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Published: Saturday, 1/19/2008

Former Steelers are dying at alarming rate

ASSOCIATED PRESS

PITTSBURGH - Some were accidental, some were tragic, and others were inexplicable.

For some reason, former Pittsburgh Steelers players keep dying at an alarming rate, one that appears to be far higher than that for other NFL teams.

Former defensive lineman Ernie Holmes' death in an accident Thursday night in Texas was at least the 34th death of a former Steelers player since 2000, with 16 of them age 59 or younger.

Several of those who died are known to have used steroids, including former offensive guard Steve Courson - the first NFL player to reveal he used them. He died by accident in November, 2005, following years of heart problems. Several others were long rumored to have used steroids.

Of those Steelers deaths, eight were in their 50s, five were in their 40s, and two in their 30s.

Five of the 34 who died since 2000 were in their 80s.

But it is the unusually high number of deaths among players who are relatively young that is uncommon. In 2006, a Los Angeles Times survey found that nearly one-fifth of the NFL players from the 1970s and 1980s who had died since 2000 were former Steelers.

Seven of the 34 died of heart problems before reaching their 60s: Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (50), center Jim Clack (58), defensive back Ray Oldham (54), defensive back Dave Brown (52), defensive lineman Steve Furness (49), quarterback Joe Gilliam (49), and offensive guard Tyrone McGriff (41).

Remarkably, all three of the regular centers from their Super Bowl days of the 1970s are dead: Webster, Clack, and Ray Mansfield, who died of a heart attack at age 55 in 1996.

Both Webster and Gilliam were homeless at times before dying. Gilliam had cocaine and heroin problems and was once found sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge in Nashville.

Terry Long, a post-Super Bowl era guard, committed suicide 2 1/2 years ago at age 45 by drinking antifreeze. He tested positive for steroids while playing.

Justin Strzelczyk, a Steelers lineman from 1990-99, died following a high-speed chase with police on the New York Thruway in 2004.

Linebacker David Little died at age 46 after also having heart problems. He died while lifting weights when the bar dropped onto his chest and neck, causing him to suffocate.

Other Steelers players deaths since 2000:

Courson (home accident, crushed by fallen tree, age 50), wide receiver Theo Bell (kidney and skin diseases, 52), defensive lineman John Baker (stroke, other health problems, 72), quarterback Ed Brown (prostate cancer, 78), lineman Leo Nobile (kidney failure, 84), defensive lineman Ernie Stautner (Alzheimer's disease and other medical problems, 80), defensive back Johnny Sample (heart disease, 67), quarterback Bobby Gage (heart attack, 77).

Running back Bob Ferguson (diabetes, other health problems, 64), linebacker Bob Schmitz (apparent heart attack, 65), wide receiver Gary Ballman (undisclosed reasons, 63), offensive tackle James Parrish (cancer, 35), linebacker Fred Small (auto accident, 39), defensive lineman Frank "Pop" Ivy (natural causes, age 87), wide receiver Ron Shanklin (cancer, age 54), kick returner Billy Reynolds (died shortly after hip replacement surgery, age 71).

Running back Leon "Muscles" Campbell (undisclosed reasons, 75), running back Fran Rogel (Parkinson's disease, other health problems, 74), running back Joe Geri (various health problems, 78), running back Bob Cifers (natural causes, 80), wide receiver Sam Boyd (natural causes, 86), tackle Billy Ray Smith (cancer, 66), and offensive-defensive back Lowell Perry (cancer, 69).



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