In real life, not every hero gets to ride off into the sunset. Sometimes they have to sacrifice their own well-being for that of others. They stand in harm’s way to protect what they hold dear.
Heroic acts occur around us everyday, oftentimes going completely unnoticed. Some are easy to spot — like firefighters, first-responders and members of our military. Others occur in anonymity, such as random acts of kindness by a stranger or the personal sacrifices of a family member. We only witness the end results, but never the sacrifices made to get there.
One definition of hero is a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character. Another description describes an individual with great strength or abilities.
I feel any of these descriptions could be used to describe former Steelers’ great Mike Webster.
Webster played center for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1988, and he played his final two years for the Kansas City Chiefs — a period of time I’ve tried to forget. He was the greatest center to ever step onto a football field, and his accomplishments are too numerous to mention — but here are a few. Four-time Super Bowl champion, nine-time Pro Bowl player, seven-time first team All-Pro, 1970s and 1980s All Decade teams, and a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time team.
His nickname was “Iron Mike” because he was as tough as steel and, not only did he epitomize the Steelers’ hard-nosed reputation, but he personified the Steel City itself. He was a gladiator who imposed his will on the opposition, making large men go in directions they didn’t want to go, all by shear force. He wasn’t the biggest linemen or the heaviest, but was renowned for his tremendous strength and determination.
Webster had a laser-like focus on the task at hand. He was all business on a team that liked to celebrate their on-field accomplishments during the game — much like our present-day Steelers squad. I can vividly recall Webster sitting on the sidelines after a Steelers’ drive, helmet off, covered in sweat and blood, trying to recover before the next offensive possession.
He never seemed like he was having all that much fun — it was almost like he was out there doing the grunt work so his teammates could make plays and bask in the glory. He didn’t have time for fun, he had a job to do. He was the leader of the offensive line on a power-running football team. That meant an afternoon full of repetitive collisions in the trenches with little to no recognition unless there was a penalty or a negative play. Then you better believe somebody would be looking to him for some answers. Better to remain out of sight and out of mind.
The old saying states you don’t know what you got until it’s gone. Even though the Steelers amazingly transitioned from Webster to another All Pro center in Dermontti Dawson, Mike’s legacy has been impossible to ignore.
Webster was enshrined in the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, and it seemed then that it was time for him to move on with his life’s work, as Coach Noll always said. It appeared his impact on the NFL had run it’s course but, tragically that wouldn’t be the case.
I wasn’t aware of Webster’s financial issues or his behavioral difficulties arising after his playing days were over. The next time I recall seeing Webster was extremely disturbing, to say the least.
I’m not sure of the exact year, but I believe it was in the late ‘90s. I turned on the TV to watch the Pittsburgh talk-show Sportsbeat, hosted by Stan Savran and Guy Junker. They went to a live interview at Steelers’ practice and, to my surprise, there was Mike Webster, microphone in hand, asking the questions.
Mike definitely didn't look well — he kept slurring his words and he seemed incredibly fidgety. He repeatedly apologized as he struggled through the interview. I even jokingly asked my wife if he appeared to be as “high” to her as he did to me. I assumed they were doing him a favor by giving him an opportunity for which he didn't seem well suited, mainly because of what he still meant to the city and Steelers Nation.
I only saw him on the show a couple more times and his performance wasn't getting any better. The last live interview he did for Sportsbeat was a disaster. He stopped talking in mid-sentence and stared off into the distance like a deer caught in headlights. Then suddenly, he just walked away without saying a word. That's when you knew something was terribly wrong with Iron Mike.
After that, you would hear rumors that he was struggling or that he was missing, but that was about all until the report aired that he’d suffered a heart attack. The next day we learned he had passed away at the age of 50. It was a heartbreaking day to be a Steelers fan.
I admit when the movie Concussion came out starring Will Smith, I didn't watch it for a few years. So often, they only focus on one side of the story and I feared the movie would portray the Steelers in a bad light or somehow damage Webster's legacy.
I finally decided to watch the movie, and I don't feel it had any negative effect on Mike or the Steelers. But it definitely brought the debilitating effects of CTE front and center in the public's consciousness.
Lately, whenever the new helmet rule is discussed, somebody will always state, "They knew what they were signing up for going in!" I beg to differ on that opinion.
Mike Webster was an intelligent individual. He was aware that football was a dangerous occupation. He accepted the broken bones and bruises, along with the pain and surgeries that came with the job. He knew there was going to be arthritis and limited mobility after his playing days were over. He did it to make a better life for his family and because of his love for the team, the city and the game itself.
But do you really think he had any inkling that the damage sustained during his playing days would rob him of his mind, torment his being, destroy his family and, ultimately, claim his life at such a young age? How could he have known this without a crystal ball?
Someone always has to be the first high-profile case that brings awareness and leads to change. Mike Webster is the Lou Gehrig of football. He will forever be linked to the CTE issue. Hopefully his tragic story will continue to positively impact the way the game is played at every level of competition and help to protect the long-term health of all it's participants.
If a return to proper tackling techniques, coupled with advancements in helmet technology, can improve player safety, then the league must proceed accordingly.
Mike Webster may be gone, but his legacy — both on an off the field — is immortal.