King Kaufman's Sports Daily

In the last week, three sports figures have died in their prime, one on the field of play. Plus: Pat Summitt, cheerleader?

By Salon Staff
Published February 27, 2007 5:00PM (EST)

I don't really know a good way to say this, but there's been a sobering rash of people in the sports world dropping dead in the past week.

Dennis Johnson, the former Seattle Sonics, Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics guard, collapsed and died Thursday after conducting a practice of the Austin Toros, the NBA Developmental League team he coached. He was 52.

Damien Nash, a reserve running back for the Denver Broncos, collapsed and died at his St. Louis home Saturday after having played in a charity basketball game he'd organized in honor of his brother, who has a heart ailment. Nash was 24.

And on Monday a defensive back for the Daytona Beach Thunder of the World Indoor Football League died after being knocked unconscious by a helmet-to-helmet hit in a game against the Columbus Lions. Javon Camon, a former starter at the University of South Florida, was 25.

All of this comes two months after Nash's Broncos teammate Darrent Williams was shot and killed outside a nightclub early New Year's Day. Williams was 24.

People sometimes die too young in sports just as they do in other walks of life, and there's nothing more tragic about a person dying at 24 or 25 or 52 just because he or she was an athlete. Too young is too young, whoever you are, and while how old too young is can be debated, there's no arguing that 24, 25 and 52 don't qualify.

Fame makes a difference, of course. Dennis Johnson was an NBA star for 14 years, and the feeling that you know someone because he's been on your TV a few hundred times is a familiar one. But Nash and Camon weren't famous beyond small circles. I'd never heard of either, frankly, and still I find myself stewing over their deaths in a way I don't upon hearing about some random 24-year-old I don't know dying in a car crash or collapsing at a family picnic or being shot to death.

This is shallow of me, I suppose, but there it is. One of the things sports do for us is give us examples of magnificent physicality. We admire athletes for their ability to do things we can only dream about doing. Dunking over another player, throwing a 98-mph fastball, or hitting one over the fence. The spectacular, taken-for-granted skating skills of NHL players, the size, speed, agility and technique of the best NFL players.

If these guys are going to keel over and die at 24 or 25, or even 52, a number that once looked big to me, what hope do we mere mortals have? We're walking on thin ice here.

Pending autopsy results, Camon's death looks like a terrible accident, one that's always a danger in a collision sport, but also one that should give the NFL and all lesser football leagues a kick in the pants to improve safety measures and medical policies having to do with head injuries, something the league has been slow to do.

The suicide death of former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, who a doctor said had a badly damaged brain from football injuries, brought some needed recent attention to this issue. The death of Camon, a near unknown, should bring more. This was an apparently healthy athlete dying apparently as a result of the equivalent of a low-speed vehicular collision on the field of play.

I'm sorry to say that most of us who didn't know them will probably forget Nash and Camon fairly soon. We'll move on, think about other things, other stories. It seems harsh to just forget, but not thinking about death is one of the ways most of us get through most of our days.

At least those days when we don't hear about another athlete dying in the prime of life, days that have been far too frequent lately.

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The winningest cheerleader in history? [PERMALINK]

Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl showed up shirtless and with his body painted orange for a women's basketball game last month. Women's coach Pat Summitt says she and her staff will return the favor at the Tennessee-Florida men's game Tuesday night.

Wait. What?

Oh, I see. Not exactly. Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history, is known for her hard demeanor, relentless practices and icy stare. She's hinted that her reciprocation for Pearl will bring back memories of her cheerleading days in seventh and eighth grade.

That's easy to picture, isn't it?

Pearl had a white "V" painted on his orange chest at the Duke game, and he, four players and a manager spelled out "Go Vols" in front of the student section. Inspired, the Lady Vols went out and fell behind 19-0, eventually losing a close game.

Florida-Tennessee is on ESPN at 9 p.m. EST tonight. If you've ever wanted to see Pat Summitt shaking pompoms, and you weren't around Henrietta, Tenn., in the mid-'60s, here's your chance. Maybe.

Also Tuesday, I'll be outside Cary Tennis' house, shirtless and with a herringbone fedora painted on my chest, chanting, "Since you asked! Since you asked!"

Previous column: Rulon Gardner survives plane crash

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