By Steve Czaban Special to Published Feb 21, 2001 at 12:01 AM

In sports, there are rules. Rules that cover every aspect of every game. Rules that are followed to the letter. Rules that are written in stone. Rules that simply, do not, get broken.

Life, however, has no such rules.

We know this now, because as sports fans, we've lived under the presumed "rule" that sports superstars, don't die in their prime. Oh sure, sports figures die. All the time. From all kinds of things. But not superstars. Not Hall of Famers. Not legends.

Then, as if we had forgotten about Payne Stewart, Dale Earnhardt's death blackens the sports world on what should have been racing's most glorious day. His death reminds us, that our own "rules" about who should and should not die, are nothing but wishful thinking in the fearful corners of our mind. For the second time in the last 15 months, a major star is cut down while enjoying the blessings of a career that (although may be coming to an end soon) still had plenty of magic left.

Perhaps this is a fluke. Perhaps not. Perhaps we have just been lucky these last 30 or so years that the gods of sport which we worship from afar, have been immune to tragic fate for this long a stretch. As human beings, every life is precious. But as sports fans, some deaths are more devastating than others. The deaths of Stewart and Earnhardt have been the most difficult to handle since Roberto Clemente in 1972.

Since then, plenty of major sports "stars" have died while still active in their sports. But none with these kind of Hall of Fame credentials. None who were still enjoying success at the top of their respective sports. And none who had so much going on outside of their sport, as they did inside of it.

About the only one that comes close, is Derrick Thomas, almost two years ago. But even there, Thomas was a dubious Hall of Famer. He had never played in a Super Bowl, and was on the verge of being cut due to declining production. To further complicate matters, Thomas died while police say his vehicle was driving recklessly fast in a January blizzard. He wasn't wearing his seat belt. Afterward, it became known that he had left, virtually penniless, a long line of children he fathered out of wedlock, despite his career as a millionaire player.

None of which means he deserved to die, it just meant we had a somewhat easier time moving on. Hornets guard Bobby Phills dies, and most people must first be told who he was. Then, we find out it was because he was speeding at almost 100 miles per hour on residential streets. Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Steve Chiasson dies in another car crash, but he was irresponsibly drunk at the time.

Len Bias' death rocks the sports world as the Celtics top pick in 1986. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. Then, we find out it was a cocaine overdose. Again, we don't say "serves him right," but we're not left asking "why."

Reggie Lewis was a front-line, NBA caliber starter when he died. But not a superstar and perhaps not even a star. His death was complicated by the fact he went "doctor shopping" until he found a prognosis he liked. This after most said going back on the court might just kill him. Hank Gathers dies after collapsing on the court. He was leading the NCAA in scoring and rebounding at the time, ut still played at an obscure, tiny west coast school. He, too, survived a collapse earlier that year, but had apparently stopped taking his medication when his second collapse proved lethal.

Go back futher and you have the Drazen Petrovic’s and Pelle Lindbergh’s of the sports world. Lindbergh was drunk and speeding until a tree put an end to his fun, while Petrovic checked out on Germany's Autobahn. Jerome Brown is in the same sad club of too much speed and too little common sense. Vladimir Konstantinov thought he was safe in a limo following the Red Wings Stanley Cup win in 1997. But at least he lived and recovered enough to hold the Cup again in his wheelchair the following season. Cleveland Indians pitchers Tim Crews and Steve Olin died in a spring training boating mishap in Florida. Bob Ojeda lived, but his career was over. They too, were drunk at the time.

Chargers' backup running back Rodney Culver went down on that ValuJet crash in Florida. Only fantasy football players knew who he was. Arthur Ashe shouldn't have died so young, but his playing days had long since ended. Same for Dodgers pitcher-turned broadcaster Don Drysdale. Ditto for the beloved Jim Valvano.

Thurman Munson was a beloved Yankee and major baseball star, but also a renowned jackass. Still, not a hall of famer. I looked through the ESPN "Information Please" Sports Almanac under "Who’s Who." Clemente is there. Munson is not, for whatever that is worth.

Commissioner Bart Giamatti died shortly after his banishment of Pete Rose. It was freaky, sure, but he was neither a player, nor especially beloved. Michael Jordan's father was killed senselessly while resting on the side of a North Carolina highway. It helped push MJ out of basketball for a year and a half, but he returned with a championship vengeance that is unmatched in sports.

Bo Jackson should have gone down as the greatest athlete in two-sport history, except for that fluke-ish tackle which exploded his hip socket, but still he didn’t die. Mario Lemieux had to leave his pinnacle of greatness due to cancer and a cranky back, but now he's back and seemingly better than ever.

Oklahoma State loses several players, coaches and support personnel this year in a plane crash, but fate saves the head coach and all of the starters. Owen Hart dies in the quasi-sports world of wrestling, but it's not like he was The Rock, Steve Austin or Goldberg.

The point of all this is that I have tried to compare the Stewart and Earnhardt deaths to others in sports history and I think you'll agree that we've been pretty lucky. No doubt. Tragedy in all shapes and sizes has intruded on our safe haven that is sports. But the brightest of the bright, and the best of the best, have generally been spared.

Until now.

At the time of his plane crash in 1972, Roberto Clemente was an electrifying hero to millions of baseball fans and a god to Latin Americans. He gave tirelessly off the field to charity, and had a reputation that was blemish free. He was a four-time NL batting champ, 1966 regular season MVP, and had just won the World Series MVP in 1971. He died on New Year’s eve. On a charity mission. Standing at exactly 3,000 career hits. That’s both tragic and spooky.

Stewart meanwhile, had just won the U.S. Open for a second time in June on a thrilling 72nd hole 15-foot putt. He had turned his life around, transforming from a sullen jerk into a spiritually grounded family man.

The guy he beat, Phil Mickelson, was due to have his first child the next day. Stewart, in an act that would have eluded him years before, thought only of Mickelson on that final green when he held his head and told him in front of cameras how great it was going to be for him to be a father. Stewart knew, he was one.

Later that fall, he and Mickelson would play together in one of golf's most thrilling chapters. A spectacular comeback in the Ryder Cup to beat Europe in Brookline, Mass. Stewart's final golfing act, was to concede a 20-ft. putt to opponent Colin Montgomerie on the last hole of their deadlocked match. It gave Montgomerie the win, but Stewart didn't care. The team event had been decided, and Stewart had been so put off by the heckling of Monty during the match, he simply wasn't going to subject his opponent to any more. Stewart was at the top of his game, both on the course, and off.

Then, he died.

And if you really want to be further saddened and spooked by Earnhardt's death, think of this, courtesy of my friend, and ardent Earnhardt supporter Chuck Morrison:

10 Laps to go: Leading the Race: Michael Waltrip -- 462 starts without a win -- no ride at the end of last season - given a chance by the guy running 3rd -- Earnhardt. In Second Place: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. -- car also owned by the guy running 3rd, who, incidentally, is also his father. In Third Place: Earnhardt. Calling the race for Fox: Darrell Waltrip, brother of leader Michael and former winner of the Daytona 500 -- calling his first race on network TV. Also calling the race: Larry McReynolds, former crew chief for Earnhardt when he won his only Daytona 500.

Last Lap: Turn 4 - Earnhardt wrecks and dies 100 feet from where his best friend, Neil Bonnett, died 7 years ago testing one of his cars (Earnhardt was a 7 time champion).

There were 49 lead changes - Earnhardt was 49 years old. He was running 3rd when he died -- there is no more famous number in NASCAR than the NUMBER 3.

Michael Waltrip's first race win is the biggest of them all and he will never truly get to celebrate it.

I will say this and tell my kids and their kids: nobody will ever go out in grander style.

I am far too young to remember Clemente's death and what it did to sports fans everywhere. The feelings of unfairness and loss must have been immense. Sadly, I now think I have a pretty good idea of what it was like.

And while I would like to say that I hope we go another 30 or so years without this feeling, deep down I know there are no such guarantees.

Steve Czaban Special to

Steve is a native Washingtonian and has worked in sports talk radio for the last 11 years. He worked at WTEM in 1993 anchoring Team Tickers before he took a full time job with national radio network One-on-One Sports.

A graduate of UC Santa Barbara, Steve has worked for WFNZ in Charlotte where his afternoon show was named "Best Radio Show." Steve continues to serve as a sports personality for WLZR in Milwaukee and does fill-in hosting for Fox Sports Radio.