Notable Sports Deaths in 2020: April

By Anthony McClean, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus

As the year slowly begins to wind down, BASN will devote the final 12 days of 2020 to look back at the pioneers, contributors, and innovators we lost during the last 12 months. The specter of Covid-19 has been prevalent all year and the sports world was no different.

Today, we focus on the month of April.

APRIL

Timmy Brown, NFL star (4/4)

Born in Knightstown, Indiana, Brown earned a partial athletic scholarship at Ball State and was a 27th-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers. He was cut by coach Vince Lombardi after playing just one game. Brown earned a spot on the 1960 Eagles championship team as a kick returner and soon developed into one of the NFL’s most dynamic offensive players. He led the league in all-purpose yardage in 1962 and ’63. He had 2,425 combined yards in 1963 (rushing, receiving, and kick returns), a remarkable feat considering it was a 14-game regular season and the Eagles were a hapless 2-10-2 team. He is the Eagles’ all-time leader in average yards per touch (6.52) and he still holds the franchise record for most kickoff returns (169), most kickoff return yards (4,483), and most kickoff returns for touchdowns (5). He was the first NFL player to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game. He accomplished the feat in a 24-23 upset win over Dallas at Franklin Field on November 6, 1966. He played one season with the Colts and his final game was Super Bowl III against the New York Jets. After retiring from football, Brown went to Hollywood and became an actor. He landed roles in several Robert Altman films, including M*A*S*H and Nashville. He appeared in more than 20 movies and TV shows in his acting career.

Bobby Mitchell, NFL Hall of Famer (4/5)

The first African American player to sign with the Washington Redskins, Mitchell died at the age of 84. Mitchell began his pro career as a halfback for the Cleveland Browns in 1958. A running and receiving threat, he shared the backfield with Jim Brown, giving Cleveland one of the strongest offensive attacks in the league. During his four seasons in Cleveland, Mitchell accounted for 3,759 yards from scrimmage. In 1962, the Browns traded Mitchell to the Washington Redskins, who moved him from halfback to flanker. That season, he led the league in receptions (72) and receiving yards (1,384). The following season, Mitchell caught 69 passes for a league-leading 1,436 yards. He also tied an NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown reception against his former team. During his first six seasons with the Redskins, he never caught fewer than 58 passes. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection — once as a running back and three times as a wide receiver. Mitchell, a seventh-round draft pick in 1958, retired in 1969, finishing his 11-year NFL career with 14,078 total yards. He had 91 career touchdowns, including 65 receiving and 18 rushing. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983. After his playing career ended, Mitchell joined the Redskins as a scout under then-coach Vince Lombardi. He spent 35 years in the team’s front office, rising to the position of assistant general manager.

Tavaris Jackson, NFL star (4/12)

The former NFL quarterback Jackson died in a car crash in Alabama. He was 36 years old. Jackson was killed when the 2012 Chevrolet Camaro he was driving “left the roadway, struck a tree, and overturned,” a spokesperson for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency told CNN. The former Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks quarterback was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. The crash occurred about 7 miles south of Montgomery, his hometown. Jackson joined Tennessee State University as the Tigers’ quarterbacks coach in 2019 after coaching at Alabama State, his alma mater, for a year. During his 10-year career with the NFL, he threw for 45 career touchdowns. Jackson’s 10-year NFL career began in Minnesota when he was drafted 64th overall in 2006. He started 21 regular-season and playoff games for the Vikings but was a backup for most of his five seasons in Minnesota. The 6-foot-2 quarterback helped the Vikings win the NFC North title in 2008 before his sole postseason appearance, a wild-card loss to Philadelphia. Jackson signed with Seattle as a free agent in 2011 and won over the Seahawks’ locker room during his lone season as a starter by playing through a partially torn pectoral muscle on his throwing side. He compiled a 7-7 record as a starter before being traded to Buffalo ahead of the 2012 season. He did not register a snap with the Bills. He returned to Seattle in 2013 and was Russell Wilson’s backup in the Seahawks’ Super Bowl XLVIII victory over the Denver Broncos.

Willie Davis, NFL Hall of Famer (4/15)

The Green Bay Packers legend died at age 85. Davis was a 15th-round pick in 1956 by the Cleveland Browns, though he didn’t enter the league until 1958 following his service in the U.S. Army. A guard and linebacker at Grambling State, Davis was tried on both sides of the ball by the Browns until he was acquired in a masterful trade by Vince Lombardi. Davis wasn’t happy — he had an opportunity to start on the offensive line in Cleveland — and considered quitting. Lombardi, however, saw what the Browns didn’t — his potential on defense. Davis was, indeed, great. He was a five-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler and a member of the NFL’s all-1960s team in helping the Packers win five championships and the first two Super Bowls. In 1981, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Davis, who was appointed by Lombardi the first African-American team captain in franchise history and inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1975, was a frequent visitor to Lambeau Field and participant in team functions over the years. He was a member of the team’s board of directors from 1994 through 2005. He started Willie Davis Distributing in 1970 and All-Pro Broadcasting in 1976, and he served on the boards of directors of Dow Chemical and American Express, among other companies. 

Bob Oliver, MLB star (4/15)

An infielder/outfielder who spent eight years in the Major Leagues and was an original Kansas City Royal, Oliver passed away at the age of 77. Oliver broke into the Majors in 1965 with the Pirates, two years after signing as an amateur free agent. He then was taken as the 19th pick in the 1968 Expansion Draft by the Royals. As a 26-year-old in 1969, he played in 118 games in the Royals’ inaugural season. Oliver recorded the franchise’s first six-hit game that season. The following year, he played in 160 games, hit 27 home runs, registered 99 RBIs and batted .260 with a .451 slugging percentage. Oliver played for four years in Kansas City, hitting 49 home runs with 200 RBIs. His best season was in 1970, when he hit 24 doubles, 27 homers and drove in 99 RBIs. The Royals traded Oliver to the California Angels for Tom Murphy during the 1972 season, and Oliver went on to play for the Angels, Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees. His final season in the majors was in 1975. Oliver’s son, Darren, was born in Kansas City that year and went on to pitch 20 years in the Majors with nine teams, including 10 with the Rangers, who also extended their condolences on Monday. During his MLB career, Darren Oliver was 118-98 with a 4.51 ERA.

Marino Casem, HBCU coaching legend (4/26)

Casem, known as “The Godfather”, passed away at his home at the age of 85. Casem was the head football coach at Alcorn State for 22 seasons and served as athletic director for 20 years. He remains the winningest football coach of the program, accumulating a record of 132-65-8 from 1964-1985. During his years coaching football, Alcorn won seven SWAC football championships. Casem is the first coach to finish the season ranked number one at the Division I-AA level, now known as the FCS, during the 1984 season with a 9-1 record. It is the first time a HBCU school finished the season ranked in the top spot. Casem was named SWAC Coach of the Year seven times. He also coached the Braves to four Black National Titles in 1967, 1968, 1973 and 1984. In addition to his tenure as head football coach, he also served as athletic director. As athletic director at Alcorn State, Casem won the first Athletic Director of the Year award given by the SWAC. He was successful on the field or directing sports off the field as Alcorn State enjoyed athletic success. The Braves football stadium, Jack Spinks-Marino Casem Stadium, is partially named in his honor. Casem is a member of numerous hall of fames including the SWAC Hall of Fame (1992), Alcorn Hall of Fame (1993), College Football Hall of Fame (1998) and Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame (2003).

NEXT: May.

Anthony McClean can be reached via email at anthonymcclean@basnnewsroom.com.

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