Justin Strzelczyk defied the odds.
He didn’t play football until he reached West Seneca West high school in New York, a suburb of Buffalo. Yet he developed into an All-American at the University of Maine, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers and played eight seasons in the National Football League.
On Friday night at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer, Strzelczyk was inducted posthumously into the UMaine Sports Hall of Fame.
His sister Melissa, son Justin Jr., daughter Sabrina and several teammates from the Black Bears’ 1989 Yankee Conference championship team were on hand to celebrate his induction along with six other individuals and the 1965 Tangerine Bowl football team.
“He loved football and he loved competing,” former UMaine teammate Chris Turgeon said. ‘’He played three times longer than the average NFL player. To be an 11th-round pick and make it in the NFL is incredible.”
Strzelczyk died at age 36 on Sept. 30, 2004, in a high-speed crash in New York. He allegedly had been involved in a hit-and-run accident and was trying to elude state troopers when he slammed his pickup into a tanker truck. He was killed instantly.
Former Black Bear Erik Sauter remembered receiving news of Strzelczyk’s death.
“It was tragic. It still stings a little bit,” Sauter said. “But it’s good we can celebrate [his life] with his family here.”
Melissa Strzelczyk said her brother’s behavior was erratic in the months leading up to his death. He wasn’t himself.
“We thought he might be schizophrenic or manic depressive,” Melissa said.
It was later discovered that Strzelczyk had been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by concussions or other repeated head trauma.
CTE can cause memory loss, depression and dementia. According to a 2007 story in The New York Times, Strzelczyk was the fourth former NFL player initially found to have CTE which, for practical purposes, can only be determined after death.
The diagnosis was made by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a clinical instructor of neuropathy at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. His work was the subject of the 2015 movie “Concussion,” which dramatized Omalu’s findings and his fight with the NFL, which tried to suppress his discovery.
Strzelczyk’s CTE diagnosis helped lead to a class action lawsuit against the league by many former players. The suit alleged the NFL knew about the risks of repetitive head trauma but ignored, minimized or suppressed information making the link between that trauma and cognitive damage.
In 2015, a federal judge gave final approval to a settlement between the NFL and thousands of former players. According to CNN, the agreement provides up to $5 million per player for serious medical conditions associated with head trauma.
A 2017 CNN story reported that 110 of 111 deceased NFL players whose brains were donated for scientific research pertaining to brain trauma exhibited CTE.
Justin Strzelczyk Jr. was 9 when his father died.
“The thing I’ll remember most is his big personality,” said the younger Strzelczyk, who lives and works in Pittsburgh. “He was funny. He was humble. He didn’t like the spotlight.”
Justin Strzelczyk enjoyed an outstanding high school career as a basketball, hockey and football player. He didn’t play football until high school after his father Conrad, a former Montana State basketball star, encouraged him to do so.
“Our father had a big influence on him,” Melissa Strzelczyk said.
He arrived at UMaine as a tight end but was switched to the defensive line, where he achieved All-America status. The relentless Strzelczyk notched 10 sacks in two seasons on defense and helped lead the Black Bears to conference titles and NCAA playoff appearances in 1987 and 1989.
“Our ’89 team was a great team and to be able to have someone from that team inducted into the hall of fame makes us feel like we’re all being inducted,” Turgeon said.
Strzelczyk was selected by Pittsburgh in the 11th round of the 1990 draft. He was discovered by Steelers director of player personnel Tom Donahoe, who nominated him for the hall of fame.
“When we made our head coach Chuck Noll aware of Justin and asked him to watch the tape, he quickly came back and said we need to get this player,” Donahoe said.
The 6-foot-6, 305-pound Strzelczyk played 133 NFL games as an offensive lineman from 1990-1998. He started in Super Bowl XXX in 1996, when Dallas beat Pittsburgh 27-17.
He didn’t miss a game for seven full NFL seasons, before a series of injuries eventually ended his career.
“During my 16 years with the Steelers, I don’t know if we had any players who worked harder than Justin,” Donahoe said.
“Justin was a unique character who loved life, his family, Maine and his teammates. There was nothing phony about Justin Stzelczyk,” he added.
His former teammates remember him fondly for his approachability, unselfishness and loyalty.
“It was never about him. He celebrated the team,” teammate John Pranckevicius said.
Sauter described his teammate as being bigger than life.
“He had a great personality. He never had a bad word to say about anybody,” he said.
Strzelczyk’s time at UMaine was special to him, according to his sister.
“He made a lot of great friends, lifelong friends,” Melissa Strzelczyk said.
The formality of a large hall of fame gathering such as Friday’s event may not have been Strzelczyk’s cup of tea.
“He probably would have preferred something smaller, maybe a cookout with beers and hot dogs,” Mike Smith, another former teammate, said.
“He would have shown up because we’re here,” Turgeon said.