July 18, 1981: Webster lifts 280 pounds during summer workouts at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
Dec. 5, 1983: Webster on the bench during a game at Three Rivers Stadium.
Post-Gazette file photo
Oct. 29, 1989: Webster finished his illustrious career as a Kansas City Chief.
Michael Chikiris/The Pittsburgh Press
Feb. 1, 1985: Mike Webster at Three Rivers Stadium. Twelve years later, Webster's troubled life off the field was the subject of this story by Jonathan D. Silver.
By Jonathan D. Silver / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Editor’s note: The Post-Gazette first published this story on July 24, 1997. It never appeared online, and now the Post-Gazette is republishing it on the Web because of its importance chronicling the last years of Mike Webster’s life — before his downward spiral had been attributed to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That discovery is now the subject of Will Smith’s newest film, where he portrays Bennet Omalu. Read more about the film here.
For nearly two decades, ''Iron Mike'' Webster labored in football's bone-crunching trenches like a man possessed, his sleeveless Pittsburgh Steelers jersey, indomitable work ethic and rippling muscles emanating power and fury to his adoring fans in Three Rivers Stadium. As the Steelers' center for 15 seasons in the 1970s and '80s, Webster evolved into a gritty local superhero who helped his team's storied offensive line capture four Super Bowls. His exploits made him a prime candidate to be named this year to Pro Football's Hall of Fame.
Possessing an insouciant courage like his hero John Wayne, Webster withstood football's human battering rams down after down after down. Nothing could overwhelm him. He played a record 220 games for the Steelers, went to the Pro Bowl nine times and served as an inspiring captain. Invincible, invulnerable and indestructible, Webster was the guy who kept going despite injuries, illness and age.
After retiring as a player after the 1990 season, Webster lingered in obscurity until January, when the Hall of Fame announced he would join its ranks. But it was a different, darker piece of news later in the year about Webster that caught attention.
At the beginning of July, ESPN reported that since retirement, Webster, 45, has been suffering from financial and marital misfortunes, physical problems and depression. While some of Webster's problems had been publicly alluded to, that report provided the first details for many that Webster had fallen on hard times. Now, just two days before reaching the pinnacle of his career at the Hall of Fame induction in Canton, Ohio, Webster is fighting his toughest battles.
He is homeless, unemployed, deep in debt, beset with medical ailments, lacking health insurance, in the midst of divorce, in the care of a psychiatrist and on medication, and involved in a complex lawsuit over real estate investments. That bleak picture was compiled from numerous interviews and public documents. After waging war on the gridiron and routinely flattening the enemy, Iron Mike was finally dented, dinged and damaged by forces that he simply could not wrestle to the ground.
''Everybody has tough times. That's a part of life,'' Webster said, displaying his typical stoicism. ''It's not something that's unusual.''
Webster seems to be the only one to hold that opinion. In the aftermath of the ESPN piece, Webster's family and friends have been grappling with how to make sense of an extraordinary reversal of fortune that has affected every facet of his life.
Reversal of fortune
From stable financial footing and a salary of $400,000 during his final year with the Kansas City Chiefs, Webster has become mired in debt. Webster never earned the multimillions of today's sports stars, having started with a salary of $16,000. But he had earned six digits during his last few years of play. How and why his debts piled up is a mystery. Webster owes the Internal Revenue Service $251,000. A Wisconsin bank is after him for an $18,000 vehicle loan taken out in 1994 that it says he has not repaid. By 1994, he had a $4,000 checking account overdraft and was in default on several loans through PNC Bank. He borrowed $2,500 last year from his father, and a friend in the Pittsburgh area said he loaned Webster $15,000.
A 23-year marriage to Pamela Webster, the result of a blind date in college, has gradually broken apart. The couple has not lived together since about 1992. Pam Webster said that the couple had made conservative investments that should have provided over the long term for them and the four children, ages 10 to 20, they both adore. But finances eventually became so tight that she said she considered going on food stamps, worried about paying for heat, sometimes could not afford toilet paper, and scrounged for change in pants pockets to buy macaroni and cheese.
Webster has not had a permanent address since 1994. He told ESPN that he had lived out of his car for a year and a half. Nowadays, Webster splits his time among the Red Roof Inn in Robinson, his wife's handsome duplex in Lodi, Wis., and sports card shows around the country.
From left, Webster working out in 1977 and 1983. (Photos by Mark Murphy/Post-Gazette and Al Herrmann Jr./The Pittsburgh Press)
Renowned as a physical powerhouse during his playing years, Webster has been treated for symptoms of congestive heart failure. He passed out twice in 1992, once while jogging and once at his pool. He said he might have Parkinson's disease or symptoms, such as depression and convulsions related to concussions sustained during his playing years.
Webster's psychiatrist, Dr. Jerry Carter of Allegheny General Hospital, is planning to run more extensive tests on Webster to determine the severity of his depression and its cause. He said it was unclear how long Webster's emotional problems have existed and how much they have contributed to his circumstances, but he added that Webster seems to be improving.
''He doesn't get much enjoyment out of anything. He's not able to enjoy his accomplishments, and he's acknowledged that he's had difficulty concentrating at times,'' Carter said.
Suffering in silence
No one could fathom all these revelations, not Webster's family, old friends or the Pittsburghers who adopted the Wisconsin native as one of their own.
''I guess I was dumbfounded that he was having financial problems,'' said Webster's older brother Reid, who still lives in Rhinelander, Wis., near where he and Mike grew up. ''He'd sleep in the airport, he'd sleep in the bus station, he'd sleep in the train station. Anywhere with cover.''
Webster is once again the talk of the town in Rhinelander, population 7,900, in northcentral Wisconsin, northwest of Green Bay. Friends there remember Webster with intense fondness, the same as in Pittsburgh, and there is no shortage of praise for him and regret over his circumstances.
''When I walked downtown and played golf . . . a couple of guys said, 'Hey, is it true about Web?' I said, 'Yeah.' Everybody wanted to know what they could do,'' said Jeff Scandin, one of Webster's football coaches during his senior year in high school. ''We're kind of upset about it. We're kind of in shock.''
Webster's family and oldest friends desperately want to help, but his intense sense of privacy and his itinerant and unpredictable schedule have made even getting in touch with him a monumental task.
Webster maintained that there would be no trespassing on his life. During three interviews, one in person over a bowl of chili and a strawberry shake, and two on the phone, he declined to discuss details of his financial situation, marriage, health or anything else of a personal nature. ''I'm a private person, and I don't think it's anybody's business. Even when I was playing, I didn't like being in the media,'' he said. Webster answered some questions directly, talked around others, refused to discuss anything pertaining to his lawsuit for fear of undermining his case, and at times lapsed into tangents.
Oct. 4, 1987: Webster meets with the media after defying the NFLPA strike. (Vince Musi/The Pittsburgh Press)
Webster shrugged off his difficulties, adopting a look-to-the-future attitude. He said he was blessed, that his children were his top priority and that he had a lot to be thankful for.
''I'm not destitute. I'm not in grave danger or anything else,'' Webster said. ''In no way, shape or form am I down and out.
''I have a cash-flow problem,'' he said, declining to go into detail. ''I handle my own problems and situations just like everybody in life. I can handle them, and I don't need an outpouring of sympathy because that's not the situation. And I have read about a lot of things that are untrue, but there's nothing that I can do about that but overcome it.''
Dressed in a buttondown shirt open at the neck, white pants and a Panama-style hat, Webster looked healthy enough. He's still strapping, and the hands that snapped countless balls to former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw remain as big as frying pans. But when Webster walked in his strange, cramped gait, the pain in his feet was plain. Friends who saw him on ESPN said he looked nothing like the Mike Webster of old.
Webster's startling slide into turmoil occurred behind the scenes since his retirement in 1991 from coaching with the Chiefs, his employer for three seasons after his tenure with the Steelers. Partly that was because the media let him slip out of the spotlight, said his wife. But partly it had to do with Webster's personality. A loner, Webster kept his problems mostly to himself, letting on to almost no one that anything was amiss.
Sept. 28, 1990: Webster during his days as a Kansas City Chief. (Hank Young for The Pittsburgh Press)
As his problems mounted, Webster confided in a small group of people. It is unclear if anyone knows the full story about how Webster arrived at his current straits. Even his wife and family said there are things to which they are not privy. And some of the people who can fill in the blanks - his lawyer, friends and former Steelers among them - will not say. They have closed ranks tightly around Webster out of loyalty. As a result, the truth about Webster is elusive.
Contradictions abound, even in what Webster himself says. Contrary to what Webster said on ESPN about living out of his car, he told the Post-Gazette he slept in it infrequently during long trips. ''I never lived in the car,'' Webster said. ''I had a car. And once in awhile I'd sleep in my car. . . . Let's keep everything in perspective.''
An unclear picture
There is uncertainty about Webster's true financial state. In a lawsuit filed last year, Webster claimed that his money, marriage, reputation and home were lost due to unscrupulous investment partners. But the attorney representing one of those partners - who denies all the charges - claimed that Webster has had more than $1.5 million in income since 1992. Webster won't talk about his finances, and a motion to dismiss the lawsuit is pending.
There is contradictory information about Webster's understanding of business. Webster's lawyer described his client as an unsophisticated investor, yet Webster is listed as an officer or owner of at least three corporations in Pennsylvania. It is not clear if any of these still exist, or if Webster is earning any money from them.
Questions have even arisen over Webster's health. Despite persistent rumors through the years that Webster used steroids while on the Steelers - his rapid weight gain shortly after joining, hair loss, acne and symptoms of congestive heart failure are all pointed to as potential signs of steroid abuse - Webster has steadfastly denied that he took such drugs.
Dec. 7, 1983: Mike Webster was among the strongest and fittest in the NFL during his playing days. (Mark Murphy/Post-Gazette)
Webster's ESPN interview raised several more contradictions. For one, the network reported that Webster had sold his four Super Bowl rings, as did Webster's lawsuit, but Webster denied that he did. For another, Webster consented to discussing his problems on national television although he has emphatically contended that he is a private person.
And despite his extreme ups and downs, Webster even dismissed the idea that his life has been something of a rise and fall.
''Who said I was on top of the world?'' he asked rhetorically, referring to his days of Steelers stardom. ''There's no rise and fall. It's like it's the middle of the second or third quarter. You'll be behind sometimes, and sometimes you're ahead.''
These days, Webster spends his time earning money to send to his wife and children and doing work, the nature of which he will not discuss.
Webster has a title of ''director of operations'' at Lestini Group, a sports management company based in Weirton, W. Va., and owned by friend John Lestini, with whom Webster lived from 1992 to 1994. And he has signed a contract to work for Gianotti & Assoc., a satellite communications company in New Kensington owned by his friend Dennis Gianotti. But Webster is not drawing a salary from either employer.
It was in the tiny town of Harshaw in the north woods of Wisconsin that the forging of Iron Mike began. Here, on an idyllic 1,340-acre plot of flat farm land patrolled by deer and surrounded by deep lakes, Michael L. Webster's paternal grandparents settled in 1916 after boarding a train from Indiana with all their worldly possessions and a team of mules.
They were farmers in a region north of the state's dairy industry, tending to soil suited more to potatoes than cows. They gave their homestead to Bill Webster, Mike's father. A man with a deeply furrowed brow, Bill Webster has the same mighty forearms and huge, stub-fingered hands he passed along to his sons. Webster - with the help of his wife and five children - cultivated Burbank potatoes until a divorce broke apart the family during Mike's high school days. After the divorce, Mike and Reid stayed with their father and continued to help with the chores.
On part of that land, there still stands a square plot, a mile on each side and circumscribed by pavement. Standing at one corner recently, at Webster and Horsehead Lake Roads, Reid Webster reminisced. In high school, Mike would routinely jog around the square, Reid lagging because of a breathing problem. One mile, turn the corner, another mile, another and another.
Dec. 7, 1983: It might have been the middle of winter, but that didn’t stop Webster from running stairs at Three Rivers Stadium. (Mark Murphy/Post-Gazette)
Just off the road, where the Websters' house used to stand, a distinct patch marks the shed where the boys would keep their makeshift weights. Webster would lift anything he could get his hands on, remembered Phil Hazelquist, a buddy from high school football who is a firefighter in Rhinelander. Webster would take broken pieces of machinery lying around and hoist them, he'd fill 5-gallon buckets with anything that was heavy, hang them on the ends of a pipe and lay down on a wooden board supported by cinder blocks to create a crude bench press. Lifting was an everyday affair, even during football, wrestling or shot put season when he had to work out with the team. Up at 5 or 6 in the morning, off to class and training at nearby Rhinelander High School, back to haul potatoes to the warehouse or run the tractor, and then over to the weight shed.
''Every minute he had, he was in that weight room because he was so determined. He wanted to grow up and be a professional football player for the Green Bay Packers,'' said Bill Webster, who recalls 8-year-old Mike declaring that he wanted to play for the team led then by Coach Vince Lombardi.
High school hero
For the most part, Webster led the life of a typical high school farm kid. He was a popular and independent sort who kept bullies in their places and did the dishes at home without being asked. He fished, hunted and swam. Once, he adopted a lost fawn, tending to it until it would eat from his hand, Hazelquist said. Friends described Webster as humble and helpful, and Reid recalled him nonchalantly stuffing trophies and awards into the closet. By all accounts, Webster was never a braggart, and that humility has remained to this day. His mother said that following the announcement of the Hall of Fame inductees, Webster expressed sympathy for others who had not made the cut. He had a big heart as a youngster and at one point wanted to grow up to be a minister. For a time in college, he even attended a Bible study group.
''He was rough and ready as a child, and yet very tender-hearted,'' said his mother, Betty Miller. ''When anybody needed a friend, he was always there. Or if there was a death in the family, he would write a note.''
As a high school standout in football, wrestling and shot put, Webster would mentor younger teammates. And when his brothers and sisters were upset about something, he comforted them.
''It seems when other people hurt, he hurt,'' his mother said.
When Webster hurt, though, he kept it to himself. Webster rarely complained to people about the painful legacy of football that has, according to his mother, left his ankles and feet black and blue. And his father had no idea that Webster had seen a psychiatrist.
Oct. 28, 1981. (Post-Gazette file photo)
Webster has had to cope with a number of difficult situations in his personal life stretching back to childhood. Friends said his father was too stern of a disciplinarian, something that Bill Webster acknowledged with a tinge of ruefulness. Webster's fans have no idea about his younger brother Joseph, who spent 14 years in Michigan prisons on a sex-related crime and unarmed burglary. Webster absorbed the scars of his parents' divorce in relative silence. He was caught in the middle of a friction-filled relationship between several family members and his wife. And a long-running dispute between Reid and his father over the Websters' former well-drilling business still hovers over the family.
''There were times . . . that he alluded to the fact that there were problems in his family,'' recalled Greg Apkarian, a teammate and roommate of Webster's at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. ''Sometimes, Mike would take on the responsibilities of the world.''
Webster's quest for privacy and his formidable independent streak were evident to his father from long ago.
''He just had a determination about him,'' Bill Webster said. ''I think it was bad for him. He developed a lot of independence. He never confided in anybody about what he was going to do.''
College life was mostly happy and upbeat for Webster. He became a Big Brother and encouraged his roommates to do the same. He took his wayward brother, Joseph, under his wing, although the exercise was ultimately fruitless because Joseph entered prison in 1975. And he excelled at football.
Apkarian said he delighted in introducing Webster to people. They expected a dumb, aggressive jock, and Webster consistently disappointed them.
''He was always the peacemaker. That was one of the reasons I liked introducing Mike. Because there was always such a dichotomy between what he was and what people thought he was,'' Apkarian said.
It is only now that Webster's problems have become public that Apkarian has been able to make sense of certain other facets of Webster's behavior. Webster, for instance, would disappear for days at a time in college, a sign, Apkarian now believes, of being depressed. ''There was always this side of Mike that was always kind of troubled,'' he said. From time to time, Webster would fall in with a ''wrong'' crowd, people who vaguely seemed less than reputable to Apkarian. He surmised that something similar might have happened in the last few years leading up to Webster's financial woes.
Although rock solid and entirely predictable while playing for the University of Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium, Webster could be curiously erratic off the field, according to Apkarian. There were his disappearances. There were the six cars, Apkarian said, that Webster bought and sold the summer he was drafted. Several years ago, there was the message Webster left on Apkarian's answering machine saying he had passed out and might have heart and liver problems. Apkarian said that when he called back filled with concern, Webster shrugged off the message and said things were fine.
''Someplace in the middle, there's the truth,'' Apkarian said.
From Webster's perspective, he is very much his own man, apt to do things a little differently from everyone else. He was one of the first Steelers to defy a players walkout in 1987. And Pam Webster described him as someone not bound by convention.
''I'm a little bit of a rebel and a renegade. I'm an outdoorsman,'' Webster said. ''I wash clothes by hand and hang them out to dry. I do things the old-fashioned way. I'm a hopeless romantic for nostalgic things.''
Around his senior year, Webster had a blind date with a woman who worked in the university's athletic ticket office. It didn't take long before he and Pam were living together. Marriage followed in May 1974, the same year Webster joined the Steelers as a fifth-round draft pick.
Bill Webster remembers getting the fateful news from a Steelers coach.
''I was so flabbergasted when he called me, I was almost speechless. I told him one thing: You got yourself a football player,'' Webster said.
Life in the pros
When he cut short his senior year of college to join the Steelers, Webster brought along a work ethic as big as Wisconsin's wide sky and as powerful as the tornadoes it spawns. He set the pace for his teammates, both galvanizing them and putting them to shame. No one trained harder. First in the weight room, last out. Adding on around 40 pounds of muscle during his early years. Running up and down the stands at Three Rivers Stadium in a grueling workout. Coaxing one last bench press, squat and curl out of his sculpted body. Even as an aging veteran, he always squeezed out that last bit of extra effort. Rookies were invariably left amazed at training camp by the old-timer's vigor. Webster, after all, was a live package of crazy kinetic energy who tackled barbells with the same intensity he displayed while mixing it up on the line of scrimmage. Webster was a coach's dream: No lip, no complaints, no indolence. Only work.
Webster's devotion to the game and to his team were the stuff of legend. His mother remembers driving with Webster in Pittsburgh and nervously watching her son take his eyes off the road to glance down at plays scrawled on a piece of paper. Whatever the mental effort Webster put into football, though, it was his physical effort that captured the public's imagination, that turned him into a superman. Webster's self-discipline and focus on improving his body went a step beyond mere dedication, spilling over into the realm of the fanatical, and that fanaticism turned him into, arguably, the greatest center in the history of the National Football League.
He was voted to the league's 75th anniversary team in 1994 and has been to more Pro Bowls than any offensive lineman in NFL history. In fact, only four players in league history - Jack Lambert, Walter Payton, Ken Houston and Harry Carson - have been to as many Pro Bowls as Webster.
Feb. 23, 1989: With Chuck Noll at his side, Mike Webster announces his retirement. He was the last of the Steelers with four Super Bowl wins to step away from the game. (Bill Levis/Post-Gazette)
''He had all the tools,'' former Houston Oilers player Greg Bingham said. ''He had brains, strength, cunning, guile, the speed, the body . . . he had it all.''
Only the late Ray Mansfield, the player Webster replaced as a starter in 1976, appeared in more consecutive games than Webster - 182 vs. 177.
Webster's streak was interrupted in 1986 when he missed the first four games of the regular season with a dislocated elbow suffered in training camp.
Former Steelers Coach Chuck Noll remembers Webster as being too short and slow, but those disadvantages were easily offset.
''(Webster) had great strength and quickness,'' Noll said. ''That's what excited me. And he was very smart, a great technician. From the get-go, there was no question about his ability. His learning curve was very steep.''
After learning for two seasons under Mansfield, Webster started 14 games in 1976 - the first two at center, the next six at guard, the final six at center. He then started every game at center for the next nine seasons, including the strike year of 1982, until his elbow injury.
Webster even started a Sept. 22, 1985, game against the Oilers when it appeared he would be unable to play. He had been hobbled all week because of a back and neck injury and didn't practice. He didn't even appear at the team breakfast the day of the game.
''But when we came to the locker room, there he was, ready to go,'' said Tunch Ilkin, a former Steelers tackle from 1980 to 1992, Pro Bowl player and a close friend of Webster's.
''I thought I was a hard worker,'' Ilkin said. ''He out-trained everybody. I would always go to the stadium an hour before we were supposed to work out, figuring I'd get an early workout in, and there was (former offensive tackle) Jon Kolb and Webby, already working out.
''Then, when you were done working out, you'd see them in the film room. To us younger guys, he was an ideal role model.
''He was like playing next to a coach. He knew everything that was going on out there. He knew what the wideouts were doing, what the offensive linemen were doing, what the defenses were doing. He just prepared like no one I've ever seen in my life.''
''There were times in the huddle when Bradshaw would ask the offensive line what to run, especially if it was third-and-2 and he didn't like Chuck's call,'' said former running back Rocky Bleier. ''We'd kind of all look up and Webby would say what to run. It was that kind of relationship. Everyone respected Mike for his knowledge.''
A crack at coaching
Webster's preparation and understanding of the offense are why many people thought he would make an excellent coach when he retired from playing.
Webster left the Steelers on Feb. 23, 1988, and joined the Chiefs as an assistant offensive line coach five days later. But, after working nearly six weeks in the offseason with their offensive lineman, Webster went to Carl Peterson, the Chiefs' president and general manager, with a suggestion.
''He said, 'I think I might be more effective on the field than on the sidelines,' '' Peterson said.
So Webster played two more seasons with the Chiefs, starting all 16 games in 1989 and seven out of nine games that he played in 1990. His new teammates marveled at the way a 15-year NFL veteran would still turn from the huddle and sprint to the line of scrimmage, a Webster trademark.
''He wasn't doing it to impress the coaches,'' Peterson said. ''That was just Mike. That opens the eyes of a lot of young players.''
Webster retired again, this time for good, after the 1990 season. He returned for one season as an assistant strength coach and assistant offensive line coach with the Chiefs, then got out of football.
''He was in the midst of some bad financial investments . . . and some family problems,'' Peterson said. ''It became too much.''
Even now, Peterson said, he has told Webster that a position on his coaching staff is always available to him.
''I'm not sure if the commitment to coaching is there for him right now,'' Peterson said. ''Plus, with his pride, he doesn't want something fabricated or created for him.''
Peterson has tried to help Webster sort his financial troubles. He and former Chiefs quarterback Ron Jaworski, who was brought in from the Philadelphia Eagles the same year as Webster, have helped Webster start a sports garment business in New Jersey. Webster has such a strong relationship with Peterson that he even asked his former boss to present him at the Hall of Fame ceremonies.
Peterson declined, saying it would be more ''appropriate'' if Webster asked someone from the Steelers, namely Terry Bradshaw.
Still, that won't keep Peterson and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt from being in Canton on Saturday for the ceremony.
''He's a very prideful guy,'' Peterson said. ''He won't tell you what's happening in his life. I'm very hopeful and optimistic things will turn around in his life.''
Said Craig Wolfley, who played guard from 1980 to 1989 with the Steelers: ''I know Mike has had some things happen that are tough to handle. But, the thing that will help him rebound will be the dogged determination he showed as a player, the absolute will to overcome. If anyone can do it, he can.''
During his illustrious career, Webster was as much of a family man as he could be, Pam Webster said. He did not spend lavishly and did not carouse at the expense of his children. He kept in touch with his old pals, inviting them to games, introducing them to his famous colleagues.
Webster often aided charities, frequently returning to Rhinelander to help out with fund-raisers, such as a bike-a-thon for the local cancer society. He was an officer in the Spina Bifida/Hydrocephalus Association of Western Pennsylvania. And his lawyer said Webster tried to raise money for former Steeler Steve Courson, who was suffering from heart problems. But as time wore on, things changed. Webster and his old friends would lose track of each other for years at a time. Apkarian said it was a changed person who returned for a visit to their alma mater one year with a hard-drinking bunch of Steelers friends.
''Man, I couldn't hang around with him anymore,'' Apkarian said. ''There were so many things he wouldn't talk about.''
The last time Apkarian saw Webster was the summer after Apkarian's wedding in 1990. Webster had been in the wedding party.
''We told each other how much we missed each other, and then he was gone. And then I couldn't get ahold of him,'' Apkarian said. ''Mike and I have always kept in touch. We always called each other. Once Mike became a pro football player, we idolized him, we put him on a pedestal. . . . But he got all wrapped up in the NFL thing. He wasn't the same Mike.''
Other friends have had similar experiences. Bill Makris, a Rhinelander football player who roomed with Webster in college and now coaches the high school team, the Hodags, last saw Webster at a state wrestling tournament four years ago. For Hazelquist, it's been about seven years. All three said they were confused. They are saddened by what has transpired and want to help their old friend. Apkarian is worried. Hazelquist is unsettled and wonders if he did anything to upset Webster, to make him not want to return phone calls.
''I sometimes ponder that. What the hell happened?'' Hazelquist said. ''I was angry. Why didn't he call? He needed money? I would have given him money. I would've given him a job. Sleeping in your goddamn car? I would've given him a bed.''
A loner turns inside
Speculation abounds over why Webster suddenly dropped out of so many people's lives. His friends believe he's embarrassed now, afraid to face them, worried about what they will think.
''Mike had an image - Iron Mike. Nothing bothered him. And now there's a flaw. It's hard to live with,'' Hazelquist said.
''He feels duped. He feels foolish,'' Apkarian said. ''I think Mike now feels bad about meeting up with us. That he's disappointed in himself and he thinks we're disappointed with him. He needs to know there's people out there who want to help him.''
Instead of reaching out to his old friends, though, Webster has stayed away from them. And even his family goes through periods without having contact with Webster. His wife and children never know when he's coming or going. His father said that he usually has no idea what Mike is doing in Pittsburgh. And Reid, who has spoken to his brother frequently during the last few months, still loses track of him.
Aug. 6, 1988: After 15 seasons, the sun finally went down on Webster's Pittsburgh career. Here he is at his final Steelers training camp in Latrobe. (Vince Musi/The Pittsburgh Press)
''That's what Mike does. He handles things his way. He doesn't ask for help,'' Reid said. ''He's doing what he did in football, and that's to use his hard work to win again.''
Webster himself is acutely aware that he has trouble asking for help.
''Part of my problem is that I'm trying to solve everything myself,'' Webster said. ''I'm not blaming anybody. It's my responsibility.''
Pam Webster, an energetic, articulate woman who speaks candidly of football life with her husband, believes that Mike's retirement from sports played a major role in his current difficulties. With the organizing influence of training camp, working out and the season suddenly gone after 18 years, the couple entered a confusing, stressful period for which they were utterly unprepared.
''The NFL greets you with open arms when you come into football. When you leave, they give you a handshake at the door. . . . There's no instruction booklet,'' she said.
They returned to Lodi together for a few years after leaving Kansas City, and Mike often traveled between Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, apparently to pursue a variety of business ventures. Eventually, though, a distance set in, leading Mike to use the Pittsburgh area as a home base.
''A lot changed. A lot of loss of direction,'' Pam Webster said from her home, notably devoid of any pictures of her husband or Steelers memorabilia. ''I think just the stress factor combined with the changes. Oh my God, we went through so many changes. Changes of residence, changes with the immediate roles within the family.''
She described herself as a football wife and a homemaker, raising the children while Mike dealt with the finances. According to Pam Webster, they hardly lived a profligate lifestyle: Mike invested in annuities and, his lawyer said, was even counseled to avoid risky investments - counseled, in fact, by a law firm he is suing. ''We had a very safe, conservative plan, and it would've taken care of us for a long time,'' Pam Webster said.
But something went wrong. After the Websters separated, Pam Webster became dependent on the money her husband would send. Sometimes it was a lot, sometimes a little. Sometimes it didn't come at all. She ended up selling her house, her car and getting a job as a cleaning woman.
''I was cleaning and scrubbing toilets and trying to remember I was an NFL wife sometimes,'' Pam Webster said. ''It has been very difficult for every one of my kids, but I have to say I'm proud of them. They are so strong and caring. . . . There are times we can't believe we were on the top and we played football and everything's gone.''
Around that time, in 1992, Webster invested $25,000 in a real estate venture along with several Pittsburgh-area business people. As well, he formed a trust in 1993 with a local attorney. The trust borrowed $151,500 from PNC Bank for investments. By the next year, Webster had $115,000 in personal debt and credit with PNC, according to court documents. The investments ultimately led to Webster filing a lawsuit last year against his one-time partners, accusing them of ruining his life.
Despite the financial duress that apparently resulted from Webster's business dealings, Pam Webster spoke only positively of her husband.
''Mike has been a part of my life and will always be a part of my life,'' she said. ''We tried to work things out several times for the children. Mike lived with me quite often because we are a family unit and the children are a priority. Lots of times he didn't have anywhere to go.
Feb. 15, 1981: Webster's children, Brooke, 4, and Colin, 2, with him following knee surgery the week before. (Marlene Karas/The Pittsburgh Press)
''Mike's been generous with what he's had. Mike's got next to nothing. He's exhausted. He hasn't been eating. . . . Mike did a hell of a job playing football. There's not going to be another one like him again. That should be our focus.''
Pam Webster plans to travel to Canton to see her husband inducted. So do many of his family members and old friends. What will happen after Bradshaw introduces Webster is anyone's guess. But to those who love Webster, it does not matter. They want nothing more than to witness a historic moment, to give a football legend the recognition he deserves, and to look in the eye a man who they hold deep in their hearts, a man who will always be Iron Mike.
''I know it's a valley, a deep one this time, and it's piling in,'' said Webster's mother. ''But he's going to come through it.''
Staff writers Gerry Dulac and Bill Moushey contributed to this report.
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