Notable deaths in 2020: Religion, music, sports

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 23rd of December, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up on The World and Everything in It: notable deaths in 2020. 

Today, we continue our recap of those who were widely known or who exerted great influence in the fields of religion, music, and sports. You may already know about some of the people in these categories who died this year. People like Ravi Zacharias, a well-known apologist. Basketball star Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash. Author and theologian J.I. Packer as well as musicians Bill Withers, Johnny Nash, and Eddie Van Halen.

REICHARD: WORLD reporter Anna Johansen Brown picks up our coverage of other notable names in these fields, starting with a man who would go on to be an international teacher of God’s grace.

ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN, REPORTER: Sy Rogers spent a year and a half of his life living as a transgender woman.

Born in 1956, he grew up longing for love and affection after his alcoholic mother died in a car wreck. He was separated from his father for a year. A family friend sexually abused him. In school, he was ridiculed for his effeminate mannerisms and labeled a homosexual. Here he is speaking at Fellowship Church in 2014.

ROGERS: I grew up trying to be one of the guys, I was on swim team, I was on the football team. But I would tell my father and my new stepmother I might as well be gay; everyone else has turned in the verdict and I can’t win.

He embraced the gay lifestyle, then began dressing as a woman and taking female hormones in preparation for sex-change surgery. But in 1980, he said God opened his eyes.

ROGERS: And in that encounter, the Lord did not say ‘go be straight,’ he said, ‘walk with me.’ It is redeemed people who go to heaven and I needed a savior, not just a different sexuality.

Rogers began reading the Bible, praying, and eventually gave his life to God. Two years later, he married his wife Karen. Rogers began teaching on sexual brokenness and reconciliation with God.

ROGERS: Oh yes, sex is a powerful master, but I can also tell you this: God is a more powerful master. You can serve your desires, or you can bring your desires to God, admit them and submit them, and experience his mastery over mind and body. 

Rogers died from cancer in May at the age of 63.

Next, we remember J. Delano Ellis II. He founded the United Pentecostal Churches of Christ and brought high church ecclesiology to the black church. 

ELLIS: You tried to tell them I was Pentecostal. It doesn’t matter. 

Ellis often wore vestments and a tab collar while dancing, kneeling, and bellowing scripture at the top of his lungs.

ELLIS: And because I’m related to Jesus, that’s why I jump. That’s why I holler. That’s why I dance.

He worked to reclaim the idea of bishops, clerical robes, and rites of ordination for black Pentecostals. He called it “the beauty of the sacred.”

Ellis died in September at the age of 75.

Next, a man who studied dinosaurs in the Bible.

John C. Whitcomb was a theologian, Bible teacher, and early proponent of young earth creationism. 

He studied geology, paleontology, and history at Princeton, then earned his Bachelor of Divinity at Grace Theological Seminary. 

In 1961, he co-authored The Genesis Flood with Henry Morris. The book sets up a case for a six-day creation and a global flood. Morris founded his beliefs on literal interpretations of Genesis.

WHITCOMB: You know what chronology is, don’t you? It’s the backbone of history. So I say thank you Lord, because as a matter of fact, that’s how the Bible starts, the whole first chapter is chronology. Day one, second day, third day, fourth, fifth, sixth. 

Whitcomb believed that the earth was only tens of thousands of years old, and that Job’s descriptions of Leviathan and Behemoth were actually types of dinosaurs.

Whitcomb’s work greatly influenced the modern creation movement, especially people like Ken Ham, who founded Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum, and the Ark Encounter.

Whitcomb died in February at age 95.

Next, we’ll turn to the world of music and a man who blended the sounds of rockabilly, American folk, and Latin music.


Trini Lopez died from COVID-19 in August. He was 83. The Mexicano singer and guitarist was known for adding beats to folk songs and turning them into international hits in the early 1960s. 


Lopez started his first band at age 15, then struck out on his own as a solo artist. He released several singles that didn’t get much attention. Then, in 1963, Lopez signed with Frank Sinatra’s label, Reprise Records. 

His debut album catapulted him into the spotlight, and his cover of “If I Had A Hammer” hit number 1 in 36 countries.


Lopez also designed two new guitars, and acted in a few films, such as the 1967 war film The Dirty Dozen


Next, a jazz pianist who influenced generations.


McCoy Tyner started piano lessons when he was 13, and began playing professionally three years later. Tyner was raised Christian, but at 17, he got connected to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and converted to Islam. He changed his name to Sulieman Saud.

In high school, Tyner led his own band. He’d known John Coltrane for years growing up, and at age 21 joined the Coltrane Quartet.


After Coltrane’s death in 1967, Tyner went out on his own, working as a bandleader, composer, and solo artist.

His percussive style and pounding left-hand chords influenced other pianists and earned him recognition as a Jazz Master from the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Tyner died in March at age 81. 


That’s the sound of the American wild west … at least according to Italian composer Ennio Morricone. He wrote the scores for more than 500 movies, including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, The Mission, and Once Upon a Time in America.


Many of his Western themes included sounds as part of the score…things like whistles, gunshots, and animal calls. The main theme of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is taken from a coyote’s howl.


Morricone died in July at age 91. 

Next, we turn to the world of sports. 


That’s the crowd reacting as Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona scored his controversial “hand of God” goal in 1986. Argentina was facing off against England in the World Cup quarter finals. Maradona flicked the ball with his hand—which is definitely against the rules—but he made it look like he hit the ball with his head, sending it into the net. The goal put Argentina into the lead. Maradona later led his country to victory in the 1986 World Cup finals. 

Maradona is widely regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of all time, but he struggled with cocaine addiction. That earned him multiple suspensions and fines for possession and use. He allegedly had connections to the Italian mob, and became good friends with Fidel Castro. Maradona called Castro his “second father” and expressed his sorrow when Castro died in 2016.

MARADONA: Si. Si, es horrible…

Maradona died of a heart attack in late November. He was 60 years old.

Now we move from football…to football. 

MUSIC: [1969 NFL Championship CBS opening]

In 1962, Bobby Mitchell joined the Washington Redskins as its first black player. The Redskins were the last NFL team to integrate, and Mitchell faced an uphill climb. Here’s how he described it in a 2011 interview.

MITCHELL: I got the whites saying, I don’t like you, and the names. And every day I’m getting kicked. Every day. 

But he didn’t let that interrupt an 11 year Hall of Fame career. He scored 91 touchdowns and ran for 14,078 yards, winning the respect of teammates and fans.

Mitchell died in April at age 84.

Next, we remember another trailblazer. Eva Szekely survived the Holocaust and went on to become an Olympic swimmer. 

Szekely was born in Hungary in 1927. She joined her local sports club and became part of a team that won a national open water title…but two months later she was kicked out because she was Jewish.

Then, World War II.


In this interview, she recalled how a Nazi officer came to her house in 1944. Her father told the officer that Eva was a swimming star, and that one day she would be famous. The officer left her alone.

She hid with her family in a two-room safe house crammed with 42 people. She kept fit by running five flights of stairs, up and down, 100 times a day. 

After the war ended, Szekely went on to break six world records. She won 44 national titles and two Olympic medals: A gold in 1952, and a silver in 1956.

Szekely died on Leap Day in February at the age of 92.

Finally, we end today on the open road. 


Race car driver John Andretti died in January after a three year battle with cancer. He was 56. 

John Andretti was the nephew of auto-racing superstar Mario Andretti. He began racing as a kid, starting with go-karts and midget races before graduating to real cars. He raced on dirt tracks and superspeedways, and competed in dragsters and endurance races.

In 1994, he became the first driver to compete in both the Indy 500 and the NASCAR 600-mile night race in North Carolina on the same day.

John Andretti’s son, Jarrett, is following in his father’s footsteps. He made his racing debut in 2010.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen Brown.

(AP Photo/Carlo Fumagalli, File) In this June 29, 1986, file photo, Diego Maradona holds up his team’s trophy after Argentina’s 3-2 victory over West Germany at the World Cup final soccer match at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

Like this story?

To hear a lot more like it, subscribe to The World and Everything in It via iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.







Pocket Casts

(Requires a fee)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.