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Five sports figures forced to retire early due to illness
On Tuesday, Aug. 23, Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt announced that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. As I grasped this news, I began thinking of sports figures that were forced to retire early due to illness. Here are the first five that came to mind:
Brian Piccolo played for the Chicago Bears from 1965-1969. He made the practice squad as an undrafted free agent in his first season, and through hard work and determination, Piccolo eventually became a pivotal member of the Bears' backfield. However, during a game against Atlanta in 1969, Piccolo took himself out of the game. The following Tuesday, he was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma. He battled hard against the disease, but finally passed away on June 16, 1970.
A movie, "Brian's Song," based on Piccolo's story and his friendship with Bears running back Gale Sayers was released in 1971 and is still talked about today.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson
One of the greatest Los Angeles Lakers ever and winner of five NBA championships, Magic Johnson retired from the league in 1991 after being diagnosed with the HIV virus. At the time, not much was known about the disease, and there were fears that if he kept playing that he'd infect other players. He did comeback on two other occasions afterwards, but with the Lakers rebuilding, Johnson never returned to the NBA Finals.
Since retiring, Johnson has since become a successful businessman and philanthropist. His foundation continues to work in minority and urban communities to help meet educational, health, and social needs.
Rocco Baldelli was once thought to be the future of the Tampa Bay Rays franchise, but a career filled with injuries slowed him down. However, it wasn't until he was diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder (and later a channelopathy) that it became clear that he wouldn't be able to play anymore. His condition stole energy from his body and affected his muscles, and on Jan. 26, 2011, Baldelli retired from baseball. He took a job working in the Rays' front office after announcing his retirement.
One of the greatest players ever to set foot on a baseball diamond, Lou Gehrig retired in 1939 after being diagnosed with ALS. The disease has since taken on Gehrig's name. At the time, Gehrig had set the Major League record for the most consecutive games played with 2,130, so it was surprising when he suddenly announced his retirement. His farewell speech in which he proclaimed that he was "the luckiest man on the face of the earth," is known as one of the greatest speeches in sports history.
Dave Dravecky is the one person on this list that touches me the most. He grew up in my hometown, graduated from my high school, and was one of the few people from our area to accomplish his dream of playing in Major League Baseball. He made a courageous comeback from cancer on his pitching arm, but then his arm snapped in his second game back in the Majors. As Dravecky prepared for another comeback, the cancer returned, and he was forced to retire. Later, his entire left arm and a portion of his shoulder had to be amputated. Since retiring and losing his arm, Dravecky has been speaking professionally with his message of hope.
Pat Summitt may have to retire sooner than most expected before her diagnosis, but like the other people on this list she's bound to inspire many people through her struggles.
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