HERKIMER, N.Y. -- Justin Strzelczyk, a former player for the
Pittsburgh Steelers, died Thursday in a fiery head-on collision
with a tanker truck after he led state troopers on a 40-mile
highway chase during morning rush hour.
State police identified Strzelczyk , 36, an offensive lineman
with the Steelers for nearly a decade until the team released him
in February 2000.
Troopers said Strzelczyk crashed his pickup truck into the
westbound tanker carrying corrosive acid just moments after
swerving around a tractor-trailer that pulled across the highway to
block the eastbound lanes. Strzelczyk drove 15 miles on three tires
and a rim after one of his pickup's tires was punctured by metal
spikes thrown into the road by troopers.
"It could have been so much worse. We're fortunate that only
one person died," said Trooper Jim Simpson, a state police
spokesman. "It looked like an airplane crash. There was quite a
lot of diesel fuel spilled that was burning. The pickup was almost
Strzelczyk, who lived in McCandless, Pa., near Pittsburgh, had
been involved in another minor accident about an hour earlier just
west of Syracuse, which started the bizarre turn of events, Simpson
The hit-and-run occurred about 7:20 a.m. and state police put
out an alert for Strzelczyk's pickup. Troopers spotted him about 40
minutes later still heading east on the Thruway.
A second unit tried to stop the pickup by booby-trapping the
road with the "stop sticks," but Strzelczyk just kept on going.
The pickup was clocked at 88 mph, Simpson said.
"He was going down the road, flipping off the troopers. He even
threw a beer bottle at them," Simpson said.
Toxicology tests by the state police crime lab in Albany could
take a few weeks to complete, Simpson said.
A trucker saw the chase and pulled his rig across the road.
Instead of stopping, the pickup drove across the grass median into
the westbound lanes and traveled about three miles in the wrong
direction before the deadly crash.
The collision with the tanker occurred at about 8:15 a.m. while
the highway was busy with morning commuters and travelers. The
driver of the tanker suffered only minor injuries. No one else was
Mary Joyce Strzelczyk, of West Seneca, N.Y., said she suspected her son may have been suffering from an untreated mental or emotional disorder.
"I'm kind of numb right now,'' she told The Buffalo News in Friday's editions. "I had seen trouble with his mood disorders coming."
She said she last saw her son in Pittsburgh last weekend when she went to visit her grandchildren.
The 6-foot-3, 309-pound Strzelczyk, who grew up in a suburb of
Buffalo, was an 11th-round pick in the 1990 draft out of Maine. He
spent nine years with the Steelers and played in the 1995 Super
Strzelczyk was one of the team's most durable players before a
knee injury against Kansas City in October 1998 required
season-ending surgery. He reinjured the knee preparing for training
camp the next season and needed another operation that kept him on
injured reserve for the 1999 season.
In his first eight seasons with Steelers, Strzelczyk missed just
two games, both in 1997. Over his nine-season career with
Pittsburgh, he played in 137 games and started 75.
Nine months after his release by the Steelers, Strzelczyk was
arraigned for illegal possession of a gun. Police said he slammed a
loaded handgun onto a bar in Pittsburgh when discussing the
presidential election with a friend.
Simpson said investigators will try to retrace Strzelczyk's
steps Thursday morning leading up to the chase, to determine what
might have prompted him to flee police and crash his pickup.
Strzelczyk was traveling nearly 90 mph when he collided with a
tanker truck. Troopers said they did not see any brake lights on
"We may never find out what happened or what was going through
his mind," Simpson said.