Athletes Who Died In 2021


Every new year brings a long list of athletes who passed away and 2021 is no exception. The first such death occurred on January 1 of the new year, when famed Denver Broncos running back Floyd Little died of cancer. Little was a 5x Pro Bowler, whose number 44 is retired by the Broncos. Home run legend Hank Aaron, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, died of natural causes in Atlanta toward the end of January, followed by champion boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler in February and NBA great Elgin Baylor in March.

As the year goes on, recent athlete deaths will be added to this list, ranging from legends of their sports who lived long, eventful lives to youthful, up-and-comers who were taken far too soon. So if you see someone pop up in your Twitter feed or in the news and you're wondering what famous athlete died today, check out the names below.

This list of athletes who died in 2021 is meant to help commemorate all the great players so that we remember the success they had on the field, on the court, or just in life. Check back throughout the year to help celebrate the lives of those we lost.

Ranked by
  • Sam Jones
    Wilmington, North Carolina
    • Team: Boston Celtics

    10-time NBA champion Sam Jones passed away on December 30, 2021. He was 88.

    Jones was drafted sight unseen by Red Auerbach in 1957 out of North Carolina Central, a historically Black college. Jones averaged 4.6 points per game his rookie season, but Auerbach liked his speed, intelligence and team-first approach. Due to injuries early in the 1960-61 season, Jones got his shot to start and became a fixture on the championship teams and never looked back. Jones played all 12 of his NBA seasons with the Celtics. Paired with K.C. Jones in the backcourt, he was a shooting guard known for his quickness, his leadership on the court and one of the best bank shots in the game.

    Jones was a five-time All-Star and finished his career with 15,411 points, averaging 17.7 points per game. He led the Celtics in scoring for three seasons, and when he retired, he held the franchise record for most points scored in a game with 51, a mark that was broken by Larry Bird. Jones' 10 titles are the second most of any NBA player, behind teammate Bill Russell (11).

    He retired from basketball in 1969 at the age of 36. In his final game, a Celtics win over the Lakers in Los Angeles in Game 7 of the Finals, Jones scored 24 points. Jones was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984. 

  • John Madden
    Austin, Minnesota
    • Team: Oakland Raiders

    NFL Hall of Fame coach and broadcasting icon John Madden passed away on December 28, 2021. He was 85.

    A football star in high school, Madden initially played one season at the College of San Mateo, before bouncing around a few years due to injuries. He settled in at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where he played both offense and defense for the Mustangs in 1957 and 1958. He won all-conference honors at offensive tackle, and was also a catcher on Cal Poly's baseball team. Madden was drafted in the 21st round (244th overall) by the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles in 1958, but in his first training camp suffered an injury, ending his playing career before he ever got a chance to play professionally. 

    Soon after, Madden began coaching at Allan Hancock community college in Santa Maria, California. He worked his way up head coach shortly thereafter, then moved on to San Diego State as a defensive coordinator, which would work as a springboard for his career into the NFL. In 1967, Madden was brought into the NFL as a linebackers coach with the Oakland Raiders. In only two seasons, Madden worked his way up to head coach of the Oakland Raiders - a position he would hold for the next decade. Madden was a Super Bowl champion (XI) in 1977 and earned PFW AFL Coach of the Year honors in 1969. He ended his NFL coaching career with over 100 wins and a .763 winning percentage.  

    In 2006, Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in recognition of his coaching career. He is also widely known for the long-running Madden NFL video game series he has endorsed and fronted since 1988. Madden also worked as a color analyst for all four major networks: CBS (1979–1993), Fox (1994–2001), ABC (2002–2005), and NBC (2006–2008). Madden retired from broadcasting after the 2008 NFL season. He also wrote several books and served as a commercial pitchman for various products and retailers.

  • Demaryius Thomas
    Montrose, Georgia
    • Team: Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, New England Patriots, New York Jets

    NFL Pro Bowler and Super Bowl Champion WR Deymarius Thomas passed away on December 9, 2021. He was 33.

    After a standout college career at Georgia Tech, Thomas was drafted in the second round by the Denver Broncos and he went on to play in the NFL for ten years primarily in Denver. With Denver, Thomas made five consecutive Pro Bowls and won Super Bowl 50 against the Carolina Panthers.  From 2012-2016, Thomas averaged 98 receptions for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns, catching balls from Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning, while joining Hall of Famers Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice and Rams legend Torry Holt as the only players to reach those totals over four consecutive seasons. He went on to finish his career with stints on the Houston Texans, New England Patriots and New York Jets.

    On only June 28, 2021, Thomas announced his retirement from professional football. 

  • Al Unser
    Albuquerque, New Mexico
    • Team: Indy Car Racing

    Four-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser passed away of natural causes on December 9, 2021. He was 82.

    Known as "Big Al" once his own son made a name for himself in racing, Unser is part of an elite club of four-time winners of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." He was the second of four men (A. J. Foyt, himself, Rick Mears and Hélio Castroneves) to have won the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race four times (1970, 1971, 1978, 1987), the fourth of five to have won the race in consecutive years, and he won the National Championship in 1970, 1983, and 1985.

    The Unser family has won the Indy 500 a record nine times. He was the only person to have both a sibling (Bobby) and child (Al Jr.) as fellow Indy 500 winners (coincidentally, all three captured their final Indy 500 wins racing for Team Penske). Al's nephews Johnny and Robby Unser have also competed in that race.

  • Speedy Duncan
    Tuscaloosa, Alabama
    • Team: San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins

    NFL Pro Bowler Leslie "Speedy" Duncan passed away on December 9, 2021. He was 79.

    Undrafted out of Jackson State, Duncan joined the AFL's San Diego Chargers in 1964. Duncan played with the Chargers from from 1964 through 1970 - the team's first season in the NFL. He was an AFL All-Star in 1965, 1966, and 1967 and an AFC-NFC Pro Bowler in 1971. Duncan was also Second-team All-AFL (1965, 1966, 1967) three times. He was honored in the San Diego Chargers 40th Anniversary Team, San Diego Chargers 50th Anniversary Team, and later inducted into the Los Angeles Chargers Hall of Fame.

  • Blackjack Lanza

    Blackjack Lanza

    Minneapolis, Minnesota
    • Team: Pro Wrestling

    WWE Hall of Famer John Mortl Lanzo passed away on December 8, 2021. He was 86. 

    Better known by his ring name, Blackjack Lanza. Along with his long-term tag team partner, Blackjack Mulligan, Lanza was one-half of The Blackjacks: "black cowboy hat-wearing, cowboy boot-stomping, rugged hombres who drew money wherever they went," From the 1960s to 1980s, Lanza wrestled for promotions such as the American Wrestling Association, World Wrestling Association, and the World Wide Wrestling Federation, winning the AWA World Tag Team Championship, WWA World Tag Team Championship, and WWWF World Tag Team Championship alongside Mulligan. He is a member of the WWE Hall of Fame and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.

    After retiring, Lanza worked for the World Wrestling Federation as a road agent and producer.