PITTSBURGH (AP) -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 star defensive lineman Ernie Holmes' death in an auto 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, as was Holmes.
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, although there has been no definitive proof they did.
Of those Steelers deaths, eight were in their 50s, five were in their 40s and two were in their 30s.
As with all NFL teams that joined the league in its early days - the Steelers concluded their 75th season earlier this month - Pittsburgh has lost nearly all of the players from its early teams. 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.
``I can't explain it,'' longtime Steelers executive Joe Gordon said Friday. ``Maybe it was something in the water.''
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. Webster made the Pro Bowl nine times with Pittsburgh.
Webster had a series of medical problems after his career ended - some traceable to damage to the front lobe of his brain that occurred during 16 seasons' worth of violent collisions.
Despite playing on one of the best NFL teams of all time, 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 who underwent a dramatic and unusually fast weight gain while in college and the NFL, committed suicide 2 1/2 years ago at age 45 by drinking antifreeze. He tested positive for steroids while playing and once tried earlier to commit suicide by ingesting rat poison.
Justin Strzelczyk, a Steelers lineman from 1990-99, died following a high-speed chase with police on the New York Thruway in 2004. His truck crashed with a tanker truck while he was driving on the wrong side of the road.
Linebacker David Little died at age 46 after also having heart problems. He died while lifting weights when the loaded bar dropped onto his chest and neck, causing him to suffocate.
Other Steelers players deaths since 2000, their cause of death, if known, and ages at the time of death:
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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