Sports mourns losses on the track and in the air

By Fred Lief

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Kurt Budke, the 50-year-old women's coach, and assistant Miranda Serna, 36, were making a recruiting trip when their small plane went down in Arkansas. Their deaths came not long after the 10th anniversary of a fatal crash involving the school's men's basketball team.

The doomed Lokomotiv flight culminated hockey's mournful summer. Three NHL players died in four months. Derek Boogaard, 28, a Rangers enforcer was found dead in his apartment and later determined to have a degenerative condition resulting from hits to the head. Another brawler, 27-year-old Rick Rypien of Winnipeg, battled depression. Recently retired Wade Belak, 35, was said to have hanged himself in Toronto.

Boxing sustained a big loss with the death of Frazier, 67, who spent his last days in hospice with liver disease. Smokin' Joe was not big for a heavyweight, but how to measure his heart and grit? Or the ferocious power of his left hook? Or his sheer will in his three fights with Muhammad Ali? Promoter Bob Arum called him a "great, great warrior."

Frazier — quiet and workmanlike amid the din and commotion that was Ali — in 1971 became the first to beat "The Greatest." In their third fight, the epic "Thrilla in Manila," Frazier's corner held him back for the last round. Ali called the bout was the "closest thing to dying that I know of."

Also gone from boxing in 2011 were heavyweights Ron Lyle, Scott LeDoux and knighted Englishman Henry Cooper. So were Gil Clancy, 88, the trainer who handled Emile Griffith, and Butch Lewis, 65, the promoter who went shirtless under his tuxedo and worked with Frazier and Ali, among others.

Davis was in command on pro football's stage for more than a half-century and died at 82. With his slicked-back hair like some character out of "West Side Story," he helped shape the game as the primal force behind the Oakland Raiders and as a key player in the AFL-NFL merger. Davis won three Super Bowls with the silver-and-black. He bedeviled commissioners, irked fellow owners and impelled players to, "Just win, baby."

"There was no element of the game of professional football for which Al did not enjoy a thorough and complete level of knowledge and passion," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.

Football is now without four running backs who meant much to the game: Cookie Gilchrist, 75, a Bills star from Davis' AFL days; Joe Perry, 84; John Henry Johnson, 81; and Ollie Matson, 80, once traded for nine players. Lee Roy Selmon, the defensive end who teamed with his brothers to help send Oklahoma to consecutive national championships before starring for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was 56. There were also a couple of ex-Giants in defensive end Andy Robustelli, 85, and kicker Don Chandler, 76.

John Mackey, stricken with dementia and dead at 69, was a force at tight end and later as players' union president. Ex-Bears safety Dave Duerson was 50, turning a gun on himself, with his family agreeing to donate his brain for research. Orlando Brown, the 360-pounder who missed three seasons after a penalty flag struck him in the eye, died at 40. Bubba Smith, a fearsome 6-foot-7 pass rusher who later cut a more welcoming persona as an actor, was 66.

Baseball said goodbye to a couple of sluggers forever tied to their cities.

The 84-year-old Snider was "The Duke of Flatbush," royalty of the highest order and one of Brooklyn's "Boys of Summer." He played center field, but at a time when Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle happened to be in New York. Snider hit 407 home runs and in 1955 led Brooklyn to a World Series title at long last.

"He was the true Dodger," ex-Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda said.

Killebrew, 74, was a balding brute of a hitter who personified the long-ball muscle of the 1960s. He had 573 homers for the Minnesota Twins, and outside Target Field stands his statue. He was nicknamed "The Killer," but this was someone who had a milkshake after every game and lent a gentle decency to baseball.

"We lost an icon," former Twins star Kent Hrbek said. "We lost Paul Bunyan."

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