Courson, 50, was using a chain saw to cut down a dead 44-foot tall tree with a circumference of 5 feet when it fell on him, according to state police. The accident happened around 1 p.m. at his home in Henry Clay Township, Fayette County.
Roger Victor, an investigator for the Fayette County coroner, said Courson was apparently trying get his dog out of the tree's way. "The wind was blowing, the tree snapped and it fell on him and his dog," Victor said. The dog was injured and taken to a vet.
Pastor Lois Van Orden, who was with Courson's mother, Elizabeth, at her Gettysburg, Pa., home, said the family had no immediate comment.
Courson made the Steelers in 1978 as a free agent guard from South Carolina. He started more than half of the Steelers' games before he was traded to Tampa Bay in 1984, where he played another two seasons before being waived. He ended his career after the 1985 season, having played on the Steelers' Super Bowl championship teams in 1978 and 1979.
In a statement, the Steelers said:
"We are saddened to learn of the sudden and untimely death of Steve Courson. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family and friends during this extremely difficult time.
"Steve was an integral member of our last two Super Bowl championship teams, and returned to the Pittsburgh area after he retired from football. Steve battled back from health problems in recent years and seemed to have made a full recovery."
Courson was an early outspoken opponent of steroid use in the NFL, though he had used them himself and blamed them for a heart condition he said placed him on a transplant list for four years. He credited diet and exercise with reversing the condition.
He went public with his steroid use in 1985 and was cut by Tampa Bay the next season. He also criticized the NFL's steroid testing program, which began a year after he retired.
"It's as much drug abuse to take steroids as heroin or cocaine," Courson said in 1990. "When most people imagine drug abusers, their thoughts are of street people living in the gutter. Realistically, these people can't afford drugs, but professional athletes and middle and upper class teenagers can."
Courson testified about steroid use before Congress last spring.
Earlier this year, Saints coach Jim Haslett claimed the Steelers' use of the drugs during Super Bowl championship seasons in the 1970s brought steroids into vogue around the NFL — even though star players such as Jack Lambert and Jack Ham were strongly opposed to drug use.
"To say that anabolic steroids didn't play a role in the Steelers' success would be a falsehood," Courson said in 1990. "But this isn't a Steelers problem. It's a league-wide problem. ... No one ever told me not to use or take steroids, or suggested I was killing myself."
Courson was a native of Gettysburg, and played from 1973 to 1977 at South Carolina, where he said he first used steroids at age 18.
In recent years, Courson made as many as 100 speeches a year to youth and sports groups urging young athletes to not use steroids.
By Dan Nephin