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Mike Webster, Steelers Hall of Fame center, dies at 50

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The news of Mike Webster's death hit Terry Bradshaw yesterday like one of his snaps -- hard and fast.

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The Hall of Fame quarterback, who presented Mr. Webster on the steps of Canton for the induction of the Steelers' center in 1997, last talked to his former teammate more than a year ago.

"You knew he had problems," Bradshaw said from his Dallas home. "Dying was not something I had in mind."

Mr. Webster, 50, whose toughness earned him the nickname "Iron Mike," died early yesterday morning in Allegheny General Hospital after a heart attack. His son, Garrett, said his father woke up Sunday morning feeling ill and felt sick off and on all day. He was taken to Sewickley Valley Hospital Sunday night, then transferred to AGH, where doctors told his son he had suffered a heart attack. He died after surgery.

"Basically, from what I was told by the doctors, half of his heart was dead," Garrett said. "He went quietly. It was like he just went to sleep."

Although Mr. Webster's health had deteriorated in recent years, his son said the former NFL star had had no previous heart problems. He was diagnosed with brain damage in 1999 from what doctors said were too many hits to the head playing football. Mr. Webster, separated from his family and homeless for a time after his retirement from football, also was put on probation in 1999 after he pleaded no contest to forging prescriptions for the drug Ritalin.

"It's not the natural order," said Chuck Noll, Webster's Hall of Fame coach with the Steelers. "It's like losing a son or daughter. It's not supposed to be that way."

"He was a great person and friend," said Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. "Unfortunately, he had some turmoil and misfortune after his football career. He is now at peace."

Mr. Webster, born March 18, 1952, in Tomahawk, Wis., earned four Super Bowl rings and played in nine Pro Bowls during a 17-year career and was voted to the NFL's all-time team in 2000. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, his second year of eligibility. He played in more games, 220, than any other player in Steelers history.

"Mike was a symbol for our team," said Hall of Fame defensive tackle Joe Greene. "When you saw that Pittsburgh offense, he was the first one you saw running up to the line, fists pumping. They knew what they had to deal with right off with Mike."

The Steelers drafted him on the fifth round in 1974, one of four future Hall of Famers in that class, the most by any team in NFL history. At 6 feet 2, he came out of the University of Wisconsin weighing 225 pounds and eventually grew to 260, anchoring an undersized offensive line that paved the way for Harris and provided the protection for Bradshaw and his two Hall of Fame receivers, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

"He helped Terry Bradshaw very much," said Dan Rooney, also a Hall of Fame member. "Mike knew every player's position on both teams. He would talk to Terry after a play and say where the line splits were and where the defense was and what running plays would work particularly well."

Mr. Webster's devotion to the game and his training routine were legendary. He split time at center with Ray Mansfield his first two seasons. He started the final game of 1975, the first of a string of 150 consecutive starts. It ended in 1986, when he missed the first four games of the season with a dislocated elbow injured in the preseason. They were the only games he missed in his first 16 seasons. He played in a team-record 15 seasons with the Steelers, retired to accept a coaching job with the Kansas City Chiefs, then unretired six weeks later to become the Chiefs' starting center in 1989. He played one more season before retiring for good.

Mr. Webster not only played most games, he played most snaps, even in practice. He ran out of the tunnel into Three Rivers Stadium without ever wearing a long-sleeve shirt, displaying his bare muscular arms in his short-sleeve No. 52 Steelers jersey.

"He would come in two hours before we had to be here and start lifting weights," said former Steelers tackle Tunch Ilkin, one of his closer friends from their playing days. "He'd come back form his seventh Pro Bowl in a row and he'd be running the steps at Three Rivers Stadium the first week back. His focus, his toughness. They said he didn't miss a game in 10 years; I don't think he missed a play in 10 years."

Said former tackle Larry Brown: "I don't know when he didn't run those steps. Mike was just driven. You would just think, well that's enough work, and Mike would still find time to go beyond that. It was extraordinary. Anybody who played with him had to look at him in admiration and for inspiration."

Mr. Webster served as a Steelers captain for nine years.

"Mike was very much a leader by example," Noll said. "We had guys who were all mouth. Mike didn't say much, but what he did resonated ... loudly."

Greene already had established his own reputation as a team leader when the undersized Mr. Webster arrived as a rookie in 1974.

"Mike was a little guy with a big heart," said Greene, defensive line coach with the Arizona Cardinals. "He was always smart and quick, then he got strong. Ernie [Holmes] and I used to beat up on him in practice pretty good for the first couple years, then we couldn't do it anymore."

His dedication to playing, however, irked some teammates when he became the Steelers' first union member to break ranks and join a patchwork group of replacement players for three strike games in 1987. He announced his retirement for the first time after that season after a dispute with the team over not paying him for the one game that was canceled by the strike. He unretired two days later and played one more season for the Steelers, 1988, before joining the Chiefs..

The Steelers did not protect him in 1989 under the old Plan B free agency, and he retired and joined the Chiefs. as an assistant coach. They technically signed him as a free agent when they agreed with him that he could help them more by playing than coaching.

The Chiefs made him an assistant strength and conditioning coach after his third and final retirement, and he lived in an area of the Chiefs' equipment room. Mr. Webster, though, drifted away from his job as he found life after football difficult both emotionally and physically. He lived the past few years in Moon with his son, Garrett, a senior at Moon High School.

Kansas City President Carl Peterson stayed friendly with Mr. Webster and quietly helped him financially. Peterson remembers Mr. Webster fondly as someone who came into a young team and showed them what a winner looked like.

"Mike always had time and concern for everyone else's problems, but never one of his own," Peterson said. "I think his legacy was and always will be that he's truly a team player."

Mr. Webster's post-football decline into drug use and homelessness saddened those who knew him, especially his former teammates.

Many tried to reach out and help, but Mr. Webster turned them away. Mr. Webster was supposed to be one of the honorary co-captains when the Steelers opened Heinz Field last season, but he failed to show for the game. Mr. Webster attended the Steelers Steelers' reunion for their Hall of Famers at Heinz Field in last July, but he declined to participate in the taping of it for television, preferring to stay out of the public eye.

Former tackle Jon Kolb described Mr. Webster's death as "shocking, but not surprising."

"We don't live forever, but some people you just kind of think are strong and will live forever, at least longer than you. He didn't miss games, didn't miss practices.

"You get used to that kind of stuff, and then the reality sets in. Steve Courson had a birthday party for him about five yars years ago. Things seemed like on the upswing for him, but it was only temporary."

Kolb, Ilkin, Brown, Bradshaw and most of his teammates prefer to remember Mr. Webster as the Iron Mike they knew they could always count counted on being to be there.

"I remember seeing that on the banners in the stadium," Kolb said. "He had those huge arms. He'd play through injuries, and you'd see the highlight film and there would be Mike running with his lips fluttering, his motor always running."

The motor stopped at 12:44 a.m. Monday.

Mr. Webster is survived by two sons, Garrett, 17, and Colin, 23, a corporal in the U.S. Marines stationed at Camp LeJeune, N.C., and two daughters Brooke, 25, and Hillary Webster, 15, of Madison, Wis.

Visitation will be tomorrow from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 4:30-8:30 p.m. at Somma Funeral Home, 5405 Steubenville Pike, Robinson. A funeral service will be there at 10 a.m. Friday.

Donations can be made to the Webster Children's Fund, c/o Parkvale Savings, 1789 Pine Hollow Rd., McKees Rocks, 15136.

Post-Gazette sports writers Mike White and Chuck Finder contributed to this obituary.

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

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