Friday, January 27, 2006

Final (Curtain) Call

As a Steeler fan coping with the down week between the AFC Championship and Super Sunday, it's come to my attention that A) We Steeler fans are a little out of practice when it comes to remembering how to conduct ourselves as AFC Champion fans and B) Jerome Bettis' girth DOES fill up the entire covers of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News special issues which arrived with yesterday's mail.

Note: This magazine cover-boy angle is going to be played to the hilt by the Seahawks in the form of “y'all-didn't-respect-us-and-nobody-gave-us-a-chance-but-we-believed-in-ourselves-even-if-nobody-else-did …”

Fun fact: Before Shaun Alexander appeared on the cover of S.I. more than a month ago, the only Seahawk ever to appear on an S.I. cover – EVER -- and thus subject himself to the S.I. Cover Jinx -- was the backside of a Seattle linebacker lunging at Marcus Allen with the accompanying caption: "Raider On A Rampage."

That Seattle linebacker, as it turns out, was Keith Butler ... the Steelers' current linebackers coach. Again ... the Seahawks will hit us with "y'all-are-puttin’-the-Steelers-on-all-yer-magazine-covers-and-totally-not-believing-in-us-even-though-we-all-believe-in-ourselves …"

Anyway, here at the Honeycomb Hideout -- which is one of the base camps for “The Steelers Are Wearing White To The Prom” -- I've spent the past several days wunderin' 'bout the Steelers who won't get to wear white jerseys or black jerseys (or breaking out a big ape suit as part of "Gerela's Gorillas").

That's because they're dead.

In the past three months, we've lost three from the Steeler Family -- Dave Brown (a few weeks ago); Bud Carson (in Dec.) and Steve Courson (in Nov.).

Dave Brown, of course, will have most Seahawk fans sayin’, “He was a Seahawk, not a Steeler” – although he became a ‘Hawk after he was Pittsburgh's No. 1 draft choice in '75 and after his rookie season with the Steelers’ Super Bowl X team (Brown was drafted off the Steelers’ roster in the "expansion draft" … and remember how scared all of us were in ’76 when the NFL was opening up shop to a new team with a mysterious, totem-pole-like bird profiled on a silver helmet and that new pirate team with the tangerine tops?).

But, then the Kingdome was imploded and the color “pewter” replaced tangerine.

Good times ...

Which doesn’t help us to reconcile why Brown had to go at the age of 52 when he died of a heart attack while playing pick-up basketball at Texas Tech where he was an assistant coach.


It stands to reason that one of the best players in Seahawks history (who began his career in Pittsburgh) would've enjoyed Super Bowl XL (for the obvious “connection-to-both-teams” angle).

For less-obvious reasons, Brown represents the most-recent link in the chain of 11 Steelers who have died way too early (except for Carson) since Cowher's first Super Bowl (XXX) and his second (XL).

And, maybe the unusual aspect is how young these people were at their passing, and in most cases, how bizarre their days had become after football.

Not that a heart attack is any less tragic than any other cause of death.
Or any less glamorous than emphysema (which is how Bud Carson checked out at age 75).

The thing is, I still remember reading about Ray Mansfield (starting center on the first two Steeler Super Bowl teams) dying at age 55 in Nov. '96 while he and his son were hiking in the Grand Canyon.
He fell behind the group ... and the outdoorsman … died in the outdoors.

We waited a few years, but then in Feb. '00, defensive lineman Steve Furness died at age 49 of a heart attack ... and then around Christmas time of '00, center Dan Turk (who was drafted by the Steelers, but, like Brown, spent only his rookie season in Pittsburgh before 15 years spent playing elsewhere) died of cancer at age 38 ... and a few days after that, Jefferson Street Joe Gilliam died of heart failure a few days shy of his 50th birthday while watching the Titans-Cowboys on Monday Night Football.

Then, in Sept. '02, Hall of Fame center Mike Webster died of a heart attack at age 50 ... and eight months later, Steeler short-timer David Woodley checked out under mysterious circumstances at age 44.

It didn’t end there. In the span of a little more than one year, three Steeler offensive lineman met their end.

Justin Strzelczyk was only 36 in Sept. '04 when his bout with bi-polar disorder ended with that police-chase-and-fiery wreckage on a N.Y. State highway.

Terry Long was only 45 last June when, as he was awaiting trial for arson and insurance fraud, he died of cerebral meningitis.

Finally, Courson, 50, met his end as tragically as anyone's two months ago when the tree he was chainsawing fell on him.

Bud Carson’s expiration date was an exception, given the amount of cigarettes he wolfed down. But, nine of the other 10 ... all gone before or near their 50th birthdays.

Aside from their affiliations with the Steelers, it seems as though they're all connected in other ways.

Long and Courson were documented 'roid ragers ... Long and Webster had each been determined to have sustained very real levels of brain damage from playing football ... Turk and Webster went to the same university as my dad (Wisconsin) ... Long and Gilliam had bouts of depression and either attempted or seriously contemplated suicide ... Strzelczyk and Furness went to non-traditional football colleges (Maine and Rhode Island) … Woodley and Gilliam battled chemical dependency ...

Three centers … two quarterbacks … a lot of scars and plenty of baggage in the past decade.

It makes ya scratch yer head. Y'see the stories and you hear the rumors, never knowing how much is truth and how much is urban legend.
Just about all of it is unsubstantiated and, probably for that matter, "unsubstantiatable."
Kinda like the way James Frey lives his life when he’s not pimping himself.

Unless EspyTime Theater (ESPN) goes "Outside The Lines," y'never know what to make of what goes through these players minds in the NFL afterlife.

ESPN’s “OTL” actually did a pretty good job of depicting the final days of Strzelczyk, including footage from the dashboard-mounted camera in the police car which pursued the lineman and showed his vehicle, going the wrong way against traffic, colliding with the tanker (including the ensuing fireball).
Strzelczyk had already been thrown clear of his truck before impact.

So, instead of dying in an explosion, we can assume that he suffered sufficient head trauma from hitting the asphalt and/or a guard rail.

Separating the myth from reality eventually shapes how we remember those who sacrificed on the gridiron.
In this matching part of the quiz, we can draw a line from the bold-face names above and connect them to the rumors below, which may not actually be bold-faced lies:

"He was never the same after he spent three weeks in a coma after gettin' clubbed in the head with a lead pipe outside that liquor-store in Baltimore ..."
"When they found his dead body, it was in a seated position, resting against a tree and he was clutching a cigar in his hand ..."
"The reason that his wife left him was because she found him in bed with another guy …”
"His booze problem was so bad that he used to chug cough syrup just for the alcohol content ..."
"He was trying to save his dog when he died ..."
"He was trying to save the world when he died …”


Hmmmm … not a one of those read: “Kordell Stewart is NOT gay.”

Anyway, if you sit down with a retired player who’s endured the five knee replacements and the six hip replacements, it’s almost a guarantee that any one of them will admit that he wouldn’t change a thing.

If they could see how it was all going to end, you wonder what their viewpoint would be.


Tragedy notwithstanding, here's a salute to them.

Whoever they really were ...

b

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