When tragedy struck: Other KC athletes who died while active

Derrick Thomas had 126 1/2 career sacks with the Chiefs before he was paralyzed in an accident on Jan. 23, 2000. He died on Feb. 8, 2000, of a pulmonary embolism.
Derrick Thomas had 126 1/2 career sacks with the Chiefs before he was paralyzed in an accident on Jan. 23, 2000. He died on Feb. 8, 2000, of a pulmonary embolism.

Pitcher Yordano Ventura died Saturday night in a vehicular crash in the Dominican Republic, and is the first Royals pitcher who has died while still an active player.

Unfortunately, he’s not the first Kansas City athlete who died while in the midst of his playing career. Here are other notable deaths of KC athletes:

Derrick Thomas

While traveling to Kansas City International Airport on Jan. 23, 2000, Thomas lost control of his vehicle on an ice-covered Interstate 435 and it traveled into the median and rolled. Thomas, who was one of the most dominant pass rushers in the NFL at the time, suffered two fractured vertebrae and was paralyzed.

On Feb. 8, Thomas died at age 33 of a pulmonary embolism.

“His career was meteoric,” Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said at the time. “He has been symbolic of this team. There have been other good players come and go, like Joe Montana, Neil Smith, Christian Okoye, Albert Lewis, who did well, but Derrick was here the whole 11 years.

“The symbolic thing you think of if you saw some Chiefs highlights would be Derrick chasing a quarterback, and Derrick knocking the ball loose. He’s one of the most famous athletes ever to play in Kansas City.”

Thomas had 126  1/2 career sacks, including an NFL-record seven in a Nov. 11, 1990, game against Seattle. The Chiefs retired Thomas’ No. 58, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

Joe Delaney

Nearly 34 years later, Delaney’s death is a story of tragedy and heroism. Delaney, a Chiefs running back at the time, lost his life while trying to save three boys who were in a pond in Louisiana.

On June 29, 1983, Delaney heard the boys’ screams, and even though he didn’t know how to swim he jumped into the water to try and save them. Delaney and two of the boys drowned, but one boy survived.

Delaney, who was 24 at the time of his death, started 10 games during his rookie season in 1981, rushing for a team-high 1,121 yards. That included a 193-yard game against Houston.

“He had all the qualities and character traits that you look up to in great people,” Tom Condon, a Chiefs guard during 1974-84, said a day after Delaney’s death. “Courage, tenacity, honesty, loyalty. His rookie year he played beat up and hurt like you wouldn’t expect a seasoned veteran to. And then he had the courage to come back from a serious eye injury and play again.

“I was talking with a friend about what Joe did to help those boys and he said, ‘I guess that’s just the kind of thing you do in an emergency.’ That’s not the kind of thing you do. That’s the kind of thing Joe Delaney does.”

Jovan Belcher

This remains one of the darkest days in Kansas City sports history. Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot Kasandra Perkins on Dec. 1, 2012, at the home they shared in Kansas City with their 3-month-old daughter, Zoey. Belcher’s mother was visiting at the time and was at the home when the shooting occurred.

Belcher then drove to the Chiefs’ practice facility outside of Arrowhead Stadium and committed suicide in front of then-coach Romeo Crennel, general manager Scott Pioli and defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs.

“I think everyone is just so shocked at what had taken place, being who it was and being what had happened,” said then-Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn. “I think people are still trying to digest everything, let alone think about playing a game. It’s tough to put into words.

“It’s hard mostly because I keep thinking about what I could have done to stop this. I think everyone is wondering whether we would have done something to prevent this from happening.

“And then we’re all thinking about his daughter, 3 or 4 months old and without a parent.”

Randie Carver

Carver was the North American Boxing Federation super middleweight champion when he entered the ring for a bout with Kabary Salem at Harrah’s Casino, on Sept. 12, 1999.

In a brutal fight, Carver fell unconscious in the 10th round. He died two days later.

Dick Howser

Although Howser wasn’t managing the Royals at the time of his death, his brain tumor was discovered in 1986, not long after he was at the All-Star Game.

Howser died a year later at age 51.

Mack Lee Hill

Hill, a 25-year-old running back, died while undergoing knee surgery in 1965.

Hill rushed for 1,203 yards in his two seasons, and the award for the top Chiefs rookie or first-year player is named for him. The Chiefs retired his No. 36.

Stone Johnson

In their first season in Kansas City in 1963, the Chiefs played an exhibition game against the Houston Oilers in Wichita. Rookie running back Johnson, who was 23, broke his neck while blocking on a kickoff return and died 10 days later.

Then-Chiefs coach Hank Stram called it the greatest tragedy of his coaching career.

Johnson, who was an Olympic sprinter in 1960, never appeared in a regular-season game, but the Chiefs retired his No. 33.

Mel Johnson

A free-agent wide receiver, Johnson had a heart attack during an operation for wrist surgery in March 1980 and died five days later. He never played in a game for the Chiefs, but then-coach Marv Levy thought Johnson could have made an impact.

“He had so much potential, and we told him he’d have an opportunity to make it in this league,” Levy said.

Bruce McLenna

McLenna, a free-agent running back, was killed on June 18, 1968, in a Jeep accident near Urbana, Mo., during Army Reserve summer camp. He was expected to join the Chiefs later that summer.

Pete Grathoff: 816-234-4330, @pgrathoff