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Mike Webster, Rhinelander’s most famous football player, played 17 seasons in the NFL and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997. He died of a heart attack in 2002 and became forever linked with the impact of concussions and CTE in football. Today, March 18, 2017, would have been his 65th birthday.
3/18/2017 7:30:00 AM The price of greatness Family, friends recount story of Mike Webster on what would have been Hall of Famer's 65th birthday
Walk into the football stadium at Rhinelander High School and you will see Mike Webster's name emblazoned on it. There's a trophy case with various mementos from his football career outside Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium.
Today, March 18, Mike Webster would have turned 65 years old. In August, 20 years will have passed since he was immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His bust sits in the Hall with the rest of the greatest players to have graced a football field.
Football was a game Webster loved. Playing in the Steel City, he became 'Iron Mike.' It was his identity, his passion and - eventually - led to his demise.
In total, Webster gave football 25 years of his life. The first three years were spent at Rhinelander, then five at the University of Wisconsin and 17 in the National Football League - winning four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers before finishing his career with two more seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.
He was eventually named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team in 1994, effectively naming him the greatest center to ever play the game. There was a price to be paid for greatness, however, and Mike Webster paid the ultimate price for his greatness.
When he was named to the 75th Anniversary squad, days passed until Webster knew. It took that long for the Steelers to find him.
He is exhibit A and first NFL player diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy - otherwise known as CTE.
It's a disease that has become synonymous with football and lawsuits against the NFL. It's also a disease that helped cause the destruction of a man that seemed indestructible during his playing career.
It's no longer possible to simply talk about Webster's football career. When his name is mentioned, the letters C-T-E and the word concussion are assuredly not far behind.
Sept. 24, 2017 will mark the 15th anniversary of the death of Mike Webster, a man that literally gave his life to football.
Forging the identity of 'Iron Mike'
Toughness became his moniker as a player. Even before Webster started and played 150 consecutive games from 1976-1985 (a dislocated elbow forced him to miss the first four games of the 1986 season), he played with a broken arm during his senior year of high school.
His stamina and workout regimen were legendary, becoming a pioneer for weightlifting in the NFL. Webster was so dedicated that he wouldn't go on family vacations without his weights and football helmet.
When he finished a workout at the Red Bull Inn that lasted four or five hours, or a practice, he'd run up and down the steps at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. On game day, he sprinted to and from the huddle on every play.
"He was driven as a football player and a total consummate athlete," ex-wife Pam Webster said. "Whenever we went on vacation, we took our weights, and even our sled along. Even when we'd come back to Wisconsin he'd work out. Mike really earned his body. He worked out several hours a day, and ran - even in the heat and on vacation - every day. He not only worked out during the season, but in the off-season and he really knew what he was doing. He did it with a vengeance."
At 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds as a rookie, Webster bulked up to 245 during his NFL career, which still made him undersized at the time. As a result, he developed near-perfect blocking technique and tailored his weightlifting routine to benefit muscles he used as a blocker.
Webster grew up on a potato farm in Harshaw, and while not many people close to him talk about his childhood, everyone used the same word to describe it - tough.
It developed his desire to be great and fear of failing, and it likely helped grow his independence, something that he showed in the final stages of his life with friend and former Rhinelander teammate Bill Makris.
"He really didn't want help from anybody. He wanted to do things himself," Makris said. "He always figured he could figure things out and get things done. So he wasn't the type of person that was going to go out and ask for help, he was going to do it himself and the times we spoke, right up until the time he passed - we probably talked once a month - I never had any idea what Mike was going through."
It's fair to assume that Webster's symptoms began far before anyone else noticed, much like the early stages of a cold. He knew before the signs became apparent, but tried to forge through it on his own.
Football is life
Since he began playing football as a sophomore at Rhinelander, it became his dream, even an obsession.
Playing for the Hodags, he aspired to attend Wisconsin and be a star defensive tackle. That position didn't pan out, however, and he was switched to center. That didn't change his goals, just the position he played to reach them.
"He wasn't great when he got to Madison. I don't think they even knew where to put him initially," Former Wisconsin quarterback Gregg Bohlig said. "Whoever figured out center was a great position for him was a genius. That turned out to be a turning point in his career and he was just a duck to water with that position."
Webster didn't finish his college degree, opting to play in an all-star game after his final season in 1973 before preparing for the NFL Draft.
During his first two seasons in the NFL, he was ready to give up and move home. Then Ray Mansfield retired, paving the way for Webster become the starting center.
He embarked on a career that would mirror that of his idol, Jim Otto, a Wausau native, that endured nearly 75 surgeries as a result of his Hall of Fame career as a center for the Oakland Raiders.
Both players were considered small for their positions and both fought through incredible pain during their iron-man careers.
His love for football was evident, whether it was his textbook blocking techniques or his feel for the game. Webster absorbed as much knowledge as he could.
"His football legacy would be that he played at the highest level possible," Pro Football Hall of Fame director Joe Horrigan said. "He overachieved in the sense that he was perceived by many when he began his career as someone who wouldn't make it and he took it upon himself to make it."
Many thought coaching would be in his future after he retired, including the Chiefs, who hired him as an assistant coach after being released by the Steelers following the 1988 season. His coaching stint didn't last very long as he chose to return to the field as the team's starting center for the next year and a half.
Even during the later years of his life, when his body and mind were deteriorating, Webster still maintained the knowledge of the game.
He could watch his son Garrett play during high school football games with caretaker and friend Sonny Jani, and even while it was a struggle to string consecutive thoughts together, Webster could watch a football game like it was in slow motion.
"He loved the game and he was so, so smart out there," Jani said. "Not just watching Garrett and knowing what play it was, we would watch the Wisconsin Badgers game and he knew exactly what was happening. It was so fascinating that this man was calling the game before it was happening."
Perhaps Webster hung on too long as a player, a sentiment expressed by some that knew him. Giving up not just a gift, but a gift that he loved was not an easy thing to do, particularly since being a football player was his dream.
Staying out of the spotlight
Mike Webster may arguably be the greatest center in NFL history, but he was never the center of attention, and he had no desire to be.
The 1970s Steelers had countless high-profile stars, but that's not the life the Webster family lived.
His career began as playing in the NFL was a full-time job for players, but he didn't want the glitz and glamour for himself, Pam and their four kids.
"We didn't have the so-called city lights and celebrity lifestyle," Pam Webster said. "I was at home with the kids and Mike played more securely. When he played, he felt a lot more confident that I was at home with the kids and they were safe, than if I would be dressed up in furs and going to the game. He liked that I stayed home and took care of the kids."
Evading the spotlight was not just a theme during his NFL career. It dated back to his days at Wisconsin and even earlier.
Webster, while being a notable prankster, was also described as a loner at times.
While living in a house with Makris, teammate Greg Apkarian and his two brothers during his time in Madison, it was not uncommon for him to disappear, only for him to return a few days later like nothing had happened.
"There'd be two or three days in a row we didn't see Mike and then he'd come back," Apkarian said. "Nobody asked him what he did or where he went to."
Even at his enshrinement at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, Webster attempted to escape the attention he was receiving.
According to former Rhinelander assistant coach Jeff Scandin, Webster avoided seeing him and Makris. Not because he was being rude, but he did not want them to see him in that state of mind.
That was a common occurrence during the latter stages of his life. At times he would avoid phone calls or visits so people couldn't see what he had become.
"He didn't want to be in the limelight. He just hated it," Scandin said. "He did not want to see us because he was in that dementia stage."
Some of his desire to go unnoticed could be attributed to his Midwestern values, as Pam likes to say.
It's hard to maintain a normal family life for many celebrities, but the Websters did.
Mike used his free Mondays to spend time with his kids. They would take walks, he would read to them or watch movies with them.
Beyond his family, it was hard to find someone that did not refer to his kindness. Even when he was homeless and struggling to survive, Webster would send an entire check from an appearance - albeit an insufficient amount quite often - to his wife and children.
The downward spiral
Pam Webster noticed changes in her husband during the last few years in Pittsburgh. It escalated in Kansas City and by time the 1991 season came to an end, it was obvious something had taken hold of him.
Con-artists took advantage of him, coercing him into business deals and eventually drained his bank account.
Pam was forced to separate and moved back to Lodi, eventually divorcing him, although not because of a lost love.
Webster was homeless. He lived in his pickup truck or was often seen sleeping at the bus station.
A running joke was the he was usually somewhere between Ohio and Wisconsin. He would frequently get lost while driving, a far distance from a man that had an impeccable sense of direction at what time.
"He knew something was wrong. He knew his brain wasn't working," Pam Webster said. "He said one time it was like tangled fishing wire. Living with him was crazy. It was unpredictable and not who he was at all. It was hard enough, adjusting from football to regular life without having a plan, but then you throw in the CTE and all the other things that come with that package, and it was really tough."
By 1993, he was broke and had no health insurance. The NFL originally refused to pay him disability, making it impossible to consistently get the treatment he desperately needed.
Former coaches, teammates and front office personnel with the Steelers helped here and there when they found out how his life had taken a turn.
Some thought he had a problem with drugs and needed to enter a rehabilitation facility. He didn't. He needed help getting jobs and insurance to medicate his problems.
Enter Jani, an Indian immigrant who owned a sports collectibles store in Pittsburgh.
Jani arrived after the Steelers had won two of their four Super Bowls in the 1970s. He did not view Mike Webster the same way most did, he did not see him as broken down ex-football star, instead he saw him as a broken down man that needed help.
Jani received a tip that Webster was sitting at the bus station and was filled in on how his life had crashed.
Jani put him into a Red Roof Inn and remained as his friend and caretaker for the rest of his life.
"My family was from India and we followed cricket or soccer so Mike was just Mike," Jani said. "He felt loved. He felt part of the family."
Jani formed, what they called 'The Team', which consisted of Webster's son, Colin. When he eventually joined the Marines, his son Garrett moved from Wisconsin to the Pittsburgh area to live with his father, becoming more father than son.
Jani began serving as Webster's business manager, along with making his doctor's appointments and simply being his best friend.
He was also instrumental in helping the Webster family fight the NFL, when so many assumed he was simply a drug addict.
After hiring the Fitzsimmons Law Firm, the group had Webster examined and determined that his issues were the result of concussions during his NFL career. The NFL claimed that he had not sustained these injuries within six months of his retirement, resulting in a lawsuit.
Jani's name appears on the court records as Jani v. NFL Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle Pension Fund, and were eventually awarded $2 million in the first such lawsuit the league had ever lost, but Webster passed away before the appeal process was completed in 2002.
The Legacy of 'Iron Mike'
Mike Webster's life seemed to be something out of a movie. He was small-town underdog, with a tough childhood that worked as hard as he could to be one of the greatest NFL players of all time and had a family to match.
If his life was a movie, it would fade to black and the credits would roll after his retirement.
Instead, it was Mike Webster that faded. His life unraveled and his mind began to diminish.
At the end, Webster was prescribed medicine for anxiety and depression, among others ailments. Once per month at the end, he would ask Jani or Garrett to zap him with a stun gun so he could sleep. He died of a heart attack at the age of 50.
Perhaps it's fair to postulate that CTE was not the sole cause of Webster's undoing, rather a perfect storm of problems that were amplified by concussions suffered during his playing career.
Apkarian believes his former roommate and groomsman suffered from bipolar disorder.
Jani believes that his symptoms would not have gotten out of hand if he had health insurance after his retirement so he could consistently get his medication.
Perhaps Webster could have retired sooner or sat out when he wasn't feeling right, but that wasn't how things operated in that era nor for Iron Mike.
The NFL certainly could have done more, and those close Webster believe the Steelers should have done more.
What is for certain, however, one of the NFL's toughest players was ravaged, as was his family.
The Webster family was torn apart, with four kids losing a father, and a wife losing her husband.
One might think that this case would have changed their outlook on the game of football.
Given the way things came to a crashing end, it would be fair to ask whether Webster would go back and do it all over again, knowing the outcome. The answer from everyone that participated in this article was a resounding yes.
"Mike was selfless, and maybe that had something to do with his upbringing," Pam Webster said. "He wasn't put on a pedestal, he worked on a potato field. Mike would do it all over again to better somebody else, he was that kind of guy. He was totally the guy you could depend on to do the job. If you couldn't do it, he'd do it for you, and he'd support you doing it. I think the unfortunate thing is the family that suffers long after their gone. My kids don't have a father figure and that's affected them in every way."
It would be easy for the Webster family to say, 'Why me?'
There likely has been some of that thinking, it's nearly impossible in such circumstances, but time has allowed Pam Webster to get to a better place.
She believes that her ex-husband was destined for this. She believes that his story was meant to help others avoid the same fate.
"I think it was a divine thing that all these people were brought together," Pam Webster said. "My faith in God is so strong, I truly believe this was all destined to be. When you look at Mike and who he was, why he was loved and what he did: he was the chosen one for this. If it was anyone else, it would have been years before CTE was a household word. I think Mike brought it to the forefront, because of his tenacity, how he was respected in the league by the players and how he was feared by management. He was one of a kind. You're not going to see another Mike Webster for a long time."
In 2014, 4,500 former NFL players were awarded $765 million from the NFL in a concussion lawsuit. Mike Webster was one of the players listed on the lawsuit. His win over the NFL in court a decade earlier paved the way for this one.
Mike Webster was not paid a penny for the lawsuit. Players that died prior to 2006 weren't eligible for payments unless the local statute of limitations permitted.
While Pam wishes she still had her husband, and her kids still wish they had their dad. She wishes money was not an issue for the past 25 years, but she still believe this was his destiny.
"The sad thing for me, and for my family, is that we miss him," Pam Webster said. 'For me, I've become a better person now than I was then. Boy, do I wish I could go back and change some things, but Mike was totally the one for this and there is a connection that runs through everybody in this."
The legacy of Mike Webster is not simple. He can't be defined just as a football player or just as someone who hit rock bottom or even just as the face of CTE. Perhaps it's a combination of all three.
Whatever his legacy is, it should not be as an angry man that is prone to outbursts or a drug addict, as some have claimed.
Mike Webster was a man that put his heart into his craft and paid the ultimate price for greatness.
Nick Sabato may be reached at nsabato@
rivernewsonline.com or via Twitter @SabatoNick.
Posted: Saturday, March 18, 2017
Article comment by:
What a great story of such an admirable guy and decent all American family. Many thanks to Pam for sharing. Thank you.
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