After watching PBS’s stunning Frontline last night, dealing with head trauma in the NFL, I thought this might be an appropriate time to post an excerpt about Mike Webster from a book I wrote several years ago, THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY: PITTSBURGH STEELERS. (Shameless plug: you can purchase the book here!) Webster, who played for Pittsburgh and ended his career with Kansas City, was featured prominently in the Frontline special. Without further delay, here you go…
There’s a photograph from 1984 of Mike Webster, the Steelers Hall of Fame center. He resembles a warrior of any time or place, striding triumphantly off the field of battle. He’s carrying his helmet. His hair is wet from perspiration. His knuckles and wrists are taped. There are drops of blood below the No. 52 on his white jersey as well as on his gold pants.
For 17 years, 1974-90, Mike Webster gave his sweat, his blood (as well as the blood of others), and really everything he had to the Steelers (1974-88), the Kansas City Chiefs and the game of football.
Webster was tough. He was a throwback.
“The sight of Mike Webster on a cold, snowy winter day taking the field with short sleeves was the one picture that symbolized the strength and toughness of the Pittsburgh team,” former Steelers center Dermontti Dawson said.*
Picked by the Steelers in the fifth round of the 1974 draft out of Wisconsin, Webster joined three other future Hall of Famers taken by the team: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert and John Stallworth.
Webster backed up Ray Mansfield at center for two years before becoming a starter. He went on to play a team-record 15 seasons with the Steelers and set the model for consistency by playing in 220 games, including 177 consecutive. That streak might’ve been longer if it hadn’t been for a dislocated elbow that kept him out of four games in 1986.
“I’m not sure I was a Hall of Famer,” Webster said during a conference call in January 1997, minutes after the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selection committee saw otherwise. “I was there every Sunday, and I did everything I could to be as good as I could be.”
Former teammates with the Steelers will point to Webster’s play and consistency as one of the cogs in the team’s success throughout the 1970s, including Super Bowls XIII and XIV. Then, at the end of Webster’s career, the Chiefs signed him hoping that their young guys could learn from his work ethic and dedication to the game.
“I’ve never seen anybody like Mike Webster. He is the most professional football player I’ve ever met,” quarterback Steve DeBerg, who played with Webster in Kansas City, told The Kansas City Star in December 1990. “To be honest, I think Mike Webster has had a very big influence on the reasons I’m playing well this year. He was my roommate in training camp. He’s my roommate on the road. His professionalism just wears off on you. The guy is amazing. I feel really honored to be exposed to a guy like that. I feel he has had an impact on my performance.”
DeBerg, who had been in the league 11 years before taking snaps from Webster, went on to have the third-best season of his career with 3,444 passing yards in 1990.
After spending those last two years with the Chiefs, Webster, like so many ex-athletes, struggled to find a post-playing life. Business deals fell through, costing him his finances. Things were so bad at times that his family couldn’t even afford toilet paper. His marriage fell apart and his wife moved with their four kids to her hometown of Lodi, Wisconsin.
All the while, Webster’s health was deteriorating. He endured constant pain, headaches.
He was homeless at times, sleeping in his car or at a Pittsburgh train station. Sometimes he’d stay at a budget motel near the Pittsburgh airport. He was a volunteer assistant strength and conditioning for about nine months with the Chiefs, and he’d sleep in the equipment room, hoping no one would find out.
“Mike would not accept any assistance for any reasons,” said Chiefs President and General Manager Carl Peterson. “I knew he was having not only financial problems but also health problems, but he would never allow anyone to try to help him. He’d just disappear.”
“My problems are my problems,” Webster would say.
Those problems mounted. In 1999, Webster was diagnosed finally with brain damage from repeated and long-term head trauma — basically, dementia. Also that year, in September, Webster pleaded no contest to forging a prescription for Ritalin. He was placed on probation.
The dementia worsened. Webster would forget where he lived. And the damn pain wouldn’t go away. His head, his back, his shoulder, his knees, his feet. Seemingly every inch of his body hurt. It would get so bad that Webster stunned himself with a Taser gun in order to sleep.
Throughout the early part of the 21st Century, a battle increased between retired NFL players, the NFL and the NFL Players Association over, mainly benefits. Diseases and ailments such as dementia, Alzheimers, and numerous back, knee and hip problems started taking their toll on a large number of players. According to many ex-players, the NFLPA, led by Gene Upshaw, turned its back on its own who were in desperate need.
Former players receive benefits based on time of service and when the injuries occurred. Although an alarmingly high number of players are suffering from dementia-type illnesses — including former Steeler Ralph Wenzel — the NFL Players Association has argued that there isn’t a correlation between head injuries and life as an NFL player.
Webster was convinced to seek benefits. He unintentionally became the poster child for the ex-players’ cause.
The NFLPA argued that Webster didn’t qualify for full benefits because there was no evidence in their eyes that his problems started before 1996. However, Webster was awarded — and won in an appeal seven years later, in December 2006 — full benefits retroactive to his retirement in 1991.
Tragically, he wasn’t able to see the fight against the NFLPA to the end. On September 24, 2002, Mike Webster’s physical and mental pain went away forever. He died of an apparent heart attack. He was 50.
About two years before Webster died, one of his sons, Garrett, moved to Pittsburgh mainly to be with him, but also to play high school football in Pennsylvania.
“Normally it’s the parent waking up the son to go to school,” Garrett Webster, then 22, told The New York Times in 2006. “With us, it was me waking him up to tell him to take me to school. There were times it did get to be too much for me, but there is no way I would trade what I went through. I loved the moments when we sat in a car and shared a pizza or sat in an apartment with no furniture and watched a movie because we didn’t have anything else to do. Those memories made me grow up faster, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”
*Sources for all quotes are listed in THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY: PITTSBURGH STEELERS. (Shameless plug #2: you can purchase the book here!)