Notable Sports Deaths of 2020: August & September

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 months of August & September.

AUGUST

Rickey Dixon, college pro football star (8/1)

A College Football Hall of Famer and Oklahoma legend Dixon, is remembered as the star of the “Game of the Century II” between OU and Nebraska in 1987. Dixon was 53. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, in 2013. Dixon arrived at Oklahoma as a skinny 5-foot-11 corner whom coach Barry Switzer told to eat two Big Macs a day to gain weight. He became a consensus All-American in 1987 and the first Sooner to win the Jim Thorpe Award, given to college football’s top defensive back. He was named to the All-Big Eight first team as a junior and senior in 1986 and ’87. Dixon was drafted No. 5 overall in 1988 and played six NFL seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Raiders. He owned a landscape company, became a motivational speaker for at-risk youth and coached high school football in Texas before his ALS diagnosis.

Horace Clarke, MLB star (8/5)

A second baseman from the U.S. Virgin Islands who had a solid 10-year playing career but unwittingly became the face of the Yankees’ fall from grace from the mid-1960s to mid-’70s, Clarke died at age 81. Clarke played for the Yankees from 1965-74, almost precisely the period of time when the team did not win anything — the longest stretch that the Yankees did not reach the postseason since their rise to prominence in the ’20s. But while Clarke wound up playing for a lot of losing and mediocre teams, he became the face of the team’s decline that began the very season he arrived. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Clarke, signed out of Saint Croix in 1958 and having spent parts of eight years total in the Minors, led the American League in at-bats in ’69 and ’70, hit .285 in ’69 and walked more often than he struck out throughout his career, 365-362. The numbers weren’t great, but Clarke twice led the AL in singles (’67 and ’69), and though he was criticized by some for bailing out on double-play pivots, he turned more than 100 of them in three seasons and had a .983 career fielding percentage.

James “Kamala” Harris, WWE wrestler (8/9)

Former WWE wrestler James Harris has died at age 70, according to the WWE. Harris, who performed in the ring as Kamala, made his WWF debut in 1984. In a career that spanned more than two decades, Harris battled many of wrestling’s superstars, including Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker and Andre the Giant, according to the release. ”He terrorized opponents and thrilled audiences in Mid-South, World Class Championship Wrestling, WCW and WWE until 2006,” the WWE said. His character, Kamala, was promoted as a 6-foot-7, 350-pound “Ugandan Giant.” A cause of death for Harris was not given.

Chadwick Boseman, actor (8/28)

Boseman, who played Black icons Jackie Robinson and James Brown with searing intensity before finding fame as the regal Black Panther in the Marvel cinematic universe, died of cancer at the age of 43. Born in South Carolina, Boseman graduated from Howard University and had small roles in television before his first star turn in 2013. His striking portrayal of the stoic baseball star Robinson opposite Harrison Ford in 2013’s “42” drew attention in Hollywood and made him a star. Boseman died on a day that Major League Baseball was celebrating Jackie Robinson day. “His transcendent performance in ’42′ will stand the test of time and serve as a powerful vehicle to tell Jackie’s story to audiences for generations to come,” the league wrote in a tweet.

Clifford Robinson, NBA star (8/29)

The former Portland Trail Blazer big man died of Lymphoma at the age of 53. The 6-foot-10 big man played at UConn from 1985-89, where he helped the Huskies win the 1988 NIT.  He was a second-round pick (36th overall) by the Trail Blazers in 1989 and spent the first eight years of his career in Portland. Nicknamed “Uncle Cliffy”, Robinson helped the franchise reach the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992 and was the 1993 NBA 6th Man of the Year. In 1994, while with the Trail Blazers, he made his first and only All-Star Game. From 1989-97, Robinson averaged 16.2 points per game; and totaled 3,352 rebounds and 1,350 assists while in a Trail Blazers uniform.

John Thompson, college hoops coach (8/30)

The first Black basketball head coach to win the NCAA Division I National Championship, Thompson died at his Arlington, Virginia, home according to his family. He was 78. Thompson had been suffering from multiple health challenges, a family source said. The cause of death is unknown. He was surrounded by family and friends when he passed away. Thompson coached at Georgetown University for 27 years, leading the Hoyas to their lone title in 1984. Taking over a team that had a 3-23 record, Thompson would go on to win close to 600 games, finishing after the 1998-1999 season with a 596-239 coaching record. He won the national coach of the year three times and also the Big East coach of the year on three occasions. The legendary coach led the Hoyas to three Final Fours (in 1982, 1984 and 1985), 24 straight postseason appearances (19 NCAA, five National Invitation Tournaments), and seven Big East tournament championships. Seventy-five of Thompson’s 77 players who stayed all four years received college degrees and 26 of his players were drafted in the NBA, including Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutumbo, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson.

SEPTEMBER

Lou Brock, MLB Hall of Famer (9/6)

A Hall of Famer, one of baseball’s signature leadoff hitters and base stealers, Brock helped the St. Louis Cardinals win three pennants and two World Series titles in the 1960s. He was 81. Dick Zitzmann, Brock’s longtime agent and friend, confirmed Brock’s death, but he said he couldn’t provide any details. The Cardinals and Cubs also observed a moment of silence in the outfielder’s memory before their game at Wrigley Field. Brock stole 938 bases in his career, including 118 in 1974 — both of those were big league records until they were broken by Rickey Henderson. A lifetime .293 hitter, he led the league in steals eight times, scored 100 or more runs seven times and amassed 3,023 hits. Brock was even better in postseason play, batting .391 with four homers, 16 RBIs and 14 steals in 21 World Series games. He had a record-tying 13 hits in the 1968 World Series, and in Game 4 homered, tripled and doubled as the Cardinals trounced Detroit and 31-game winner Denny McLain 10-1. Brock lost a leg from diabetes in recent years and was diagnosed with cancer in 2017.

Gale Sayers, NFL Hall of Famer (9/23)

A former Chicago Bears star, Sayers is considered one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL despite a career cut short by knee injuries, died at age 77 after living with dementia. Known as the “Kansas Comet,” Sayers was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 despite playing just seven seasons, all with the Bears. At 34, he was the youngest player ever inducted. Sayers was a five-time All-Pro who averaged 5 yards per carry for his career and twice led the league in rushing, including in 1969 (1,032 yards) after having torn the ACL and MCL in his right knee late in the previous season. The Bears drafted Sayers and fellow Hall of Famer Dick Butkus with back-to-back picks in ’65, taking Butkus at No. 3 and Sayers at No. 4. It didn’t take long for Sayers to win over veterans who had helped the Bears take the NFL championship in 1963. His career numbers of 4,956 yards and 39 touchdowns on the ground came primarily over five seasons, as he played sparingly in 1970 and ’71. As a returner, Sayers was also devastating, scoring six touchdowns and averaging more than 30 yards per kickoff return, with two touchdowns and 14.5 yards per punt return.

NEXT: October.

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

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