Tag Archives: NFL

Mike Webster: A Fallen Warrior

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!)

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Behind the Stats: Bleier shows Veteran’s Day is about second chances

As long as you keep moving forward, you’ll reach the finish line.

—Unknown

Throughout each person’s life we encounter at least one individual — whether it’s as basic as a casual acquaintance or as personal as a friendship — who teaches us about living and makes us realize that we can do better. It’s these people whose lives can intimidate writers, or at least give writers a mental hurdle while trying to relay the story in a perfect way.

Rocky Bleier, who is best known as a running back with the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s, is one of those people. His story, while worth telling and retelling and passing along to children and grandchildren, is challenging.

I have a deep appreciation for anyone who’s ever had the guts to serve our country. Heaven knows I didn’t and still don’t.

That appreciation — combined with a love of the Steelers that began as a child — makes Bleier a perfect subject to honor today as we  celebrate Veteran’s Day.

It’s tough to find one word to describe Bleier and his life. Oh, you could use courageous, inspiring, athletic, heroic, unwavering, horrific, determined, incredible, astonishing, remarkable, and tenacious. And so many more. You could also throw in Super Bowl champion and college national champion, but of course neither of those is just one word.

Shoot, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Pat Conroy, and even the Merriam-Webster folks would struggle finding one word to describe Bleier.

The remarkable aspect of Bleier’s life is not what he accomplished on the field per se.

“Like many people, I probably peaked when I was nine years old, in a game against my neighbor when I scored 52 touchdowns on one afternoon,” Bleier quipped, laughing. “That was probably the biggest game of my life, and it’s been downhill ever since.”

Actually, Bleier, a native of Appleton, Wisc., played an important role on Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship team under coach Ara Parseghian. But he wasn’t given much chance of making it in the NFL, particularly because of his 5-foot-11, 205-pound frame. The Steelers didn’t gamble a lot when they drafted him in the 16th round of the 1968 draft.

However, shortly thereafter is where the story takes its most revealing turn.

In December 1968, with three games left in his rookie season, Bleier received an unwanted piece of mail before practice…his draft notice for the U.S. Army. With the United States near the height of the Vietnam War, Bleier loved his country, but, c’mon, how many 22-year-olds really wanted to go to war?

“I can’t say that I was gung-ho about serving,” he said. “I can’t say that I wanted to or needed to serve our country in time of war. Like most others, I was just an average guy who got a draft notice. I’m sure my thought process wasn’t much different than anybody else who got drafted, when you look at that [notice] and say, ‘Aw, (insert your own profanity)! How did I screw up? Now what do I do?’ But you do what you think is right. You go and you serve.”

When someone received a draft notice, he usually had a week before he had to report. Bleier’s draft notice reached him late. He had one day to report. The Steelers tried to help him defer until the end of the season, but the best they could do was designate him with high blood pressure, giving him an extra day before reporting.

Five months later, in May 1969, Bleier was sent to Chu Lai, South Vietnam, with the 196th American Division’s Light Infantry Brigade.

A few months later, in August, Bleier’s life was altered in Heip Duc as he was crippled by enemy rifle fire and grenade wounds in both legs.

It appeared as though his NFL career — not to mention his ability even to walk normally — was finished.

But while he was still in the army, Bleier worked to become a better football player.

“Whether it was by design or by the grace of God, or the lessons that I needed to learn, I fell through the cracks and came back alive,” he says. “I went over there, I served, I got wounded, and I got wounded again. I wasn’t wounded enough to not play, but enough to learn a lesson.

“People have asked me if the experience made me a better  ballplayer. I would have to say yes, it did. If I hadn’t gone, would I have been a better ballplayer? I don’t know. I do know that what I wanted to do was come back from Vietnam and play football. That drove me. So I pushed myself.

“When I was in the service, I got up at 5:30in the morning and ran prior to going to my duty station. When I got done with my duty, I came back and lifted weights. When I got done with that, I went home and ran sprints. All of that was part of wanting to come back with a focus.”

Bleier, who was awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and two campaign ribbons, came back with that same desire to play football.

Steelers’ owner Art Rooney, whether out of a belief in Bleier or pity for him, gave Bleier a second chance.

Two years later, in 1972, after working off the injured reserve and the taxi squad, Bleier made Pittsburgh’s active roster.

“I think all of us want hope. As long as we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re okay,” said Bleier, who retired from the NFL after the 1980 season. “As long as there is hope, or a ray of hope, of either making the team or doing something that you love, then you push yourself forward.”

Bleier became an important part of those championship Steelers teams of the ’70s. His best statistical season in 12 years with the Steelers came in 1976, when he rushed 220 times for 1,036 yards and five touchdowns, and caught 24 passes for 294 yards. He was best known on the field, however, as a great blocking back for Franco Harris, en route to four Super Bowl titles.

And to think that, as with so many other American veterans, Bleier’s life changed with one letter. In many ways, the lives of fans who followed Bleier’s career changed with that letter.

“Vietnam is a part of my story and a part of who I am,” he said. “Am I thankful for Vietnam? I’m thankful for the experience. I’m thankful for going. I’m thankful for having served. I’m thankful for the people I have served with, and those who served before and after me. I’m thankful for the people who know me and the relationship they have of one of those who defended our country.”

Indeed, Rocky Bleier can give us a kick in the pants every now and then. He can teach us that we should be thankful for life’s challenges.

He can teach us about change and being our best and finding our strengths. He can teach us that we will reach the finish line with each new step. And he can teach us that we sometimes do get a second chance.

For more information on Matt Fulks’ books, or to suggest a “Behind the Stats” topic, visit Matt at MattFulks.com.

The previous appeared on SportsRadioKC.com on Nov. 11, 2010.

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“7 Questions” with Nick Lowery

In case you missed it, yesterday was the 18th anniversary (yes, I like bizarre dates) of a big win in Chiefs’ history. On September 20, 1993, on Monday Night Football, the Chiefs defeated the Denver Broncos, 15-7. All 15 points for the Chiefs were scored by one man, Hall of Fame kicker Nick Lowery. During that game, Lowery hit three field goals of better than 40 yards, including a 52-yarder in the second quarter.

So, that made me think now might be a good time to post this “7 Questions” segment that Dave Stewart and I did for SportsRadioKC.com a couple days before Lowery was inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2009.

 Behind the Stats: My hero growing up was…

 Nick Lowery: Well, it was also Mickey Mantle, but I need to say Sandy Koufax. He was a player known for what he did on the field, but then he sat out a game of the World Series because of Yom Kippur, and then he walked away from the game in his prime. It’s hard to give it up. He had such class. I was a pitcher in college, too, so I had a great admiration for what he was able to do.

BtS: If not for football, I would have been a/an…

NL: I had a job in the Senate Commerce Committee when I signed with the Chiefs, so I probably would’ve continued there and who knows where that would’ve led.

BtS: My greatest day in football was…

NL: Certainly my first few field goals in the NFL with the Chiefs. My last game in Arrowhead against Pittsburgh, and hitting the game-winning field goal as I turned around and saw nearly 80,000 people in red going nuts — that was pretty cool. But, most importantly, it was being part of a winning organization.

BtS: My favorite vacation spot is…

NL: Hotel San Pietro off theAmalfiCoast inPositano,Italy. It is the most romantic spot in the world. Of course,Hawaii isn’t too bad, either.

BtS: My favorite music or musician is…

NL: We’re talking about some old stuff here, but I’ll say the Beatles. I read a book talking about their 10,000 perfect hours. It brought it back home for me just how special the Beatles were. And speaking of history, I think the kids today can learn a lot by listening to how amazingly complex and diverse the Beatles were — their harmonies, their production values, how they played together. 

BtS: My favorite food is…

NL: The first thing that comes to mind is my favorite restaurant, which is the Plaza III here. It’s awesome. But my favorite food is something I fix when I’m going to spoil friends. It’s a swordfish with Cajun seasoning. Swordfish, when it’s fresh and done right with a little Cajun edge to it, is fantastic.

BtS: You’ve met some incredible people during your lifetime, so this may or may not be difficult, but the one person in history I’d love to meet is…

NL: Jesus Christ, for sure. I want to see the real person, divorced from all of the stuff we’ve heard. To me, he’s somebody who embodied love beyond all of the rules and regulations that we’re told are important in the Christian faith is ultimately the grace and love that he affected everyone with. After Jesus Christ I’d say Winston Churchill because, to me, he is one of the greatest, most inspiring people in the way he used the English language. If he hadn’t been the leader inEngland at the end of World War II, we might very well be speaking German today.

By the way, I’m relatively new to this blogging thing. I’ll try to post what are, basically, columns, feature articles, reprints of previously published material (mine, of course), and so on. It might take some time, but just hang with me. Remember, you can find out more at my website, MattFulks.com.

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