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52 days until Steelers season kickoff: Remembering legend C Mike Webster

Today, we remember Iron Mike and the legacy he left behind him, on and off the field

1984 AFC Divisional Playoff Game - Pittsburgh Steelers vs Denver Broncos - December 30, 1984

There are just 52 days remaining until the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field to kick off the 2023 NFL season. They’ll open the season against the San Francisco 49ers at home, surrounded by a sea of waving Terrible Towels throughout Acrisure Stadium.

Let’s celebrate those 52 remaining days in style, by honoring former Steelers legend, center Mike Webster. Webster played 15 of his 17-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, from the time he was drafted in 1974 on through the 1988 NFL season. He saw some of the best years in the history of the franchise and has four Super Bowl rings to show for it. His legacy goes beyond the football field, however.

Mike Webster’s NFL career

Was Mike Webster one of the best draft values in Pittsburgh Steelers' history? He might be. The legendary center was selected by the Steelers in the fifth round of the 1974 NFL Draft out of Wisconsin, playing a mix of center and guard for most of his first two seasons. Soon, though, he earned the starting role and became an anchor of the Steelers’ offensive line in what was one of the greatest eras in franchise history.

Throughout his 17-year career, Webster was a 5x All-Pro selection, receiving the honors in four consecutive seasons from 1978 through 1981. He spent much of his career protecting fellow Hall of Famer, quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

Webster was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the 1997 class, having been introduced for his acceptance speech in style, handing off one final snap to former teammate Bradshaw on stage.

Webster’s legacy beyond the field

Webster’s legacy on the field was one thing. His legacy in the evolution of the way we think of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is another — though equally, if not more, important. Unfortunately, Webster passed away September 24, 2002 at the age of 50, cited as passing from a heart attack.

There had been a lead-up to his passing, however — years of odd and concerning behaviors, reported troubles at home, and sleeping in his car periodically. He faced legal troubles. He showed signs of mental and physical decline in his retirement, managing depression and a slew of other health issues. Suddenly, “Iron Mike” felt less iron.

In the aftermath of his passing, his brain was studied by a local pathologist in Pittsburgh, Bennet Omalu. He carefully studied Webster’s brain, studying not just its gross appearance, but slides of fine tissues that unveiled a distinct change in Webster's brain that was reminiscent of the changes seen in the brains of boxers after repeated head injuries and those with Alzheimer’s disease.

It took a long time before Omalu’s findings would be taken seriously in the league, and there’s still work to be done. However, we can look to Mike Webster as a pivotal force in the quest for player safety.

Webster’s story and the subsequent discoveries Omalu made regarding his condition were highlighted in the 2015 exposé film Concussion, starring Will Smith and Alec Baldwin, among others.

Rest in peace, Iron Mike.

Editor’s note: Credit to author Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose story on Mike Webster and the impact his brain had on the understanding of CTE with The Atlantic (2015) was referenced in telling Mike Webster’s story throughout this article. I can’t recommend this read enough.