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Steelers Mike Webster's death triggers many fond memories

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw called his own plays in the 1970s, but it was center Mike Webster who called the audibles.

Few knew how much Terry Bradshaw relied on Webster at the line of scrimmage, and for more than just his safety. (Associated Press)

Long before they placed a speaker in the helmet so coaches could talk directly to their quarterbacks, Webster was Bradshaw's voice.

"I'm not ashamed to say this," Bradshaw said yesterday from his home in Dallas. "When we came up to the line of scrimmage, how many times did Webby go, 'No, Brad, no!' Meaning, 'Get out, this won't work.'

"I'm not kidding. 'No, no, no.' Blitzes and all. He would call all the Ls and Rs, lefts and rights. Chuck [Noll] really put a real big responsibility on him. I didn't have to fool with all that stuff.

"I'd say, 'Mike what do we want to do here?'"

Webster's death yesterday at age 50 after a heart attack left Bradshaw and many of his teammates saddened, yet they eagerly spun stories about the Hall of Famer they knew as Iron Mike, a tough and durable center who played more games than anyone else in Steelers history.

Bradshaw, who rarely gives interviews to Pittsburgh writers, gladly came to the phone to talk about the man he presented for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.

"He was just so darn good," Bradshaw said. "He was fast -- snap and boom, gone. It was hard to take his snap. I had to really ride him and put a lot of pressure on him. His butt was so low to the ground, especially when he had someone over his head, he had a tendency to really got down low. Well, the lower he got the lower I got. I told everyone no wonder I couldn't read defenses, I was so low I was butting eyeballs.

"I talked to him probably a year and a half ago. He seemed great, really happy about what he was doing. I checked on him. I called and he called me back. He seemed fine. All he wanted to do was talk about the kids. Then, he made fun of me, which he was always good at doing. I'd hear from him occasionally. I'd always get a little nervous because he has not been in good health. Every time I'd ask him, 'Are you OK?'

'Oh, yeah, fine, Brad.'

'Anything I can do?'

'No no no no. You take care of those kids, you take care of those kids.'"

Webster always had their backs, whether it was the future Hall of Fame quarterback or the new field manager. Rodgers Freyvogel was hired in the summer of 1980 to replace Jack Hart, who quit after a dispute with some players. That's when Freyvogel met Iron Mike.

"He said, come here, I want to tell you something," said Freyvogel, now the equipment manager. "If any of these ballplayers screw with you, you come to me because they're not going to do to you what they did to the last guy. He got up in front of all the players and said that new guy, don't screw with him like you did the other guy. He told everybody, and there's not one guy who did."

Running back Merril Hoge, drafted in 1987, played two seasons with Webster but quickly grasped his reputation. He was his roommate his rookie season, and the Steelers' final exhibition game was on a Saturday night in New York. The players were allowed to sleep in Saturday morning at their hotel near Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Not Hoge.

"My man was up at 5 a.m.," Hoge recalled of Webster. "He flipped the curtains open, looked out the window and said, 'Now, this is a cesspool.' He turned to me and said, 'What do you want for breakfast?'

"I said, 'I'd like about three more hours if you don't mind.'

"He flipped on the TV, ate breakfast and said, 'I'm going to work out.' There was no day off, no hour off, no minute off, no second off for that man. He just formulated habits. That was nothing different for Mike Webster than the average American getting up and having a cup of coffee. It's part of what he was and what he had to do to be great."

The Steelers were not so great in the two years Hoge played with Webster. They were 8-7 and missed the playoffs in 1987, a strike year. They were 5-11 in 1988, their worst season since Noll's first in 1969. Webster, though, did nothing differently.

"In my opinion, Webby was an extension of Chuck Noll," Hoge said. "He was our Jack Lambert on the offensive side. You wouldn't know if you lost or won with him. It didn't affect him in the sense of how he prepared and how he put it in perspective. That doesn't mean he didn't like losing. But he was great at putting it in perspective."

Tackle Larry Brown played in the same line with Webster in the 1970s and said no one could keep up with him.

"I never saw anyone work as hard as Mike. He was so dedicated and serious at what he was doing. He was totally involved. He would outwork anybody I know that I've ever been around."

Tunch Ilkin came to the Steelers in 1980 and served as the backup center to Webster in his early years. That job was like the Maytag Repairman. Ilkin never played until he moved to tackle.

"The toughness he had, the fact he would play hurt. He was a standard," Ilkin said. "We'd get dinged up and we'd go, 'Well, Webby would play.' Even after he was gone. He missed four games with a dislocated elbow and the next year I dislocated mine and I said, 'How many games did Webby miss?' He was just so competitive, so tough, we all wanted to emulate him."

Webster had to deal with rumors of steroids use and, after his retirement, stories about his decline physically and mentally. Ilkin, though, remembers the Webster who was chairman of Spina Bifida in Western Pennsylvania and how he helped kids.

"He was so willing to give himself in the community and to give of himself to his teammates," Ilkin said.

He even inspired some newer Steelers who never played with him. Tight end Mark Bruener joined the team in 1995 and first met Webster five years ago.

"He really touched me," Bruener said. "He was a special man. For some reason, I asked for an autograph, and he signed a picture to me. I have three in my trophy case -- Muhammad Ali, Dan Marino and Mike Webster. I'll always remember what he wrote: 'Mark, you are special, Mike Webster.' I look at it all the time. I'm very sad to see him go. It's sad he wasn't able to live life to its fullest."

He did on the football field. When Bradshaw was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he said in his speech, "What I wouldn't give to put my hands under Mike Webster's butt one more time!"

Yesterday, Bradshaw said, "Now when I tell you one more time I'd like to put my hands under his butt I would. Now, I'll have to wait until heaven."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.

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