It was 1989 when I faced a monster nicknamed Jugs. He was a colossus of a man, six feet six inches tall and 300 pounds of powerful mass and ill content. I watched the film in the week before the game. I knew what was coming. I had faced powerful men before, but nothing like this.
When the moment came and we first stood across from one another, my eyes were level with the blue collar on his white football jersey. I knew I couldn’t move him where I was supposed to, nor stop him from going wherever he chose to go. He dominated me the entire football game. My only relief coming when he lined up on my teammates to the right or the left and then dominated them. We lost the game. Badly.
A few months later Jugs was drafted into the NFL by the Pittsburgh Steelers; the team I had dreamed of playing for. Long before, I realized that day would never come for me, so I was glad it came for him.
He became a solid professional player and had a long career.
A few years after that draft his name came up and one thing led to another and I found a framed picture left on my coaching desk. It was of Jugs in his Steelers # 73 uniform. It was a glossy black and white, from some unknown game. Jugs’ beard and biceps all you could see of the man under the helmet and hulking within the uniform.
On the picture he wrote:
To Billy, an ole’ war daddy, Justin Strzelczyk #73.
The only time that picture wasn’t on my coaching office desk, it was on my desk at home.
The chase went on for 40 miles at times nearing 100 miles an hour. It started at some point after Jugs had offered a random man at a gas station the $2,600 in cash he had in his pocket. When the man refused, Jugs paid $50 for the man’s gas.
The chase ended after driving the final four miles into on coming traffic, when Jugs drove his pick up truck into a tanker truck. The driver of that tanker truck somehow survived, while Jugs was killed instantly and thrown 30 yards away by the explosion.
They studied his brain. They discovered some problems. The kind that result in mental illness. They were reasonably sure those problems arose from those years of college and nine in pro football, and the inevitable concussions.
Conclusions aren’t in yet, but Jugs’ story is eerily similar to that of Junior Seau.
I didn’t know Jugs. I didn’t know he liked to play guitar and work on cars. I didn’t know he was divorced. Like so many, he struggled mightily when he could no longer play football. I imagine he missed the bonds of the huddle; the sharing of the daily grind of facing pain and proving yourself and the wells of pride and endless laughs that result. I found out those things in reading stories of his life and death. I didn’t even know his friends called him Jugs.
But I think I know at least a little of what he felt. I have traveled some similar roads. Fortunately, my life worked out.
Kyle Turley, a longtime NFL player turned musician has a song about Jugs. It’s called Final Drive. A simple, beautiful song. One lyric is “I’m sure they will all forget, about my number and my name.”
Justin Strzelczyk, #73.
He’s still on my desk.
Others haven’t forgotten him either. His name is often mentioned among the former NFL players who have suffered debilitating mental illness due to concussion related diseases.
Another is the player I absolutely idolized growing up. He too was a Steeler.
Mike Webster, #52.
Closer to home, the issue came up again. One of the kids we played against suffered a severe concussion last fall. This spring he won an award for perseverance. His story is linked to here, and is a perfect example of why football is so worth the risk, but also makes me wonder what else we can do; as does the picture I see every day on my desk.
That picture of Jugs also reminds me everyday how fortunate I was that I never had that long NFL career. So when I found myself at the bottom of the well, I had it in me to Get Back Up. It was the lessons I learned through football that allowed me to do that. I played just enough football to save me. Too many play too much to save themselves.