SUPER POLL 50 | 47: Justin Strzelczyk’s tragic death helped start concussion debate



Our series on the 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 47 Justin Strzelczyk, originally published on Jan. 11.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk may be better remembered for his death than his role in Super Bowl XXX. Strzelczyk, who died in 2004 after crashing into a tank truck while driving 90 mph while evading police, was a key part of the Steelers effort to reach the Super Bowl.

After his death, Strzelczyk, a Maine graduate, was found COUNTDto be suffering from irreversible brain damage. His death at 36 helped spark a debate about the link between playing football and suffering concussions that result in brain damage.

Strzelczyk’s story made it to the big screen in 2015, in the Will Smith film “Concussion,” which traces the effects of CTE on NFL players. Matthew Willig’s Strzelczyk careens through the end of his life while his family looks on helplessly. Willig, incidentally, is also a former NFL player.

His ex-wife, Keana McMahon, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in December 2015, that life would have been different for her and Strzelczyk had they known what caused his erratic behavior.

“We just didn’t know,” she said. “If I had known what was going on, we would have had different discussions.

“We had a lot of fun. … We had something that brought us such joy and gave us a wonderful life. I don’t think he would have changed it for the world, even today, knowing that he might end up that way. A lot of guys wouldn’t quit. But is it worth it? My kids don’t have their dad.”

During the 1995 season leading up to the Steelers’ 27-17 Super Bowl loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Strzelczyk was part of the Steelers’ regular offensive-line rotation and made multiple key blocks during the regular season and through the playoffs. He was, according to friends, teammates and coaches, something of a free spirit, who loved his guitar and Harley as much as football.

Drafted in the 11th round in 1990, Strzelczyk switched from defensive tackle to the offensive line. Strzelczyk was among the most versatile linemen in the NFL. He played 173 games for the Steelers, starting 75 and manning every line position except center.

Friends remembered Strzelczyk as a genuinely good-natured guy and Super Bowl XXX as the highlight of his career.

“He fulfilled his dream so early in his life, and some people never do that,” Strzelczyk’s friend, Jim Doran, told the Washington Post in 2004. “He hit his high point, and when that ended, maybe that’s when things starting going bad.

“Somebody asked me what I thought his legacy was, and I think it was the fact that he lived strong.”

Former Steelers GM Tom Donahue told the Washington Post: “He was tough, an overachiever, extremely unselfish. He came to work every day, worked like crazy in the weight room … He was a free spirit, too, but there was never any indication that might cause what happened to him.”


Above: Justin Strzelczyk, blocking against the St. Louis Rams during a 42-6 victory at Three Rivers Stadium on Nov. 3, 1996, in Pittsburgh, died at 36. That helped spark a debate about the link between playing football and suffering concussions that result in brain damage. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

Jill R. Dorson

Jill R. Dorson is a freelance writer based in San Diego.