Updated: Friday October 1, 2004 1:19AM
Thruway workers examine the wreck scene.
HERKIMER, N.Y. (AP) -- HERKIMER, N.Y. (AP) -- 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.
Strzelczyk, 36, was an offensive lineman with the Steelers for nearly a decade until the team released him in February 2000.
State police said Strzelczyk crashed his pickup truck into the westbound empty tanker 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 unrecognizable."
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 said.
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.
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 about 8:15 a.m., when the highway was busy with morning commuters and travelers.
Police identified the driver of the tanker as Harold Jackson, 60, from Bowman, S.C. He was treated at a hospital for minor injuries and released. No one else was hurt.
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 NFL Draft out of Maine. He spent nine years with the Steelers and played in the 1995 Super Bowl.
"He was a free spirit. He did things his way. He was a little different in the way he did things, but that was him," Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said Thursday. "You understood that. He was a great guy. It's a tragedy what happened."
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney remembers that even after rap music became the overwhelming choice of NFL players, Strzelczyk entertained the team by bringing a guitar to training camp.
"He was a very, very good guy," Rooney said. "He was a good player who added to the whole team activity by playing the guitar. On the field, he carried his weight. We'll miss him."
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.
i hate when this happens.