PITTSBURGH (AP) – Those who knew Justin Strzelczyk as an offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers saw him as a competitive, dead-serious player.

Those who knew him off the field described him as a generous, fun-loving guy.

But no one would call the burly, bearded man dangerous. Strzelczyk – known as “Jugs” to his friends – was out for a good time, one friend said, not out to cause trouble.

That’s what made Strzelczyk’s death Thursday in a fiery head-on crash following a dramatic highway chase with New York state police shocking as well as sad, his friends, former teammates and a former coach said Friday.

“I’m trying to think what could have snapped in him – what could have made him run away from the cops, going the wrong way, without realizing that this was going to end all wrong,” said Bill Hurley, who was drafted by the Steelers in 1980 and played with Strzelczyk on the Pittsburgh Celebrity Hockey Team.

Hurley and others described Strzelczyk as a gentle giant, the recently divorced father of a school-aged son and daughter. A native of the Buffalo area now living in McCandless, he gave his time to charities, played the banjo, rode motorcycles, tried his hand at a new business and even took up acting.

Their descriptions seemed far removed from the actions described by police, who said Strzelczyk led troopers on a chase on the New York State Thruway after fleeing an accident early Thursday morning just west of Syracuse, N.Y.

Strzelczyk eventually swerved across a median into the westbound lanes after an eastbound trucker cut him off, and then traveled for miles in the wrong direction before colliding with a tanker truck near Herkimer, N.Y., police said.

Former Steelers guard Brenden Stai, who played with Strzelczyk from 1995 to 2000 – the year Strzelczyk was released – said he saw his former teammate about a month ago, and it seemed as if he was trying to find a new path for his life.

“He was going through some trying times. It’s tough for athletes, when they’re done, to find their way,” Stai said.

The 6-foot-3, 309-pound Strzelczyk was an 11th-round pick in the 1990 NFL draft out of the University of Maine. He spent nine years with the Steelers and played in the 1995 Super Bowl.

Kent Stephenson, Pittsburgh’s former offensive line coach, said Strzelczyk was a “tenderhearted giant,” although he didn’t want many people to know it, and was also very bright and could play any position.

But Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said there were times that Strzelczyk threw up and spit on the field.

“Half of it was to throw defensive guys off, but half of it, I think he kind of liked it,” Bettis said.

Off the field, Strzelczyk had friends that ranged from football players to motorcycle enthusiasts, Hurley said.

But some said his choice of friends got him into trouble. In November 2000, Strzelczyk was arrested for illegal possession of a gun after authorities said he slammed a loaded handgun onto a bar in Pittsburgh. It was unclear Friday how the charges were resolved.

But Tom Myslinski, a former teammate and now an assistant strength and conditioning coach with the Cleveland Browns, said it was Strzelczyk’s friend’s gun and it was a case of him being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hurley wondered if alcohol contributed to Strzelczyk’s alleged behavior, but Stai said Strzelczyk was completely sober the last time he saw him. Police said Strzelczyk threw a beer bottle at troopers during the chase, but they won’t know if alcohol contributed to his death until toxicology tests are completed, which will take weeks.

Strzelczyk’s mother, Mary Joyce Strzelczyk, of West Seneca, N.Y., told The Buffalo News that she suspected that her son may have been suffering from an untreated mental or emotional illness, and she had “seen trouble with his mood disorders coming.”

Pat Joseph, director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Western Pennsylvania chapter, said that while Strzelczyk was generous with his time and money, he seemed to be struggling with himself recently.

“Justin always lived on the edge,” Joseph said. “I can’t deny that side of him wasn’t there,” Joseph said. “I know Justin wanted a better life for himself and fought for that life.”

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