1998 Steelers profile photo
|Date of birth:||August 18, 1968|
|Place of birth:||West Seneca, New York|
|Date of death:||September 30, 2004(aged 36)|
|Place of death:||Herkimer, New York|
|NFL draft:||1990 / Round: 11 / Pick: 293|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Career NFL statistics|
|Stats at NFL.com|
|Stats at pro-football-reference.com|
Justin Conrad Strzelczyk (August 18, 1968 – September 30, 2004) was an American football offensive lineman who played nine seasons in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1990 to 1998 and helped the team gain a Super Bowl berth. His death at age 36 helped spark a debate in the NFL about the link between playing football and suffering concussions that result in brain damage.
Justin was born and grew up in West Seneca, New York. His father Connie "Big Bird" Strzelczyk was a 6-foot-4 basketball standout played at Montana State University, from 1958 to 1960. He later returned to Buffalo where he became a school teacher and a painting contractor in the summer breaks. His father and mother, Mary Joyce, separated when Justin was 7. Mary Joyce later called Justin's father a "tremendous influence" in sports. Growing up Strzelczyk played hockey, football and basketball. He also was a baseball pitcher until shoulder pain prevented him from throwing anymore.
He attended West Seneca West Senior High School and was a local basketball star. As a 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m) forward, Justin averaged 21 points a game as a junior and 22 as a senior, earning all-Western New York honors. Despite his love for football, Justin was to set on playing basketball in college. However Justin's dad, who had played college basketball only to end up teaching, convinced him that he had a better future in football.
Strzelczyk went on to play football at the University of Maine. The school won two Yankee Conference titles, during Justin's time on the team. Teammates stated that he hated steroids and made his weight through eating and weight-lifting. He was given the nickname "Jughead", after the Archie comics character. In January 1990, he played in the East-West Shrine Game held in California. There he impressed then-Steelers coach, Chuck Noll, who drafted Justin in the 11th round of the 1990 NFL Draft.
He made the Pittsburgh Steelers roster after the team's 1990 training camp and moved to Plum. Strzelczyk played on the Steelers special teams during his first two seasons. However, when right tackle Tunch Ilkin was injured and missed four games in 1992, Justin leaped into starting duty. He then started 75 of the 133 games he played and, more amazingly, started at every line position, except center. During games, he would pick up the red phone on the Steelers' sideline and scream at the team's offensive coordinator, from Ron Erhardt to Chan Gailey to Ray Sherman: "Run the damn ball!" He played a key role in getting the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX.
In May 1998 Strzelczyk's father died after being paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident. Five months later, during a Monday Night Football game, against the Kansas City Chiefs, Justin suffered a quadriceps tear that required season-ending surgery two days later. He then injured his knee again in a bar fight in March 1999, which required further surgery, ending his next season as well. The Steelers placed him on injured reserve and paid him $187,000, a fraction of the $1.5 million he was scheduled to earn. Then, he tore his biceps in a January 24, 2000, celebrity hockey game. The string of injuries prompted the Steelers to waive Strzelczyk.
Strzelczyk appeared in the 1997 Adam Sandler music video, "The Lonesome Kicker". There, Strzelczyk plays himself as he steals the kicker's "snow shoe" and taunts him throughout the video along with fellow Steeler teammates Jerome Bettis, Greg Lloyd, and Kordell Stewart.
Justin took up riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, after signing with the Steelers. When he purchased his first bike at a bike-purchase celebration with teammates Ariel Solomon and Jerry Olsavsky in Oakland, Justin rammed into a couple of parked cars, denting only the fuel tank and his bike. He also took up the guitar and banjo, watching videos, reading books, cribbage and day trading as well. In early-1993, he married his wife Keana, and the couple had two children, before a divorce in 2001. Justin was known to be a heavy drinker, like his father Connie.
After being waived by the Steelers, Justin hunted for ways to fill the time. He began cooking buffalo wings and barbecue sauces. He also rode his motorcycle to the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. He skied, played music, acted in two plays, and he wrote a book titled Balance, his theory about evening out life's enjoyments and stresses. He even once wrote a check for $17,000 to fund a daycare. He also invested in several businesses that failed, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars, although the monetary losses did not cripple his finances.
Strzelczyk had several issues with the police after his career ended. In November 2000, Justin was arrested and charged with carrying a firearm without a permit. The handgun belonged to a friend of his, with whom he had gotten into a discussion over gun control and briefly brandished the weapon. He was acquitted eight-and-a-half months later. In early 2003, he was cited for DUI and his driver's license was suspended for one year. The sentence was later reduced to two months. In late-2003, Justin suddenly swore off alcohol and all drugs, even prescription medication.
The night before he died, he called up old friends to make peace. These friends later stated that Justin ranted about the "devil", "doctors who controlled people with anti-depressants", and "evil people in Pittsburgh". Justin's ex-wife and others maintain that he never sought medical help, however some friends stated that Justin consulted health professionals about what he perceived as his own bipolar disorder. This was a stressful time for Justin, he was still struggling with his divorce, his ex-wife was engaged to remarry, his football career was over, he was struggling with sobriety, and he had just opened a new business. He had also purchased a new family headstone a few months earlier.
Justin was supposed to arrive in Orchard Park, New York, for a fund-raiser that weekend. He packed only $2,600-plus in cash and some crucifixes. His cell phone was left at his home. He died in a car crash in Herkimer, New York, when he hit a tank truck while driving 90 miles per hour (140 km/h) against the flow of traffic to evade capture by the police. He was 36 years old.
It was initially thought that Strzelczyk was under the influence of alcohol or other drugs due to his irrational behavior, but that was disproved by toxicity tests. A postmortem autopsy revealed that he had suffered from brain damage, possibly due to his years of playing football.
This incident helped start a debate about the seriousness of concussions at the National Football League Summit, in June 2007. There, Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh neuropathologist, linked the deaths of Strzelczyk and three other retired NFL players to brain damage from football. Those cases involved former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters and former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen Mike Webster and Terry Long. Waters and Long committed suicide; Webster died of a heart attack, but suffered from severe mental problems in his later life. Omalu says each death followed a similar line: football concussions, leading to brain damage similar to dementia pugilistica (also known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in boxers, leading to clinical depression. It was previously thought to only exist in boxers and steeplechase jockeys. In 2007, Justin's mother, Mary Strzelczyk, gave Omalu permission to examine Justin's brain.
On October 16, 2009, West Seneca West High School retired Justin Strzelczyk's football jersey #46. He was a member of the high school's graduating class of 1986. Strzelczyk was played by Matt Willig in the 2015 film, Concussion. The film described the efforts of Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who fought against the efforts by the NFL to suppress his research on the brain damage suffered by professional football players.
- Finder, Chuck (October 31, 2004). "What drove Justin Strzelczyk to his death?". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- Jerry DiPaola (2004-10-01). "Strzelczyk killed in fiery crash.". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Retrieved 2011-01-29.
- "Adam Sandler's "Lonesome Kicker" Gets Help From Steelers". MTV. 1997-10-01. Retrieved 2012-02-21.
- Schwarz, Alan (2007-06-15). "Lineman, Dead at 36, Exposes Brain Injuries". The New York Times.
- Mihoces, Gary (2007-06-20). "NFL begins debate about concussions at summit". USAToday.Com. Retrieved 2011-01-29.
- Smith, Michael David (2007-06-14). "The Sad Story of Justin Strzelczyk". AOL News. Retrieved 2011-01-29.
- "2009 Alumni Night: Retiring Justin Strzelczyk's jersey". West Seneca High School. 2009-10-16. Retrieved 2011-01-29.