Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes his living in a dangerous sport. How strange that the biggest crash of his life happened away from the track. Earnhardt Jr., his wife Amy, their infant daughter Isla, and two pilots suffered minor injuries when their small plane crashed near an airport in Tennessee. He made it back to the NASCAR track just weeks after the crash.
Unfortunately, due to the high rates of air travel among athletes, Earnhardt Jr.’s experience is just one of many over the years. We can remember the athletes we lost, and those who survived, to help put in perspective the underrated risks athletes take to entertain us.
A football program nearly destroyed
Air travel is one of the safest ways to travel. Unfortunately, when rare incidents do occur, the results can be disastrous. Few examples make this more clear than Marshall University losing 38 football players and staff in a single airplane crash.
On November 14, 1970, a Southern Airways plane collided with trees while descending into Tri-State Airport in West Virginia. All 75 passengers and crew died, including most of Marshall’s football program. This incident sent devastated the community. The school initially considered cutting the football program altogether. Ultimately, Marshall University decided to honor their fallen team. Today, they remain a top school for NFL prospects.
A crash in the Andes turns into a fight for survival
When a chartered Uruguayan Air Force plane carrying the Old Christians Rugby Union Club plummeted into the Andes mountains, the ensuing events were both horrifying and inspiring. The October 13, 1972 crash immediately killed 18 passengers. The remaining 27 began a battle to survive in frigid conditions. Eight died in an avalanche two weeks later.
The remaining survivors resorted to emergency survival tactics, including cannibalism, to stay alive long enough for two brave rugby players to trek 10 long days to seek help. Their story inspired the 1993 film Alive. The Old Christians still play today, with notable regional success.
Brazilian soccer squad lost in an avoidable crash
Brazilian soccer team Chapecoense was performing well above expectations in 2016. The small club was confident entering its first continental final against Atlético Nacional. En route to the biggest game in team history, their plane crashed.
Initially, six of the 77 people on board survived the impact. Four of those who made it through were Chapecoense players. Goalkeeper Marcos Danilo Padilha did not survive the night. Mourning quickly turned to mass outrage. The plane went down because it ran out of fuel. The scheduled refueling stop was not open at night, forcing the crew to head to an airport that did not let them land soon enough.
Dozens died — most of a promising soccer team, aircraft crew, and several sports journalists — over a preventable error. Atlético Nacional requested Chapecoense receive the winning trophy for their planned game. The governing body of the competition, CONMEBOL, presented the trophy to the rebuilt squad later that year.
These events are harrowing. But for fans, it’s crucial to remember the lives affected. These athletes risk frequent travel ultimately to put on a competition for spectators around the world. Each of these organizations mourned, recovered, and flourished while upholding the memory of their lost teammates.