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More tragedy for the Steelers

January 20, 2008|From the Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Some were accidental, some were tragic and others were inexplicable.

For some reason, former Pittsburgh Steelers players keep dying at an alarming rate, one that appears to be far higher than that for other NFL teams.

Former star defensive lineman Ernie Holmes' death in an auto accident Thursday night in Texas was at least the 34th death of a former Steelers player since 2000, with 16 of them age 59 or younger, as was Holmes.

Several of those who died are known to have used steroids, including former offensive guard Steve Courson -- the first NFL player to reveal he used them. He died by accident in November 2005 following years of heart problems. Several others were long rumored to have used steroids, although there has been no definitive proof they did.

Of those Steelers deaths, eight were in their 50s, five were in their 40s and two were in their 30s.

As with all NFL teams that joined the league in its early days -- the Steelers concluded their 75th season earlier this month -- Pittsburgh has lost nearly all of the players from its early teams. Five of the 34 who died since 2000 were in their 80s.

But it is the unusually high number of deaths among players who are relatively young that is uncommon. In 2006, a survey found that nearly one-fifth of the NFL players from the 1970s and 1980s who had died since 2000 were former Steelers.

"I can't explain it," longtime Steelers executive Joe Gordon said Friday. "Maybe it was something in the water."

Seven of the 34 died of heart problems before reaching their 60s: Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (50), center Jim Clack (58), defensive back Ray Oldham (54), defensive back Dave Brown (52), defensive lineman Steve Furness (49), quarterback Joe Gilliam (49) and offensive guard Tyrone McGriff (41).

Remarkably, all three of the regular centers from their Super Bowl days of the 1970s are dead: Webster, Clack and Ray Mansfield, who died of a heart attack at age 55 in 1996. Webster made the Pro Bowl nine times with Pittsburgh.

Webster had a series of medical problems after his career ended -- some traceable to damage to the front lobe of his brain that occurred during 16 seasons' worth of violent collisions.

Despite playing on one of the best NFL teams of all time, both Webster and Gilliam were homeless at times before dying.

Gilliam had cocaine and heroin problems and was once found sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge in Nashville.

Terry Long, a post-Super Bowl era guard who underwent a dramatic and unusually fast weight gain while in college and the NFL, committed suicide 2 1/2 years ago at age 45 by drinking antifreeze. He tested positive for steroids while playing and once tried earlier to commit suicide by ingesting rat poison.

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