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Triumph and Tragedy

The Steelers celebrated their first Super Bowl championship in 26 years last season. But off the field, there has been much heartbreak, as 18 former players have died since 2000.

July 18, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

One was lifting weights at home. Another was training for a triathlon. A third was watching a game at a friend's house.

Regular guys doing regular things.

Then there were the others.

One drank antifreeze. Another was in a high-speed chase.

Two things in common among all:

They were Pittsburgh Steelers; and they died in the last six years.

Fresh off their first Super Bowl victory in 26 years, the Steelers have experienced the emotional gamut. The franchise has lost 18 former players -- age 35 to 58 -- since 2000, including seven in the last 16 months.

"There is no explanation," said Joe Gordon, a Steelers executive from 1969 to 1998. "We just shake our heads and ask why."

The numbers are startling. Of the NFL players from the 1970s and '80s who have died since 2000, more than one in five -- 16 of 77 -- were Steelers.

"It's just an anomaly that we can't explain," said John Stallworth, who starred at receiver for Steelers teams from 1974 to 1987. "From an emotional standpoint it just makes you sad and makes you feel like the time we spent together was even more precious."

Accidents led to some of the deaths, and at least one was a suicide. Others share hauntingly familiar details.

Seven died of heart failure: Jim Clack, 58; Ray Oldham, 54; Dave Brown, 52; Mike Webster, 50; Steve Furness, 49; Joe Gilliam, 49; and Tyrone McGriff, 41. (In 1996, four years before the steady succession of Steelers deaths, longtime center Ray Mansfield died of a heart attack at 55.)

There is speculation that steroid abuse could have played a role in some of the deaths, but no hard evidence. It's just as plausible that weight issues were a factor. Counting Mansfield, five of the eight heart-attack victims played on the offensive or defensive line.

The circumstances surrounding some of the other deaths were unusual:

* Steve Courson, 50, was killed outside his Farmington, Pa., home in November while trying to remove a 44-foot tree from his property. The former guard was crushed while apparently trying to save his dog, after a gust of wind changed the direction of the falling tree. His black Labrador retriever was found alive, tangled in Courson's legs.

* In March 2005, David Little was bench-pressing weights alone at his Miami home when the coroner determined he suffered a heart arrhythmia, causing the 46-year-old former linebacker to drop a 250-pound barbell on his chest. The bar rolled across his neck and suffocated him.

* Terry Long, 45, an offensive guard whose eight-year career was derailed by a positive test for steroids, committed suicide in Pittsburgh in June 2005 by drinking antifreeze. Twice divorced, he had serious legal problems stemming from his failed food-processing business and had made two previous suicide attempts.

* The second-youngest of the Steelers to die was 36-year-old Justin Strzelczyk, a tackle who had a series of run-ins with the law after he retired. He died after a 40-mile, high-speed chase on the New York Thruway in September 2004. Driving his Ford F-250 pickup at speeds in excess of 100 mph, Strzelczyk made obscene gestures and tossed beer bottles at the police following him. The chase came to a fiery end when, while on the wrong side of the road, he slammed into a tanker truck.

The string of deaths -- most recently that of receiver Theo Bell, who died June 21 of kidney disease and the skin disease scleroderma -- have reverberated through the Steelers, the city of Pittsburgh and beyond.

"Just the fact that the Steelers are such an integral part of this community -- probably more so than most NFL cities -- it obviously hits home for a lot of people," Gordon said. "It's hard to accept."

Men who won a combined 20 Super Bowl rings, the deceased Steelers were part of one of the most hallowed organizations in sports.

"When I was young ... I convinced myself that I was going to do something with my life so that my death wouldn't be the end of me," Stallworth said. "In the lives of these men, they were a part of something special. People in Pittsburgh and around the country will remember them for that."

Some were as much pioneers as players. Gilliam was among the NFL's first black quarterbacks. He started for Pittsburgh in 1974 before Terry Bradshaw reclaimed the job.

When Gilliam's career ended, his life took a downward turn. He struggled with addictions to cocaine and heroin, and sometimes was homeless. In 1995, he was discovered sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge in Nashville.

But his life was on an upswing just before his death. Saying he was drug-free, he lectured children on the perils of drug abuse. In 2000, on Christmas Day, he died while watching a football game at a friend's house.

Of the 22 players who were part of all four Pittsburgh Super Bowl teams of the 1970s, Webster was the last to retire and, after Furness, the second to die.

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