Tony DeYoung has fond memories of his late teammate and friend Justin Strzelczyk and with good reason.
“He’s one of the only people in my life who did exactly what he said,” said DeYoung, the president of the West Seneca West Football Alumni Association. “He wanted to play in the NFL and he did it. ... One of the nicest guys you’d ever talk to. ... A guy as dedicated as he was should be remembered.”
Even though Strzelczyk graduated more than 30 years ago from West Seneca West, he hasn’t been forgotten, and future generations of athletes and students at the school will continue to have golden memories of a man who they never met but continues to impact the sports scene even though he’s no longer with us.
The sister and children of the late Strzelczyk were among the many on hand at West Seneca West Field on Friday night to pay tribute to the NFL career of the former offensive guard. They took part in the presentation of an NFL Golden Football to the school during a ceremony prior to West’s Class A South clash against defending state champion South Park.
The commemorative Golden Football is part of an NFL initiative called the Super Bowl High School Honor Roll, which was part of the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl last season. It recognizes programs that contributed to the history of the NFL’s big championship event by giving Wilson Golden Footballs to every high school that has had a player or head coach take part in a Super Bowl.
Strzelczyk played guard and tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1990-99, helping the franchise reach Super Bowl XXX at the end of the 1995 season. The Steelers lost that game to the Dallas Cowboys, 27-17.
But how many high school kids wind up playing a professional sport, let alone earning an opportunity to play for a league championship? Strzelczyk was one.
“How many people set a goal in 11th grade and achieve it?” said DeYoung, who spent three seasons as Strzelczyk’s teammate at West. “I think it’s a big deal because we had to fight to get the football. There was no one to ask for it.”
Part of that is because aside from his sister and two children, he isn’t survived by too many immediate family members. Part of it could be because of the circumstances surrounding his death and the role the sport played in it.
Strzelczyk passed away at age 36 in a car accident in 2004. An autopsy performed at the insistence of Strzelczyk’s late mother showed that the erratic behavior he exhibited toward the end of his life was due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) he contracted as a result of repeated blows to his head during his playing career.
CTE is a brain disease that manifests itself in the form of many symptoms – including confused thinking, depression and anger issues. It’s a diagnosis that can only be confirmed via autopsy .
Later in life, Strzelczyk was a far different man than the humble, hard-working and fun-loving one friends like DeYoung and Strzelczyk’s children, Justin Jr. and Sabrina, and sister, Melissa, remember to this day.
“It means a lot to me and my sister, especially with everything that’s happened,” said Justin Jr. “The presence he still has at the high school, it’s very cool to see him honored this way. It’s great to keep him on the minds of people.”
While Strzelczyk’s former high school number was retired several years ago posthumously to help keep his memory alive, the current generation knows of his impact to the program. The Golden Football means future generations will know of the late All-Western New York football and basketball player who turned his dream into reality.
“He was a stand up member of the community and honestly a gentle giant,” DeYoung said.
“I’m personally thankful this is happening,” Justin Jr. said.
Melissa Strzelczyk, a 1985 graduate of West Seneca West, wasn’t able to attend the ceremony in which the school retired her brother’s number. Cousins Pam and Cindy were there for that one.
Melissa’s thrilled to be part of Friday’s night’s festivities along with the cousins and his children.
“It’s great to be back home and see him honored,” Melissa said. “It’s really special.”
Canisius, Clarence, Lewiston-Porter and Sweet Home are among other Western New York schools that have been presented Golden Footballs for their contributions to the history of the Super Bowl.
In Friday’s game, South Park stopped West Seneca West, 48-0. Skahur Harris had 117 yards on 17 carries and picked up two touchdowns for the Sparks. The Sparks have won 20 straight games in Class A.