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Obituaries

Mike Webster, 50; Steeler Helped Win 4 Super Bowls

September 25, 2002|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Webster, the rugged Pittsburgh Steeler center who snapped the ball to Terry Bradshaw to win Super Bowl championships but was beset by physical and financial difficulties in retirement, died Tuesday in Pittsburgh. He was 50.

No cause of death was announced by Allegheny General Hospital at the request of the family, but Webster was being treated in the coronary care unit after being admitted Monday.

Known as "Iron Mike" when he played because of the strength and doggedness that allowed him to play 10 seasons without missing a game, Webster announced in 1999 that the battering had taken a tremendous toll.

Repeated blows to his head during his 17-year NFL career caused injury to his brain that interfered with his judgment, memory and attention span, Webster and his doctors told reporters as he sought to explain a charge that he forged prescriptions for Ritalin. He said he used the drug to treat his condition. (Webster was sentenced to five years' probation.)

He also had numerous financial, family and emotional difficulties, and was briefly homeless in the early 1990s. Though Webster separated from his wife, Pam, in 1992, she was there to support him at his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, and he recently had been living in suburban Pittsburgh with his son, Garrett, a high school football player.

"I know Webby's life after football wasn't the grandest," said Bradshaw, who was distraught Tuesday but issued a statement through Fox, where he works as an NFL analyst. "He went through a lot of tough years, but never complained about anything.

"Mike meant more to me than just a teammate because our careers with the Steelers were so intertwined. He was my center for the last nine years of my career, when my career really took off as a quarterback, and I couldn't have asked for a more dependable blocker and leader in front of me. His arrival was the beginning of our Super Bowl run, our four championships."

Franco Harris, the great Steeler running back of the 1970s era that saw Pittsburgh win the Super Bowl in 1975, 1976, 1979 and 1980, called Webster, the Steelers' offensive captain for nine seasons, "a great teammate."

"He was one of the main reasons why we won four Super Bowls," Harris said. (Webster became the full-time center in 1976.) "He was also a great person and friend. Unfortunately, he had some turmoil and misfortune after his football career. He is now at peace. We do miss and love Mike."

A fifth-round draft choice from the University of Wisconsin in 1974, Webster was considered undersized at 6 feet 1 and 225 pounds. But the Tomahawk, Wis., native made up for any shortcoming with wile and strength, eventually playing at 260 pounds.

"Mike was a little guy with a big heart," said "Mean" Joe Greene, the defensive tackle who anchored Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense. "He was always smart and quick. Then he got strong."

Webster's toughness made him emblematic of the Steeler era, and he is remembered for going sleeveless during games even in the most bitter Pittsburgh cold.

Besides winning four Super Bowl rings, Webster played in six AFC championship games and nine Pro Bowls. After the Steelers allowed him to become a free agent in 1988, he joined the Kansas City Chiefs--at first to be a coach, but quickly becoming the team's starting center. He played two more seasons before retiring in 1990 at age 38.

Two years ago, Webster was named to the All-Time NFL team, and former Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll has called him "the best center ever to play the game."

His heroics had a price.

Doctors told Webster the damage to his brain resembled that sometimes sustained by boxers.

"A doctor told Mike it looked like he'd been in an auto accident," Pam Webster told the Houston Chronicle in 1997.

"He asked Mike if he was ever hit in the head, and Mike said, 'Yeah, about 25,000 times.' "

What will be remembered, though, are the glory days of the Steelers, and the relationship between Webster and Bradshaw born of one of the most physically intimate interactions in sports.

At Bradshaw's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1989, he startled and amused onlookers by saying, "What I wouldn't give to put my hands under Mike Webster's butt one more time."

"I know writers have joked about how much Webby helped me with my audibles, and some of that is true," Bradshaw said Tuesday.

"I couldn't have been the player I was without him. We were on the same wavelength during a game. He was so smart, so prepared for everything we would face in a game."

What he faced after the games ended was more difficult.

"I want his family to know that I am deeply saddened by his passing because I know how much he loved them," Bradshaw said.

"In the last [weeks], we've lost Johnny Unitas, Bob Hayes and now Mike ...."

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