Sudden Death: The Surge Of NFL Tragedies, And What’s Behind It

From sudden health episodes to bizarre car accidents to murder-suicides, NFL athletes assumed to be in tip-top shape have been tied up in a surge of fatal tragedies.

And, unfortunately, surges of sudden death for America’s pros have been a repeating pattern in the league for decades.

Before we jump into potential data that could shed light on these tragedies, here’s a lengthy list of just some of the sudden deaths over the past two decades — including the four active NFL Players under 40 who passed this year.

June 2022: Jaylon Ferguson, 26 

The NFL’s Baltimore Ravens on Wednesday, June 22, announced the death of 26-year-old linebacker Jaylon Ferguson.

“We are profoundly saddened by the tragic passing of Jaylon Ferguson,” the team’s Twitter account announced. “He was a kind, respectful young man with a big smile and infectious personality.

“We express our heartfelt condolences to Jaylon’s family and friends as we mourn a life lost much too soon,” the statement added.

Jaylor’s cause of death has yet to be disclosed.

June 2022: Marion Barber, 38

Runningback Marion Barber #24 of the Dallas Cowboys walks the sidelines during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 25, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Marion Barber, who played for the Dallas Cowboys, was found dead in his Frisco, Texas, apartment on June 1. His cause of death has yet to be determined.

Former Cowboys teammate Terence Newman recalled this week that Barber was in distress during their last encounter, which was three years ago.

“He wasn’t doing too well … he looked bad … like a different person, like he couldn’t function,” Newman said, according to Sports Illustrated. “When I tell you I was scared, I thought he might swing on me.”

While speculation has stirred about Barber suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE, the late player’s father Marion Barber II said in a recent interview that his son did not want his brain donated for CTE research.

Before his death, Barber was reportedly hospitalized for mental health concerns on two occasions.

April 2022: Dwayne Haskins, 24

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Dwayne Haskins died in April, after he was struck by a dump truck while attempting to cross the westbound lanes of I-595 in Broward County, Florida.

A recent medical report showed that the 24-year-old had a .20 blood alcohol content level at the time of his death and tested positive for the drugs ketamine and norketamine. Haskins also reportedly had a “female companion” in the vehicle he exited just before the accident occurred.

Dwayne Haskins #3 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on September 26, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Joe Sargent/Getty Images

May 2022: Jeff Gladney, 25

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Jeff Gladney tragically died in a car accident last month. Details into the crash remain unknown.

December 2021: Glenn Foster Jr., 31

Saints defensive lineman Glenn Foster Jr., who had a history of mental health problems, died after he was taken into police custody in December of last year.

The athlete’s family has raised questions about Foster’s death.

“Glenn Foster Jr.’s death, while in the Pickens County Sheriff’s custody and care, was not from natural causes as the independent autopsy suggests there was some evidence of neck compressions and strangulation,” lawyers for the family said in a statement.

“According to the lawyers for Mr. Foster’s family, they had been told that Mr. Foster had ‘been in an altercation with another inmate and was now under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s office, which delayed his treatment,'” according to a New York Times report published in December.

February 2021: Vincent Jackson, 38 

Former NFL wide receiver Vincent Jackson was found dead at Homewood Suites in Brandon, Florida, last year.

An autopsy report from the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner said the athlete died of “chronic alcohol use.”

Days earlier, the Concussion Legacy Foundation said the 38-year-old “was diagnosed with Stage 2 chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the progressive brain disease associated with repeated head trauma,” ESPN noted.

June 2020: Reche Caldwell, 41

Six-year NFL player Reche Caldwell was fatally shot outside his Florida home at age 41.

“Upon arrival, officers located an adult male victim of a gunshot wound in the front yard of a residence. Officers immediately began providing life-saving measures,” police said. “Tampa Fire Rescue arrived and transported the victim to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced deceased. This does not appear to be a random act. However, it is very early in the investigation and detectives are working to develop leads in the case. Updates will be provided as they become available.”

Streeter Lecka via Getty Images

April 2020: Tarvaris Jackson, 36

Former NFL quarterback Tarvaris Jackson died in a car accident when he was 36 years old.

A spokesperson for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency told CNN that Jackson was killed when the Chevrolet Camaro he was driving “left the roadway, struck a tree, and overturned.”

Nick Laham/Getty Images

Nick Laham/Getty Images

July 2019: Mitch Petrus, 32

Former NFL offensive lineman and Super Bowl champ Mitch Petrus died of heatstroke in 2019, when he was just 32 years old.

Petrus was reportedly working outside at his family’s shop near his hometown of Carlisle, Arkansas, on the day he died.

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

November 2019: Charles Rogers, 38

Detroit Lions wide receiver Charles Rogers reportedly died of liver failure in 2019, when he was 38 years old.

September 2015: Tyler Sash, 27

At the age of 27, former New York Giant Tyler Sash died at age 27 from “a lethal mixture of drugs,” and was also “found to have Stage 2 CTE,” Legacy reported.

May 2015: Adrian Robinson, 25

Former NFL tight end Adrian Robinson was found dead in May 2015 from an apparent suicide, Legacy reported. The athlete was also diagnosed with CTE.

December 2012: Jovan Belcher, 25

Inside linebacker Jovan Belcher #59 of the Kansas City Chiefs wathces from the sideliens during his final game against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium on November 25, 2012 in Kansas City, Missouri.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher at age 25 fatally shot Kasandra M. Perkins, his 22-year-old girlfriend and the mother of his child, before turning the gun on himself.

According to ESPN, Belcher killed himself at Arrowhead Stadium in front of his coach and general manager after he killed Perkins.

July 2012: O.J. Murdock, 25

Tennessee Titans receiver O.J. Murdock reportedly died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds in July 2012. Murdock was just 25 years old at the time of his death.

May 2012: Junior Seau, 43

When 43-year-old NFL pro-bowler Junior Seau took his own life in 2012 — just two years after he retired from a mega successful career, the league was rocked.

Seau was found dead by his girlfriend inside his California home, SportsCasting reported. The linebacker “shot himself in the chest but did not leave a suicide note.”

Seau’s death put a spotlight on CTE in the league.

Football: New England Patriots Junior Seau (55) on sidelines during game vs New York Jets at The Meadowlands. East Rutherford, NJ

David Bergman /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

April 2012: Ray Easterling, 62

Former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling killed himself at age 62.

“An autopsy report found he had a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated concussions,” NBS Sports reported. “After his career, he dealt with dementia, depression and insomnia, according to his widow.”

February 2011: Dave Duerson, 50

Two-time Super Bowl champ Dave Duerson died of suicide, too. The former athlete shot himself in the chest at his Florida home.

“Duerson had at least 10 concussions in his NFL career, according to his family, and lost consciousness during some,” NBC Sports detailed. “He left notes for his family asking that his brain be donated to science, and researchers at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University’s School of Medicine concluded he had ‘moderately advanced’ brain damage related to blows to the head.”

September 2010: Kenny McKinley, 23

Denver Broncos wide receiver Kenny McKinley killed himself at the young age of 23.

NBC Sports reported that McKinley was “recovering from a second knee operation in eight months and, according to a probe of his death, was deep in debt.”

December 2009: Chris Henry, 26

“Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry, 26, died from a fractured skull and other head injuries a day after tumbling out of the back of a pickup truck driven by his fiancee,” NBC Sports said. The death allegedly occurred during a domestic dispute.

July 2009: Steve McNair, 36

Steve McNair was another extremely high-profile death within the NFL.

At age 36, the former QB was shot to death by his mistress, Sahel “Jenni” Kazemi, on July 4, 2009. Kazemi, 20, then turned the gun on herself.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

February 2009: Marquis Cooper, 26

Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper died at age 26 when his boat overturned in rough water off the coast of Florida, NBC Sports reported.

Cooper was with Corey Smith, 29, and William Bleakley, 25, during the accident. They, too, died.

November 2007: Sean Taylor, 24 

Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor bled to death after he was shot in the thigh during a botched robbery at his Florida home, NBC Sports said. “Police said the group of robbers did not expect Taylor to be home because the Redskins had a game that weekend – but he was out with an injury.”

March 2007: Damien Nash, 24

Denver Broncos running back Damien Nash died at the young age of 24 from a cardiac event, though the exact cause of death remains undetermined.

The athlete collapsed while playing in a celebrity charity basketball game to help raise funds for his heart foundation, the Darris Nash Find A Heart Foundation, named for his older brother.

Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

January 2007: Darrent Williams, 24

On January 1, 2007, Denver cornerback Darrent Williams reportedly died at age 24 “after being shot following a confrontation between Broncos players and gang members at a nightclub.”

Why Is This Happening?

These incidents clearly range in cause, but some interesting data on general lifespan, arrest rates, and CTE seem to offer a little insight.

Average Lifespan 

A 2019 Harvard study of thousands of professional athletes found that NFL players, on average, die about seven years earlier than MLB (Major League Baseball) players.

“Former pro football players had a higher overall death rate than baseball veterans and were felled by cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative illnesses at strikingly higher rates than their MLB peers,” reported. “On average, the football players died 7 years earlier than MLB players, the research found.”

Arrest Rates 

While past analysis has shown that NFL players have a lower arrest rate on average than similarly aged men in the U.S. general public, these athletes do have higher rates of arrest in specific areas.

“Approximately 7 percent of the people who played in the NFL between 2000 and 2014 were arrested, according to a CNS analysis, a lower arrest rate than the group of similarly aged men in the U.S. general population,” CNS Maryland reported.

“When compared with U.S. men aged 21-34, NFL players were disproportionately arrested and charged with domestic violence, sex offenses, murder and weapons-related crimes,” the report added. “Those crimes accounted for a much larger portion of total arrests in the NFL.”


An admittedly limited study from 2017 linked CTE — a progressive, degenerative brain disease found generally in athletes and military veterans who’ve sustained repeated head trauma — to “99 percent of brains obtained from National Football League (NFL) players, as well at 91 percent of college football players and 21 percent of high school football players,” Boston University reported.

According to the University of California San Francisco, people who suffer from CTE “may have trouble remembering things and concentrating. They may have changes in their behavior and personality, including violent outbursts, increased frustration, mood swings, and lack of interest in people and things they previously cared about.”

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