Late Steelers great Webster's case launched the CTE brain debate
The Steelers Hall of Famer's downward spiral motivated his family to help others.
May 14, 2013 4:00 PM
Garrett Webster, one of Mike Webster's sons, talks to families about brain donations for Pittsburgh's Brain Injury Research Institute.
Bennet Omalu, shown with a preserved brain at North Shore University HealthSystem's hospital in Evanston, Ill., was the first pathologist to detect CTE in a former pro football player, Steelers great Mike Webster.
Pamela Webster, Mike Webster's former wife, stands with son Garrett near his home in Moon. At the end of Mike Webster's career here, she says, "I noticed things being different == his personality, how he handled finances, headaches, concentration."
Steelers Hall of Famer Mike Webster died at age 50 after years of declining physical and mental health.
By Mark Roth Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Garrett Webster still remembers the incident because it was so out of character for his dad.
His father, former Steelers center Mike Webster, had come to his elementary school to pick him up, and a woman drove through the school zone too fast, "and my dad chased her in the car, and got out of the car and started hitting her hood and yelling at her, and then he got in the car and drove away."
This was the same Mike Webster who had been a fierce competitor for the Super Bowl champion Steelers, but was known for being very slow to anger off the field.
Pamela Webster, Mike's wife at the time, saw a different but equally startling change. Her husband, who had always celebrated Christmas like an overgrown kid, now spent Christmas mornings sitting in a corner, "just observing. The kids would bring him presents, and he would just sit there. You saw parts of this man disappear, but you couldn't put your finger on it."
It wasn't until after his death in 2002 at age 50 that the Webster family finally learned what had changed Mike Webster into a moody, explosive man who tore through all the family's money and would lock himself in the bathroom for hours at a time.
He was the first former National Football League player to be diagnosed with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Doctors who examined his brain found it was filled with tangles of a protein called tau, which they attributed to the thousands of head collisions he had experienced as a player.
Even though Pamela Webster divorced her husband before he died, she could never stop blaming herself for what had happened to him -- until she got the brain diagnosis.
Mysteries of the Mind: About this series
Over the course of this year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is looking deeply at five brain disorders that affect millions of people: schizophrenia, athletes' brain injuries, autism, depression and phobias. In this second segment of the series, we examine a disorder that causes mood changes, dementia and may even trigger suicides in some former athletes and soldiers -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It is the latest of our "Mysteries of the Mind."
"That was huge for me personally," she said in a recent interview here, "because for years, I'd carried this guilt around that somehow I had caused this. As a wife, I would ask myself, 'What did I do wrong today to make him behave this way?' I had a lot of people blaming me -- friends, family, saying, 'What did you do to Mike? Why didn't you stand behind him?' "
His son Garrett, now 29, has made a career out of what happened to his dad, becoming the administrator of the Pittsburgh-based Brain Injury Research Institute, which is dedicated to getting athletes, soldiers and others who have suffered head trauma to donate their brains for analysis after death.
In the first years after Mike Webster died of a heart attack 11 years ago, he said it was very difficult to approach families about brain donation. As publicity about CTE and concussions has become widespread, though, "in the last three or four years, most of them understand what is going on" and often eagerly agree to donations.
His institute has collected more than 35 brains from athletes, soldiers and others. Another group, the Center for Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, has collected more than 100 brains for its studies.
The research being done by both groups will probably have a major impact on a pending lawsuit against the NFL by more than 4,000 former players, who contend the league failed to warn them adequately about the dangers of brain damage.
Because he was the first to be diagnosed with CTE, Mike Webster's story has played an important unofficial role in those lawsuits, his family believes.
"I really believe if it hadn't been for Mike, this issue wouldn't be where it is now because of how much he was loved," Pamela Webster said.
While Garrett Webster understands why many of the players have sued, he doesn't like the way it has pitted current players against former ones.
"The NFL is saying to the current players, 'Hey, these older players are trying to take your money.' I wish there could just be an amnesty where everyone would say nobody's going to get sued anymore, and [the NFL] will acknowledge that you players have problems, and we're going to take care of you."
That kind of agreement would also take into account that players in Mike Webster's era did not earn the kind of money today's athletes do, and didn't have the same rules protecting them, Pamela Webster said.
"The thing I hate is when people say he knew what he was getting into, he could have quit at any time, and that's just not the case -- it was a different game then than it is now. These are the guys that made the current game possible, and we need to support them now."