To Steelers Nation, he was "Iron Mike" Webster, in many ways the rugged face of the greatest dynasty in NFL history. It's still hard to believe he's gone. Iron Mike was so tough he was supposed to live forever, right? Monday was the 10th anniversary of his death from heart failure and other complications. He was 50 when he passed.
Know this about Webster, though:
His legacy lives on. It's much greater today than it was during his Hall of Fame career.
"He made people take concussions seriously," Garrett Webster was saying the other day. He is Webster's son, who is 28, lives in Moon and works as an administrator for the Brain Injury Research Institute, which studies the long-term impact of repetitive head injuries. Mike Webster was diagnosed after his death with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain disease that was linked to his long career.
"I don't know of any other player who had the effect on the game that he did," Garrett Webster said. "I don't want this to sound arrogant because my dad was not an arrogant man. But he had such a big name and such a great career that it made people talk about concussions. If he had been a third-stringer on the San Francisco 49ers, no one would have noticed or cared when he died. But he was who he was. People began to talk about concussions. Not just in football, but in the military and in other athletics. He made people realize how big concussions actually are. He made football a safer game."
Mike Webster is regarded by many as the best center in NFL history. He played a franchise-record 15 seasons with the Steelers and two more with the Kansas City Chiefs and made nine Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
"Webbie made me famous. He made all of us famous," Art Rooney Jr. said last week. He was the Steelers' player personnel genius in the 1970s and, along with coach Chuck Noll and scouts Dick Haley and Bill Nunn, orchestrated the NFL's best draft class of all time. Webster was picked in the fifth round of the 1974 draft -- think about that for a second -- after Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert and John Stallworth went before him.
"He wasn't a reject in terms of height, weight and speed, but he was at the minimum," Rooney Jr. said of Webster. "The thing we kept going back to was that he was a great Big Ten player [at Wisconsin]. He played against some really big guys who were projected as first- and second-rounders and handled them. But the feeling among a lot of scouts was that he had reached his full potential. We all underestimated him. He was so football smart and his dedication was phenomenal."
Rooney Jr. told the story of a one-on-one Nutcracker drill between Webster and the great Lambert in training camp of their rookie year.
"I want to say Webbie knocked him on his [behind] the two or three times they did it. They used to talk about how Rocky Marciano could knock you out without winding up, that he could hit you from 6 inches and knock you out. That was Webbie. He had such great leverage and great strength and balance. He would strike a rising blow and turn a guy one way or the other. He was just phenomenal."
The hundreds and hundreds of hits took their toll on Webster. His final years were rough ones. He struggled with dementia, depression and erratic behavior. He and his family sued the NFL over its disability plan and won $1.8 million in benefits when the courts ruled in 2005 that he was permanently and totally disabled because of football.
"Even when the doctors told us the end was near, we expected him to get up and check himself out of the hospital," Garrett Webster said.
He was Iron Mike, remember?
"My dad didn't understand why a lot of things were happening to him," Garrett Webster said. "If he were still alive today, he'd know. We've learned so much more about brain injuries."
Garrett Webster planned "a quiet celebration of dad's life" Monday with his sister, Brooke; his friend, Haley Urbano; and his dad's best friend, Sonny Jani. "We'll go eat at one of the places dad liked. He wasn't a Ruth's Chris guy. He'd rather go to Denny's or Kings or Eat'n Park. We'll get waffles with strawberries and whipped cream and maybe a milkshake because that's what he loved to get." Later, the group might have watched a John Wayne movie -- "He was my dad's hero," Garrett Webster said -- or taken a trip to Wheeling, W.Va., to see Bob Fitzsimmons, Mike Webster's lawyer and another close family friend. The stories they could tell would take them long into the night.
"It will be a real low-key day, just the way dad would have wanted it," Garrett Webster said.
Mike Webster was cremated. Each of his four children, along with his former wife, Pam, has a portion of his ashes and a lock of his hair.
"I think about him at least three or four times every day," Garrett Webster said. "Not as a professional football player. As my dad. As my best friend. I think about how much fun we had and how much I miss him."
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