Mike Webster

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Mike Webster
Mike Webster.jpg
No. 52, 53
Center
Personal information
Date of birth: (1952-03-18)March 18, 1952
Place of birth: Tomahawk, Wisconsin
Date of death: September 24, 2002(2002-09-24) (aged 50)
Place of death: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Career information
High school: Rhinelander (WI)
College: Wisconsin
NFL Draft: 1974 / Round: 5 / Pick: 125
Debuted in 1974 for the Pittsburgh Steelers
Last played in 1990 for the Kansas City Chiefs
Career history
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
Games played 245
Games started 217
Fumble Recoveries 6
Stats at NFL.com
Pro Football Hall of Fame

Michael Lewis Webster (March 18, 1952 – September 24, 2002) was an American football player who played center in the National Football League from 1974 to 1990 with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, class of 1997. Nicknamed "Iron Mike", Webster anchored the Steelers' offensive line during much of their run of four Super Bowl victories from 1974 to 1979 and is considered by some as the best center in NFL history.[1] Since Webster's death, he has become a symbol for head injuries in the NFL and the ongoing debate over player safety.[2]

Football career[edit]

Mike Webster was regarded as the best center in the Big Ten during most of his career at the University of Wisconsin. At 6-foot-1, 255 pounds, he was drafted in the 5th round of the 1974 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Serving as a backup at center and guard for two years while being mentored by veteran center Ray Mansfield, Mike became the team's starting center in 1976, where he would remain for 150 straight games until 1986. These years included four Super Bowl wins by the Steelers, and Mike and Terry Bradshaw are consequently one of the most well-known center-quarterback pairs in history. Webster was honored as an All-Pro seven times and played in the Pro Bowl nine times. An avid weightlifter, Webster was known for playing with bare arms to intimidate his opponents on even the coldest of Pittsburgh winter afternoons. Webster is also perhaps the best-known of a long line of All-Pro centers for the Steelers. From 1964 to 2006, just four men started at that position: Mansfield, Webster, Dermontti Dawson, and Jeff Hartings. In his last year in Pittsburgh, Webster returned the favor by mentoring the then-rookie Dawson in the same manner Mansfield mentored Webster earlier in his career.

Retirement and legacy[edit]

Webster was a free agent after the 1988 season. He was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs, who initially made him an offensive line coach before allowing him to return as the starting center. His career ended after the 1990 season, with a total of 245 games played at center. At the time of his retirement, he was the last active player in the NFL to have played on all four Super Bowl winning teams of the 1970s Steelers. He played more seasons as a Steeler than anyone in franchise history (15 seasons), one season ahead of Hines Ward.

While the Steelers no longer officially retire jerseys, Webster's #52 has not been reissued by the team since he retired and it is generally understood that no Steeler will wear that number again.

In 1999, he was ranked number 75 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.

The football stadium at Rhinelander High School, his alma mater, is named Mike Webster Stadium in his honor.[3]

Webster was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007.

Post-football life[edit]

Webster was proven to have been disabled before retiring from the NFL.[citation needed] After retirement, Webster suffered from amnesia, dementia, depression, and acute bone and muscle pain. He lived out of his pickup truck or in train stations between Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, even though his friends and former teammates were willing to rent apartments for him. In his last years Webster lived with his youngest son, Garrett, who though only a teenager at the time, had to act as the parent to his father. Webster's wife Pamela divorced him six months before his death in 2002. He was only 50 years old.[4]

Webster is seen as an example of the difficulties American football players suffer when their careers are over. Other players who retired due to the effects of concussion or other head injuries include Roger Staubach, Merril Hoge, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Dave Pear, Wayne Chrebet, and Al Toon.

Webster's body was cremated. His ashes were divided among his wife and their four children.

Ailments[edit]

After death, Mike Webster was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease.[5] Webster was the first former NFL player diagnosed with CTE.[2] Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist, examined tissue from Webster and eight other NFL players and determined they all showed the kind of brain damage previously seen in people with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, as well as in some retired boxers.[4] Omalu's findings were largely ignored by the NFL until Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was diagnosed with CTE shortly after his death at age 26 in 2009.[6] Webster's son Garrett now serves as the administrator to the Brain Injury Research Institute in Pittsburgh, which is dedicated to encouraging individuals who have suffered from head trauma to donate their brains after death as well as being an advocate to players who have similar conditions that his father had.[2]

It has been speculated that Webster's ailments were due to wear and tear sustained over his playing career; some doctors estimated he had been in the equivalent of "25,000 automobile crashes" in over 25 years of playing football at the high school, college and professional levels. His wife Pamela would state years later that she felt that she caused Webster's change in personality in the years before his death and placed guilt on herself over her decision to divorce Webster, until discovering after his death about the CTE diagnosis.[2]

Nicknamed "Iron Mike", Webster's reputation for durability led him to play even through injuries. Despite rumors, Webster never admitted to using anabolic steroids at points during his career. He did state, however, that if he did take steroids, "they were legal at the time."

Lawsuit[edit]

Webster's estate brought a lawsuit in Maryland's U.S. District Court against the National Football League. The estate contended that Webster was disabled at the time of his retirement, and was owed $1.142 million in disability payments under the NFL's retirement plan. On April 26, 2005, a federal judge ruled that the NFL benefits plan owed Webster's estate $1.18 million in benefits. With the addition of interest and fees, that amount was estimated to exceed $1.60 million. The NFL appealed the ruling. On December 13, 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia affirmed the Baltimore federal judge's 2005 ruling that the league's retirement plan must pay benefits reserved for players whose disabilities began while they were still playing football.

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