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October 31, 2004 12:00 AM
By Chuck Finder Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BUFFALO, N.Y. — What demons chased him 411 miles from home?
What made him drive his pickup truck 100 miles per hour the wrong way down the westbound lanes of New York’s deadliest toll road?
Why did he never once, in 37 miles of high-speed pursuit, stop for the state trooper tailing him with lights flashing and siren wailing?
Why did he have $2,600 in cash, and would it have bought him peace?
Why, at the start of this fatal, Sept. 30 morning, did this frightening, bearded man offer cash and a crucifix to two strangers? Why did he beg them to take their children to higher ground?
And where exactly was he going like a bat out of hell on that New York State Thruway also known as Interstate 90?
“There are a number of questions,” Troop T Capt. Donald Faughnan said from behind an office desk that includes a Buffalo Bills mini-helmet signed in gold ink by former stars Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas. He went ahead and answered one. “Does it appear he was trying to commit suicide? It does not.
“When you consider what else he could have hit or who else could have been hurt, it could have been much worse. But it wasn’t his intent.”
Maybe, somewhere between the sudden rush of religious rebirth and the agitated state that had him convinced evil would pour through the storm-damaged hole in his Ross bedroom roof, no reason existed that Thursday morning behind the wheel for Justin Conrad Strzelczyk.
Maybe the man — once an exemplary Steelers offensive lineman, a Harley Davidson-riding, guitar-picking bon vivant — wasn’t really that same man after all. Maybe, as his ex-wife put it, this 36-year-old no longer resembled the fellow his friends and family knew, although on the last night of his life he appeared to try to repent to them all.
Broken homes, fast friends
He was, in many respects, his father’s son.
Connie “Big Bird” Strzelczyk was a 6-foot-4 basketball standout in his day. He played at Montana State University for a couple of seasons, from 1958 to 1960. He returned to Buffalo, where he became a school teacher, a painting contractor in the summer vacations and a father who put enormous athletic burdens on those Strzelczyk-square shoulders of his oldest son.
The father and mother separated when Justin was 7, leaving Mary Joyce — also a teacher before having children — to fend at their West Seneca home with Justin, Melissa, then 8, and John, then 4. One Christmas, when times were tough, the kids sold their band instruments to buy mom presents. Yet there always seemed to be just enough time and money for Justin’s sports.
Hockey games (when the beanpole boy towered in team photographs over his Cazenovia league teammates). Baseball games (before the pitcher’s shoulder pained him too much to throw anymore). Basketball games. Football games. Mary Joyce called Justin’s father a “tremendous influence” in sports. Dan Horan, Justin’s best friend, can still picture the father in his painter’s overalls watching their summer-league basketball games from the gym doorway.
Connie Strzelczyk and Joe Horan, Dan’s father, were drinking buddies. In Dan’s words, each was a “textbook alcoholic” — though their boys didn’t realize that connection until later. Fathers and sons ran into one another on a Kent State football recruiting visit in their junior years in high school. Dan, who went to Bishop Timon, ended up riding home with the Strzelczyks. All he remembers of that four-hour trip is laughing every mile. From then on, Dan said, he and Justin Strzelczyk were “inseparable.”
The “textbook alcoholic” fathers and the broken homes brought them closer. When Dan’s mother died of cancer in his junior year of college, Justin spent three hours in the Horan driveway with him crying, hugging. When Connie Strzelczyk died after being paralyzed in a drunken-driving accident — a May 1998 call that Dan Horan, a Buffalo policeman, heard over his radio — it was the friend’s turn to do the consoling.
Mile Marker 339, the Clifton Springs Service Plaza — Amid the Sunoco pumps, the TCBY and the Roy Rogers, he asked two strangers — a man and the female service-station attendant — if they had children, and he advised they take them to higher ground. He spoke about God. About being saved.
He offered a wad of cash from his pocket, but the man politely declined. He offered the gift of a crucifix. That the man accepted.
He then paid with a $50 bill for his own gas, with another $50 for the man’s tank, and left without getting the $30-plus change from the attendant.
Hours later, upon hearing of the chase and crash down the Thruway — the ninth fatality since June in this 150-mile stretch between Rochester and Albany — the two strangers telephoned state police wondering if they had come across the same driver.
A future in football
“Justin was going to play college basketball. That was where his interest lay,” recalled Jim Brotz, then the football coach at West Seneca West and now the district superintendent. “But he loved to play football. Loved to play.”
As a 6-5 small forward who preferred to stay outside and shoot, Justin averaged 21 points a game as a junior and 22 as a senior, earning all-Western New York honors. But Connie, who a generation earlier followed the same hoop path into teaching and painting, had different plans. “He and his dad sat down and went over it,” Dan Horan recalled. “He said, ‘If you want a future, football is the way to go.’
“Even then, I started seeing some pain in his face.”
Horan went to Marshall University in West Virginia to play football, Justin to the University of Maine.
“He was always goofy, always wanted to be different,” began Maine teammate and pal John Lapiana of Plum. “Didn’t want to fit in with the ordinary people. And he got shunned a good bit in college because of it.
“He was proud of the stupidest things. We were playing New Hampshire one Saturday, and he said he was going to make himself vomit. He did, all over the New Hampshire guard’s hand. He couldn’t wait to show us on the films.
“I realized one day in biology lab with him that everybody else was studying, but not him. He said, ‘I have two choices: I’m either playing pro football or pumping gas. If I don’t make it, I’ll be happy making $5 an hour.’ ”
The Black Bears won two Yankee Conference titles, and Justin was a big … bigger … biggest part of that success. He was growing, all right — from 225 pounds to 245 to 270 to 290. His secret recipe was lifting weights and lifting forks. He lived for meals. And he despised all things steroid, mocking the abusers: This guy’s on the juice, that guy’s on the juice. Justin was content to have a protruding belly that gave him the appearance of a second-trimester mother-to-be, so proud that as a pro he would yank up his shirt and pat his fat, “It pays the bills.”
By then, after returning for his sophomore season with a tight crew cut, the Black Bears took to calling him Jughead, after the Archie comics character. Jughead begat Jugger, which begat Jugs. The name so fit his demeanor, it stuck even for family: They called him Jugs, too.
On the football field, he bedeviled opponents as a defensive tackle his junior and senior seasons, compiling 10 sacks. “He was absolutely a dominating player,” said Maine coach Jack Cosgrove, an assistant then. “He got hurt at the end of the  season. We got in the playoffs and couldn’t stop anybody, because we didn’t have him there.”
That January 1990, he played in the East-West Shrine Game in California. That’s where Chuck Noll “fell in love” with the 6-foot-6-inch, 290-pound Maine man in practice, said Tom Donahoe, a scout who is now the Buffalo Bills’ general manager and president. The Steelers drafted him in the 11th round. They then tried to make him something he never was in college or high school: an offensive lineman.
Mile Marker 295.5, east of the State Fairgrounds exit outside Syracuse — A woman driving her car past a couple of tractor-trailers was suddenly rear-ended by a pickup. It fixed to her rear bumper, pushing her faster and faster. She got away, pulled over and dialed 911 on her cell phone. It was 7:22 a.m.
The bright of sunrise gave way to a gray sheet of clouds. It was soon after the 7 a.m. shift change at the Troop T substations along the Thruway. A patrol car was dispatched within minutes from the Syracuse substation to be on the lookout in the eastbound lanes for a green pickup with a white stripe on its midsection.
Pittsburgh’s perfect Steeler
He made the Steelers out of 1990 training camp and celebrated with a dinner at his old college teammate’s Plum house. When the Lapianas asked if Justin had anywhere to go, and he didn’t, he stayed the night. Then the next. He didn’t leave for months.
He quickly landed friends in his new neighborhood. “He was a Plum guy at that point,” said Andy Sebastian, a small businessman whose son, Andy Jr., soon turned Justin onto Harleys. “We kind of adopted him.”
After playing on special teams his first two seasons, he leaped into starting duty in 1992 when right tackle Tunch Ilkin got hurt and missed four games. It was the start of an NFL career in which he started 75 of the 133 games he played and, more amazingly, started at every line position but center.
“You couldn’t get him out of practice, you couldn’t get him out of games,” Donahoe said. “He was such a tough guy and so dependable. He didn’t want to be the star, didn’t want to be in the limelight. He was one of those players who wanted us to know we could count on him doing his job day in and day out.”
During games, he would invariably pick up the red phone on the Steelers’ sideline and scream at the offensive coordinator, from Ron Erhardt to Chan Gailey to Ray Sherman: Run the damn ball.
In the Steelers’ offices, he knew every employee down to the grounds crew, and he often sat across the desk from Donahoe, then the director of player personnel, chatting about the inner workings of contracts and about players around the league.
In the locker room, he was both respected and teased. Teammates once secretly towed his putty-and-blue Ford pickup, the jalopy embarrassed them so. He bought a new truck.
“He was just a happy spirit,” said Tom Myslinski, a fellow lineman from New York.
While football was his avocation in college, it transformed into his vocation in Pittsburgh. He took up Harley riding, but after a rocky beginning: Justin left a bike-purchase celebration with teammates Ariel Solomon and Jerry Olsavsky at Oakland’s “O” by popping the clutch and ramming into a couple of parked cars, denting only the fuel tank and his pride. He took up the guitar and then the banjo, watching videos and reading books and strumming on the decks of his homes in Ross and then McCandless. He took up cribbage and day-trading stocks as well.
And he drank.
Keana Strzelczyk maintained that her husband never sat around the house binge drinking, especially after they started having children little more than a year into their early-1993 marriage. The wedding followed a whirlwind, two-month courtship between Steeler and dancer. There were the famed Halloween parties at the Strzelczyks, where the man of the house always seemed to wear costumes with skirts — Braveheart kilt, Hercules loincloth, caveman. There were post-game gatherings with fellow Steelers, bikers, bankers, businessmen and any stranger whom Justin invited while walking through stadium tailgaters.
Mostly, though, he went out on the town to drink. And the town seemed to revel in it. “Even people who didn’t know him, they knew of him,” guard Alan Faneca said.
“Jugs, he accepted you no matter who you were,” Myslinski said. “And everybody just accepted him for who he was.”
“He was the perfect Steeler for Pittsburgh,” Solomon added.
Mile Marker 257, near Verona — Around 7:50 a.m., the trooper spotted the green Ford F-250 pickup. About that time, a second call came into police: Near Mile Marker 259, the same truck bumped a man’s vehicle a couple of times, pushing it to speeds up to 100 mph.
The trooper pulled behind the truck and driver, whom he soon identified from vehicle registration as Justin Strzelczyk. The trooper turned on his lightbar and siren. Nothing fazed Strzelczyk. The truck picked up speed almost immediately and drove erratically. “But he was doing that way before we ever got behind him,” said state police investigator James Hunt. “The other drivers said he had this look on his face like he was looking right through them, like they weren’t even there.”
Objects started flying out the driver’s side window: a bottle that may have been used as a chewing-tobacco spittoon, papers that turned out to be repair receipts, and a folder containing the truck’s manual. The bottle later caused police to suspect drinking and driving, but preliminary toxicology reports released last week showed no drugs or alcohol in his system.
The truck swerved onto the left shoulder, going three vehicles wide. It raced between 75 and 100 mph. .
Paying the tab
The beginning of the end of his football career came in a Monday Night Football game, at Kansas City, for a nation to see. And it came almost five months to the day his father died.
Playing the Chiefs Oct. 26, 1998, the durable Strzelczyk crumpled with a left knee injury — a quadriceps tear — that required season-ending surgery two days later.
Then Strzelczyk injured the knee again in a hazy bar mishap in March 1999 and required further surgery, ending his next season as well. The Steelers placed him on injured reserve and paid him $187,000, only a fraction of the $1.5 million he was scheduled to earn. Then, at a premium time for free-agent offensive tackles, he tore his biceps in a Jan. 24, 2000, celebrity hockey game.
The Steelers unceremoniously released him a fortnight later.
The guy you couldn’t get out of practice, the guy you couldn’t get out of games, was suddenly and painfully out of both.
“When his career ended, a lot of people stopped coming here,” Keana said. “They disappeared.”
So he hunted for ways to fill the time that wasn’t devoted to his wife and two children. He cooked incessantly to find the perfect wings and barbecue sauces. He rode the motorcycle, once calling up Solomon — whom he converted into a Harley man — and meeting him at the famous summertime rally in Sturges, S.D. He snow skied — expertly, by all accounts. He played music. More recently, he acted in two plays, and he wrote, contemplating whether to put his musings into a book titled “Balance,” his theory about evening out life’s enjoyments and stresses.
He also invested in a business or two that went belly up, apparently losing hundreds of thousands of dollars but not crippling himself financially. After overhearing a plea from a pickup-basketball buddy, he went down to a day-care center and wrote a $17,000 check to help fund the place. His only requirement was that they put him on the center’s board and allow him unannounced visits to play guitar for the children.
The way he took up such diversions full force, Dan Horan likened it to an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The way he exhibited an almost addictive personality, Keana Strzelczyk figured it was a genetic gift passed down from the late father, Connie.
On Election Night 2000, Justin was arrested at Fat Heads South Shore Saloon on the South Side and charged with carrying a firearm without a permit. The handgun belonged to his 5-foot-2, one-legged, biker buddy, Garry “Plug” Smith, with whom he had gotten into a discussion over gun control and briefly brandished his friend’s 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 — though his attorney got it reduced to two months over discrepancies in police records.
Then, he embarked on a search for self and spent almost a month in the strangest place for that.
“Most people go to India to find themselves,” friend Dr. Jim Doran said. “Jugs went to Vegas.”
His marriage already had been disintegrating, from a 2001 separation to a December divorce.
A guy who used to toke on the occasional marijuana joint in younger years, a guy who intimated that he began taking steroids amid daily workouts to stay in shape after his NFL career, Justin suddenly swore off not only alcohol but all drugs. Even prescription medication. Even for his kids, little Justin, 9, with the size 101/2 feet and the Strzelczyk mountain-man build, and Sabrina, 7.
“If he had any alcohol in him,” Keana said before the toxicology report was released, “I would have a heart attack, I would be so shocked.”
Mile Marker 224.8, a paved crossover left from road construction — For 14 miles, he had been driving on three wheels and a rim. His right front tire was punctured and shredded after three state police cars fitted the passing lane at Mile Marker 238 with “Stingers,” a device with hollow needles meant to slow such chases.
Having heard on his police band radio about the chase, a trucker tried to be a good Samaritan. He pulled his tractor trailer across the eastbound lanes to block the way. (The trucker has yet to come forward.)
Strzelczyk hung a left, rode the crossover into the westbound lanes, and sped east — headfirst, in the wrong direction of traffic that state police couldn’t halt for another eight miles.
“I saw the whole thing,” said Bob Kidwell, a Ground Round manager in New Hartford and Schenectady driving to work and finding himself in the thick of the chase. “I was trying to flash my lights so [oncoming drivers] could get out of the way. ‘Cause we were going down a hill. I was hoping they could get out of the way of the idiot.
“He was parallel to me when he collided.
“Even with my window rolled up, I felt the heat of the crash.”
Calls and concern
Four miles the wrong way. Three hours on this stretch of the Thruway. Three weeks of noticeable changes.
Something in September caused a pronounced difference in him.
The night before he died, he started calling up old friends to make peace.
He talked to Maine roomie Chris Turgeon.
“Pittsburgh is a depressing city,” he told Turgeon. “The people are evil. The devil is everywhere.” The rainstorms of Sept. 17 tore a hole in the roof over Justin’s bed, and he was sure demons were going to crawl through the opening.
“He was talking about doctors who controlled people with anti-depressants and of evil,” Turgeon said. “It’s just frustrating that it happened so quickly. It just doesn’t make sense. This wasn’t Jughead or Jugger or Jugs, the care-free, happy-go-lucky guy. You could say he was reckless, but not the reckless that could hurt other people. ”
He talked to Dan Horan.
Justin was supposed to come north on I-79 and I-90 to Orchard Park on Friday to join Dan and Anne Horan at a fund-raiser for the Buffalo Irish Center. Dan’s friend on the other end was, for him, abnormally introspective, loving, scared.
“He said God set it up that our fathers suffered and we came from broken homes,” Dan remembered. ” ‘You know, Dan, you really brought me out of my shell. We’re not friends, we’re brothers.’ I thought it was unusual, but he wasn’t wrong, either. All of it thoroughly made sense.”
He talked to Dr. Jim Doran.
Doran, a fellow Buffalo barkeep from their college summers together, is a family-practice physician who three years ago moved to Pittsburgh. His brother, Nick, died the week he arrived in Pittsburgh, and Justin promised then to become his brother in Nick’s place. “And he did,” Doran said.
Justin wanted to meet face-to-face this night, Sept. 29, and they gathered outside the Duquesne University Chapel. Justin apologized for a months-old argument. The doctor’s heart sank minutes into the discussion.
From the speech and the actions, Doran made an immediate diagnosis: manic behavior, psychoses, hospitalization necessary. He spent two hours trying to lure his friend into a hospital, almost begging. Justin was wise to it and refused. When they parted, Justin headed into the chapel to pray.
His ex-wife and others maintain that he never sought medical help, but his mother and Dan Horan contend that Justin consulted health professionals about what he perceived as his own bipolar disease. Justin told Dan that he was prescribed Zoloft, an anti-depressant, yet was trying exercise instead. Whatever the case, he desperately needed something to cling to, and religion became his life preserver.
He was struggling still with the divorce, his ex-wife was engaged to remarry, his children were getting a stepfather, his football and his father were long gone, his sobriety was day to day, and he was going solo on a new hubcaps business.
“I guess,” Jim said, “it overwhelmed him.”
For reasons nobody yet can explain, he responded by jumping into his truck — the one on which he recently installed his own front brakes, but left off the rear ones — and heading north sometime late that Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. All anyone knows, he surfaced around 5 a.m. Sept. 30 at that service plaza east of Rochester, N.Y., normally a four-hour drive from his Ross home.
He packed only the $2,600-plus in cash and the crucifixes. He carried in his wallet a memorial card for Solomon’s son, Dakota, 7, who was killed in a 2001 accident after being thrown from his father’s motorcycle. On his kitchen table, he left behind his usually ever-present cell phone. “I wish he had it,” Plug Smith said. “He might have called somebody, and it might have turned out different.”
Keana believes those final hours may have been a result of a familiar route: textbook alcoholism.
“People keep looking for all these answers to why, why, why,” she said. “I’m not a psychologist, but I think sobriety was very shocking.
“I don’t want to say he was following in the footsteps of his father, but he kind of was. It’s sad.
“The man who passed away was not the man I was married to.”
Mile Marker 220.6, near the bridge over Route 5, a mile short of the Herkimer exit — A Freehold, N.J., Cartage tanker truck rumbled up the slow lane over the uphill bridge. This hazardous-material carrier had hours earlier dumped its load of dangerous corrosives — a mixture of sulfuric and hydrochloric acids. Strzelczyk tried to avoid the truck, which was driven by Harold Jackson, 50, of Bowman, S.C. But because of balky steering given his punctured tire and his speed, estimated by police at 94 mph, his pickup failed to respond.
The front right side of the pickup smashed into the front right side of the truck cab, precisely at a fuel tank. At impact, the vehicles exploded into a mist of diesel fuel, and the rapidly ripping metal sparked a tremendous blaze. The Herkimer County Emergency Services director saw the mushroom cloud of smoke from his building’s front door, a mile north and 200 feet high atop Oak Hill.
It was 8:16 a.m., scarcely 54 minutes after the initial accident report and 26 minutes and 37 miles after the chase all began.
When police arrived, the road resembled a plane crash.
“It was one of the worst traffic scenes I’ve ever seen,” said Faughnan, a 22-year veteran who oversees the Troop T Syracuse substation. “The roadway was burning, his truck was burning, the tractor trailer was burning.”
Strzelczyk was thrown through the front windshield and roughly 80 yards down the highway, underneath the side guardrail. He died instantly of what the coroner deemed “multiple traumatic blunt force injuries.” Police walking west from his body came upon first the truck engine several yards away, then, several yards further, an intact pile of cash.
“There was something that told him to do this,” concluded Hunt, the state police investigator. “But we’ll never know what was going on inside his head.”
In the end, the man who recently found God was surrounded by saints.
The coroner transported his body to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for an autopsy. After a six-hour viewing in Pittsburgh at the Brandt Funeral Home and a service where Dan Horan and former Steelers teammates Steve Avery, Lonnie Palelei, Eric Ravotti and Brenden Stai all spoke, the family brought him home to Buffalo for another service at St. Teresa Church. Then they buried him in St. Stanislaus cemetery in a northeast corner of Buffalo set aside for mourning, grounds for Catholics beside Jews beside Protestants.
There, Justin Conrad Strzelczyk was buried beside his father and underneath a new family headstone he had purchased months earlier.
The gray marble Strzelczyk tombstone bears an inscription on the left for “Connie” Conrad Francis, 1936-98. On the right remains a blank rectangle. In between is a carving of Jesus, whose gaze looks down upon Justin’s 9-foot-long grave.
A yeoman NFL career, a frolicking reputation around Pittsburgh, a life of a caring bear of a man. Even in death, though, he cannot escape his tragic epilogue.
The roar of tractor trailers rises from the New York Route 33 that bisects the sprawling cemetery.
From the headstone and through a pair of young dogwood trees, a green sign above the roadway is plain to see:
I-90 Thruway, Exit 1 Mile.