to 2021 and a comeback in 2022, showcased his versatility, from the Nexus member Husky Harris to the enigmatic Bray Wyatt. A three-time world champion, Wyatt’s character evolution included a chilling dual persona, “good side” Bray Wyatt and the ominous “Fiend.”
Tragically, Wyatt’s journey was cut short on August 24, 2023, when he passed away at 36 due to a heart attack at his Clermont, Florida home. Complications from COVID-19, coupled with a pre-existing heart condition, contributed to this untimely loss. WWE and other promotions paid tribute to the “Eater of Worlds,” acknowledging his profound impact on professional wrestling. Wyatt’s legacy lives on, remembered as a unique talent who brought horror to the squared circle in an unparalleled manner.
Timothy Stephen Wakefield, born on August 2, 1966, in Melbourne, Florida, emerged as a renowned American knuckleball pitcher. His journey into Major League Baseball (MLB) began with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but it was his remarkable 17-year tenure with the Boston Red Sox, spanning from 1995 to his retirement in 2012, that etched his name in baseball history. Wakefield’s contributions, notably his 200th career win in 2011, solidified his place as a Red Sox legend.
Starting at Eau Gallie High School and progressing to the Florida Institute of Technology, Wakefield’s early prowess in baseball paved the way for his MLB career. His signature knuckleball, delivered with a deceptive pitching style, made him a unique force on the mound. Beyond the game, Wakefield’s impact extended to philanthropy, earning him the Roberto Clemente Award in 2010.
Disturbingly, on October 1, 2023, at the age of 57, Wakefield succumbed to a seizure resulting from brain cancer at his Massachusetts home. The revelation of his diagnosis, disclosed by former teammate Curt Schilling, added a layer of complexity to Wakefield’s final chapter, leaving behind a legacy of on-field excellence and off-field generosity.
Adam Robert Johnson, born on June 22, 1994, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, was a skilled American ice hockey forward with a promising career that shockingly ended on October 28, 2023. Johnson played 13 games in the National Hockey League (NHL) with the Pittsburgh Penguins and also showcased his talents in Europe with teams like the Malmö Redhawks, Augsburger Panther, and Nottingham Panthers.
The devastating incident occurred during a game against the Sheffield Steelers when Johnson’s throat was cut by the skate of opposing player Matt Petgrave in an on-ice collision. The collision resulted in a severe injury, causing Johnson to bleed out. Despite efforts to skate to the team bench, Johnson collapsed on the ice. Paramedics attended to him as players formed a protective ring. Johnson, aged 29, was transferred to Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
This tragic event highlights the risks faced by athletes who died while playing. The hockey community mourned his loss, and investigations into the incident were initiated. The tragedy sparked discussions about player safety in the sport, leading to the introduction of neckguard mandates by hockey associations in response to Johnson’s untimely death.
Willie Hernández Villanueva (November 14, 1954 – November 20, 2023), born in Aguada, Puerto Rico, was a renowned MLB relief pitcher, achieving fame with the Detroit Tigers. In 1984, he secured both the AL Cy Young and MVP Awards, pivotal to the Tigers’ World Series win. Adding a screwball and cut fastball to his repertoire fueled his success. Post-Tigers, Hernández faced criticism, moved to the Phillies in 1989, and later made comeback attempts with the A’s, Phillies, and Yankees before retiring in 1995.
Beyond baseball, Hernández owned a construction business and a cattle ranch in Puerto Rico. Struggling with health issues post-retirement, including asthma, diabetes, and strokes, he underwent heart surgery in 2009. Tragically, Willie Hernández, one of the famous athletes who died recently, passed away at 69 in Sebring, Florida, on November 20, 2023. He rests at Monte Cristo Memorial Park in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
In bidding farewell to these famous athletes who died in 2023, we reflect on the profound impact they had on the athletic world. Their legacies extend beyond the fields, rings, and slopes, intertwining with the fabric of our collective memories. As we commemorate their triumphs and acknowledge the adversities they faced, we are reminded that their stories are not just tales of athletic prowess but narratives of resilience, determination, and the enduring spirit of competition.
In honoring their contributions, we celebrate the indomitable human spirit that transcends the boundaries of sports, leaving an eternal imprint on the heart of the games they so passionately embraced.