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A PUZZLING, DARK DESTINY <br> WHAT LED JUSTIN STRZELCZYK, WEST SENECA NATIVE AND FORMER NFL LINEMAN, TO HIS DEATH IS THE MYSTERY HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS WISH THEY COULD SOLVE

Nobody will ever know what the big man was thinking.

For hours, he drove alone in his pickup truck for reasons uncertain, his destination unknown. He warned people about demons gaining ground and that death was just around the bend.

And that's exactly how it ended for Justin Strzelczyk.

Police reports from Sept. 30 reveal a hit-and-run incident, a 40-mile chase along the Thruway -- 4.8 miles in the wrong lane against morning traffic -- speeds nearing 90 mph, his middle finger waving, a bottle thrown out the window, a curve in the road, and, finally, a deadly head-on collision with a tanker truck east of Utica.

This is a disturbing tale about a gregarious, mountainous man who lived how he died: traveling full throttle, sometimes against the flow, to his final seconds. Indeed, the last chapter ends with Strzelczyk pushing the accelerator until his 1997 Ford F-250 truck slammed into a tanker truck and exploded. He was 36.

What led the West Seneca native and former offensive lineman for the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers down this fatal path is the mystery his family and friends wish they could solve.

"The unfortunate part is that he took the truth with him," said Dan Horan, a Buffalo police officer and Strzelczyk's best friend. "In his complex, eccentric mind, this is Justin saying, 'Hey, this is my state of mind, this is where I went. I'm giving you pieces, now you figure it out.' "

In interviews with those close to him and examinations of his behavior and his past, a picture emerges of a wild and lovable, but erratic man -- one who once rationalized that his initials, J.C.S., stood for "Jesus Christ Superstar." Friends and family also admitted he used steroids, but only after his NFL career.

Those who knew him describe him as troubled and at times out of touch, but a devoted father and loving son. Relatives wonder if they could have done anything to avert the tragedy of that September morning.

Troopers initially suspected Strzelczyk was drunk and threw a beer bottle out the window during the pursuit before crashing at 8:15 a.m. Police have since conceded he threw a plastic pop bottle. Friends and family disputed theories that he was drunk, in part because he had quit drinking. Toxicology results are not yet available.

Those close to him believed Strzelczyk's problems ran much deeper. They tried to make peace with the idea he was simply ill, not irresponsible. Weeks before his death, friends and family worried that he suffered from bipolar disorder or another ailment related to mental illness that had gone undetected.

"He was on some kind of mission, and he wasn't thinking rationally," his sister Melissa said. "It kept getting worse and worse. Who knows where his mind was when he left? We don't even know where he was going. He made it seem like he was meant for something big."

Justin Conrad Strzelczyk left behind his ex-wife, Keana, their two children, Justin, 10, and Sabrina, 8, and dozens of unsettling questions.

Police suggested Strzelczyk suffered from a mental breakdown, but that much appeared obvious. Still, warning signs were easy to ignore with him because, his friends say, that was "Jugs."

He often challenged his inner circle to unscramble his thought process. He was viewed as a simpleton, but intelligent. He was fun-loving and easygoing, yet stubborn and argumentative. He loved people and life. Alone, he took an inexplicable journey to death.

"You know what? I'll bet Justin is loving this," said his ex-wife, Keana. "He left us with this big puzzle. He's just watching us trying to pick his brain."

A tortured soul

Melissa Strzelczyk, who lives in Pittsburgh, suspected her brother was having problems a year ago, but then he seemed fine for months. He opened a customized hubcap business there that created designs or messages on hubcaps. He even had his own design ideas, including one that depicted Jesus and another that carried his favorite message: Trust your instincts.

In late August, signs of trouble began to emerge. Things grew worse in mid-September, worse yet in the days before his death. Melissa called a psychiatric hotline, but was turned away because Strzelczyk didn't harm himself or anyone else, she said.

Extenuating circumstances might have contributed to his apparent breakdown. His father died in a 1998 car crash. Strzelczyk's nine-year career in the NFL ended in 1999, and he had trouble adjusting. He and Keana divorced in 2001. In April, his cousin died unexpectedly at 38.

"I keep thinking about the pain he must have been in," said his mother, Mary Strzelczyk. "I just feel so sad that he was going through all that, you know, and no one was helping him. That's sad. It really bothers me that he was alone."

His aunt, Pat Collins-Joyce, a psychiatric nurse in Arizona, thought he showed consistencies with bipolar, a manic-depressive illness that destroys rational thinking and causes severe changes in a person's mood, energy and ability to function.

Strzelczyk even acknowledged he had similar traits, but he refused medical treatment.

Toward the end, his behavior became erratic. He claimed to have seen his late father. Strzelczyk spoke about how life revolved around God and excluded riches. He became infatuated with angels. He made a 16-foot crucifix. He wore another around his neck. All were departures from his personality.

"It was strange, but does finding God make somebody crazy?" Keana Strzelczyk said. "He was speaking different, but he had such clarity in his voice. His eyes were sparkling again. . . . Justin was such a passionate person about everything.

"For five months, he was going to invent the best wing sauce ever. Then it was barbecue sauce. Then it was the guitar, the banjo. He put 110 percent into everything. For him to have found God wasn't quite abnormal for Justin because of his passion."

At some point, something stole his mind and whisked away his body. He had argued with close friends in the days before his final journey. He called his sister and asked that she keep his children safe. Six hours before he grabbed the wheel of his pickup, Strzelczyk told a co-worker at the hubcap shop that he was going to die. It was the biggest clue that he might have known the end was near. The demons were on his heels.

Yes, the demons.

He told his friends that demons found him. On the eve of his death, he told a neighbor he was leaving Pittsburgh in search of "higher grounds." He had been having revelations. His family since theorized it meant he needed to get away from his lowest low or perhaps closer to heaven. Hours before his death, he ignored pleas from a doctor friend to seek medical attention.

Finally, with the police on his tail as he approached a curve in the road and a steep hill that coincided with his own decline, fate waited. There were no skid marks, just an end to the chase, an end to a life and, some believe, an end to the pain.

Justin Strzelczyk was dead.

How strange it seems now that the once shy, skinny kid from West Seneca often joked about "going out in a blaze of glory." For years, he never embraced NFL celebrity, but recently he told Horan he wanted to become famous in another way. He even appeared in two theatrical plays in Pittsburgh and was writing an autobiography.

He evolved into a folk hero of sorts in blue-collar Pittsburgh, where fans adored his tough, hard-working approach.

"The biggest thing that stood out in his whole time there was he had a great work ethic," said Tom Donahoe, Buffalo Bills president and general manager and former Steelers' director of football operations.

"He was all about the team. We bounced him all over the place. Jugs never said a word. He was a free spirit, no question about it, but he was extremely well-liked by his teammates because of his personality and how unselfish he was."

His teammates liked his often zany style and his long hair and beard. Steelers running back Jerome Bettis told a story after Strzelczyk died about how his former teammate would occasionally vomit or spit on himself in the huddle.

"Half of it was to throw the defensive guys off and half of it was he kind of liked it," Bettis told reporters in Pittsburgh. "He was that kind of guy."

Strzelczyk was about flannel shirts, dirty jeans and motorcycles. He wore his Western New York roots as a badge of honor, but he was intent on staying in Pittsburgh to help raise his children.

"He was such a great dad," his ex-wife said. "He tried to be the best husband."

Strzelczyk was generous, a fact he kept private. He collected boxes of cleats from the Steelers and dropped them off at West Seneca West High School. He was involved with raising money for cystic fibrosis in Pittsburgh. He once donated some $17,000 to a Pittsburgh day care center owned by a friend's sister.

"After they opened, he would come by once a week on his motorcycle, bring his guitar, play songs for the kids and leave," Horan said. "Nobody knows that stuff."

Whispers about drug use

Strzelczyk had a reputation as a party boy, but Horan said his friend had stopped drinking for seven months before the fatal ride. Strzelczyk had a marijuana habit for years. Horan scoffed at suggestions that his friend was involved in heavier drugs.

"As far as cocaine, heroin, anything that was really hard-core, he never did," Horan said. "He had his marijuana habit, and that was that."

Strzelczyk and steroids were sometimes mentioned in the same sentence, especially after he entered the University of Maine a 6-foot-6, 195-pound tight end and bulked up to a 300-pound offensive tackle with the Steelers.

Horan said Strzelczyk didn't start taking steroids until 2002, three years after he retired, and used them for about 10 months. Strzelczyk's mother recently realized that needles her son injected into his stomach two years ago carried "juice." Strzelczyk insisted he simply wanted to maintain a muscular, athletic body.

"I knew when he took them because he was very honest with me," Horan said. "But as far as his playing days, I would swear on my mother's grave that he never took them. He had no respect for people on steroids. He told me his big belly paid the bills."

His final days

Strzelczyk's body was in great shape, but his mind was another matter. The Monday before he died, he skipped a planned breakfast with his mother in Pittsburgh, a first. His patience faded. His house was a mess. He slept little. He appeared disconnected and spoke about "a presence" in his home. He shared ideas about ridding his life of superficial materials and said he would sell his possessions for as little as $1.

"He was in this quest to spread goodness," his mother said.

Three days before he died, with his mother leaving town, he left her a note on a paper plate that read: "There is a reason for everything. Open your eyes. It's all around you. If your heart is true, you will understand."

Understand what?

"What he was going through was like a tidal wave of insights that other people might have in different moments," his mother said. "All these things he talked about, that we're connected, that God is love. I've had feelings like that. But you don't have them all the time. Everything was coming at him at once."

Strzelczyk left notes about the future for several people, hinting that he wouldn't see them. In the days before his death, he called people with whom he hadn't spoken in years.

"It was almost like he was clearing his books," Horan said.

And there were his brakes.

Strzelczyk put rear brakes on his pickup by himself only days earlier but told a friend they weren't properly installed. Rather than reinstall the old brakes, Horan said he left town without rear brakes. Both sets of rear brakes were discovered in his garage a few days later. It might explain why there were no skid marks, a fact that left some wondering if he committed suicide.

"I'm not going to lie and say that that didn't cross my mind," Keana Strzelczyk said. "But the way Justin was, he thought suicide was for cowards. I have no doubt in my mind that it was an accident."

The final hours

Police uncovered a receipt that showed Strzelczyk was in Pittsburgh about 5:30 p.m., Sept. 29. Horan now suspects Strzelczyk was headed for the Adirondack Mountains, perhaps the "higher grounds" he mentioned.

Dr. Jim Doran, a Western New York native who practices medicine in Pittsburgh and befriended the offensive tackle three years ago, thought Strzelczyk was unraveling about 6 p.m. that day and pleaded with him to get help. Strzelczyk refused.

"He was very troubled," Doran said. "He was having what amounts to an acute psychotic episode or an acute manic state. He had pressured speech, hallucinations and delusional thoughts. It was pretty sad. I felt that if he got into trouble, he would have been sent to a psychiatric center to be evaluated. It would have been the right place."

At 2:30 a.m., Strzelczyk began his final journey. A woman told police investigators that Strzelczyk approached her at a service station at about 6:30 a.m. outside Rochester, asked whether she believed in God and told her she needed to take her family to higher grounds. Strzelczyk also attempted to give a stranger $3,000. When the man refused, Strzelczyk paid for his gasoline.

A short time later, someone reported Strzelczyk rammed two cars from behind on the Thruway driving at least 70 mph and passed others by driving through grass and dirt along the highway's shoulder. That started the police chase. For some 35 miles, he was traveling in the right direction.

If he wanted to kill himself, he had hundreds of opportunities. For 4.8 miles, after he drove across the Thruway median, he headed directly into morning traffic. Speeding some 90 mph the wrong way, he met the curve and steep slope. Seconds later, he smashed into the tanker.

"There were a lot of places Justin could have stopped or made a choice to do something different," State Police Investigator James Hunt said. "The question is: Why did he choose to do otherwise? From everything his family and friends said, there was something going on inside his head that we'll never understand."

His mother and many others are left wondering. She holds dear a bloodstained crucifix that dangled near his heart before he died. It's a simple piece of evidence of what happened to Justin Strzelczyk. It leaves more questions and very few answers.

"I don't know," she said. "Maybe he thought he was going to be taken into heaven. He wasn't in his right mind. That's the bottom line."
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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