Curse of the Champions?

You'd think winning a Super Bowl championship would put to rest any questions about a curse. In the tight football community of Pittsburgh, though, the Steelers' championship and a sobering statistic has got people wondering.

Since 2000, 18 former Steeler players between the ages of 35 and 58 have died in circumstances that range from the commonplace to the bizarre.

"We all just shake our heads. Where is this all going to end," former Steelers executive Joe Gordon said.

Out of the 18, seven died of heart attacks or heart failure and several others died of cancer, but other former players succumbed under more unusual circumstances.

Offensive guard Terry Long committed suicide by drinking antifreeze.

Offensive guard Steve Courson died after a tree fell on top of him.

David Little, a linebacker, suffocated when a barbell rolled onto his neck.

Offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk died during a high-speed chase with police.

"We called him Jughead," said longtime sportswriter Vic Ketchman about Strzelczyk. "That's the one that hurt me the most. When the inner demons weren't chasing him he was a great guy." Ketchman covered the Steelers for various newspapers from 1972 through 1994, and is now senior editor of Jaguar Inside Report for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.

Demons of one form or another can often chase former players, says Ken Ruettgers, the director of gamesover.org, which offers services and counseling to former NFL players. Ruettgers played for the Green Bay Packers from 1985 to 1996. During that time he broke his back, his shoulder and both his ankles, and went through nine knee surgeries.

But after he left the game, he experienced a different kind of pain, and he said that is not uncommon for professional athletes when they retire.

"I missed it. These guys can get depressed. They may not eat right, they may not exercise. Their injuries may actually prevent them from exercising," Ruettgers said. "And then they may turn to overeating or drinking."

Ruettgers points to some alarming statistics. The suicide rate for football players is six times the national average. And, according to Ruettgers, within two years of leaving the game, a staggering 78 percent of players are either divorced, bankrupt or unemployed.

The former offensive lineman was so intrigued by the emotional and physical changes football players go through when they leave the game that he created gamesover.org to try to help. Ruettgers says hundreds of former football stars have logged on and sought help.

Of course, steroid abuse has also been mentioned as the possible cause for the unusually high number of deaths. Steve Courson, who played for the Steelers from 1978 to 1983, admitted to steroid use in a 1985 interview with Sports Illustrated. And charges of heavy steroid use swirled around the Steelers for years.

Gordon doesn't buy it as an explanation for the number of Steelers who have died young.

"Obviously, steroids is something that crosses your mind, but it's never been documented," he said. "Assuming it is steroids, it wouldn't be exclusive to the Steelers -- theoretically other teams would have the same number of fatalities."

Dr. Sherry Baron of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has studied mortality rates in the NFL. Steroids aside, the sheer physical size of the players, according to Baron, may make them more at risk for an early death.

"The big guys are more likely to die from cardiovascular deaths than other players," she said.

One thing is also clear. Professional football is a brutal sport that leaves 65 percent of players with some sort of permanent injury.

"Playing professional football depends on the destruction of the human body," said Charlie Pierce, a sportswriter who has written for the Boston Herald, the National, Esquire and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. "People who play ... they get broken. They play with injuries that would put you and me in the hospital for weeks. They are conditioned to ignore physical pain. No other sport uses their players this way except perhaps boxing."

While there's no question that football players are at risk for physical injuries and emotional turmoil, there's no clear reason why so many players from one of football's most famous franchises would be so affected.

Vic Ketchman, for one, doesn't believe there's any curse. He points out that of the 18 players who have died, several played for the Steelers only for one season. For instance, Dave Brown, who died of a heart attack in 2006, played with the Steelers in 1975 and, according to Ketchman, only in a sparing role. James Parrish, who died of cancer in 2004, played with the Steelers in 1995 and only for a "game or two."

So is it steroids, the punishing brutality of football or something more?

"Fate has treated the Steelers very poorly and cruelly when it comes to life after football," Ketchman said.

Perhaps the curse amounts to nothing more than that.

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