Mike Webster's durability and toughness made him a 4-time Super Bowl champion and one of the NFL's best linemen ever. However, those very qualities also might have led to a brain injury that sent him spiraling into drug use and homelessness. The bare-armed strongman nicknamed "Iron Mike'' died September 24th he was only 50. He was remembered as a great center whose sturdiness personified the Pittsburgh Steelers' championship teams and whose off-field health and drug problems saddened them.
The Steelers initially said Webster died of a heart attack but later declined to comment. Webster was diagnosed with brain damage in 1999, an injury caused by all the years of taking shots to the head. "He was one of the main reasons why we won four Super Bowls,'' Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris said. "Unfortunately, he had some turmoil and misfortune after his football career. He is now at peace.''
Chosen as the center on the All-Time NFL team in 2000, Webster found his life after football the opposite of his disciplined, overachieving 17-season NFL career. Bothered by debt, depression and bad health, he separated from wife Pam before his Hall of Fame enshrinement in 1997 and was homeless for a short time, living in his pickup truck. He was placed on probation in Beaver County, PA,, after pleading no contest in September 1999 to forging prescriptions to obtain Ritalin, a drug commonly used to treat children with hyperactivity.
Webster was the last of the 22 Steelers who played on all four Super Bowl championship teams to leave the team, and the first to die. He refused to leave the lineup even for serious injuries, once playing 6 straight seasons without missing a snap. However, that tough-guy insistence on playing hurt may have led to the brain damage. Webster's doctors said the concussions during his career damaged his frontal lobe, causing cognitive dysfunction. Webster's injuries were similar to a boxer's one doctor said he was essentially "punch drunk''and affected his attention span, concentration and focus, leading him to act erratically. Doctors said the condition could not be cured and an operation would not improve his brain functions.
"My dad has some health problems no one knows about and that I don't want to get into that much,'' Garrett Webster, a senior at a suburban Pittsburgh high school, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week. "But he has some brain injuries from football. I have to take care of my dad.'' Like his father, Garrett Webster is a lineman, and he plays on his high school football team.
Remarkably, Mike Webster almost never had a football career. Raised on a 640-acre potato farm near Tomahawk, Wisconsin, Webster grew up a Jim Taylor-idolizing Packers fan, but his farm duties prevented him from playing until his junior year at Rhinelander High, when coach Dave Lechnir volunteered to drive him home after practice in time for his chores.
Webster was good enough to get a scholarship to Wisconsin, where he started for 3 years and made the all-Big Ten team. But at 225 pounds, he was considered too small by some NFL teams, and he wasn't taken until the 5th round of the 1974 draft. With four future Hall of Famers in the first 5 rounds; Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Webster the Steelers' Class of '74 easily became the best in NFL history.
Webster's ability to trap and pull were perfect for coach Chuck Noll's running game. Mike Webster was the best center who ever played the game,'' Noll said. "He was the one position I never had to worry about.'' Quarterback Terry Bradshaw said: "I couldn't have been the player I was without him. He was so smart, so prepared for everything we would face in a game. He was physically and mentally tough. We all worked hard, but none as hard as Mike did.''
Webster was famous for his workouts, and he once had a blocking sled in his front yard and a weight set in his back yard. He built himself into a 260-pounder widely considered to be the NFL's strongest player, a 6-time All-Pro player and 9-time Pro Bowl selection. Hall of Famer Joe Greene practiced against Webster daily, and said there were never any walk throughs, the sessions were full-speed and gamelike. "Ernie Holmes and I used to beat him up in practice but, after a couple of years, we couldn't do it anymore,'' Greene said.
Webster was an intimidating sight, baring his massive arms by playing in short sleeves even in subfreezing weather. He sprinted from the huddle before every play, setting the tone for an offense that had four other Hall of Famers: Swann, Stallworth, Harris and Bradshaw.
"I'm not a very good athlete,'' Webster once said. "I don't run very well and I'm not very agile or nimble. The only chance I have to be successful is if I'm in better condition than the other guy.''
When former Bengals lineman Tim Krumrie retired after 12 seasons lining up across from Webster, he asked for Webster's helmet as a souvenir of the skirmishes. No doubt that pleased Webster. "The most important thing you want is for the man across the line of scrimmage to know your name when the game is over,'' Webster said.
Webster became a free agent in 1989 and retired for a few months, but after initially accepting a Kansas City Chiefs assistant coaching job, he decided to play again and spent two more seasons with the Chiefs before retiring after the 1990 season.
He had offers to coach again, but his health began to deteriorate soon after he quit playing. "He went through a lot of tough years, but he never complained about anything,'' said Bradshaw, who presented Webster at his Hall of Fame enshrinement in 1997.
Bradshaw added, "The last 10 days, we've lost Johnny Unitas, Bob Hayes and now Mike. What I wouldn't give to put my hands one last time under the greatest center of all time. I'm sure up in heaven, Johnny U. is doing it for me.''