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Cook: Iron Mike was quite a warrior

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

How long has the Mike Webster portrait been hanging in Art Rooney Jr.'s office in the South Hills? Five years, maybe? Until yesterday, it had been just another pleasant reminder to Rooney Jr. of the greatest times of his life and the lives of so many others around here. But now, an hour or so after learning of Webster's sudden and premature death, Rooney Jr. studied every inch of the fabulous artwork. Quickly, it came to represent to him the greatest professional football team of all time.

There was Webster, dressed in black and gold, in his familiar, grass-stained No. 52 uniform. There were his cold, hard eyes inside his scratched, chipped helmet, windows to the soul of a man who always refused to accept less than his best. Maybe more than anything, there were his bulging biceps exposed in his sleeveless jersey, which was designed solely to prevent defensive linemen from grabbing him but made him seem so tough, especially on those bitter-cold December and January days.

"What a warrior he was," Rooney Jr. said.

"He reminds me of someone from the old Coliseum days. When those guys died, they carried them out of the arena on their shield. When he was done playing football, they should have carried him off the field."

Joe Greene had more fame, a Coke and a smile. Jack Lambert was more popular. Terry Bradshaw had more flair and still makes millions all these years later in broadcasting and public speaking. Jack Ham was a better player, the best of all the Super Steelers, actually. But no one symbolized the dynasty's strength and greatness quite like Iron Mike Webster.

There never was a player in this town who was more dependable or durable. Webster played in a Steelers record 220 games, including 177 in a row at one point.

There never was a better team captain or role model for his teammates. Webster's technique as an offensive lineman -- his ability to get leverage, to get up and under and deliver a rising blow -- was perfect, his work habits even better. We're not talking about a high draft choice. "I don't want to say he was a computer reject coming out of college, but he was awfully close," Rooney Jr. said.

The player who lasted until the fifth round of the 1974 NFL draft because scouts thought he was too small and too slow willed himself into a career that lasted 17 years, took him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and prompted what might have been the all-time most memorable line on the steps of the Canton, Ohio, shrine.

"What I would give right now to be able to put my hands under Mike Webster's butt just one more time!" Bradshaw screamed during his induction speech in 1989.

Webster was some warrior.

"I remember his first day at training camp his rookie year," said Rooney Jr., the Steelers' personnel chief at the time and an architect of their '70s dynasty. "Chuck Noll matched him against Lambert in the old Oklahoma drill. The first time, Webby knocked Lambert on his can. They did it again, and he knocked him down a second time. [Long-time Pittsburgh newspaper man] Phil Musick came over to me and said something to the effect of, 'Where did you find this stiff Lambert at?'

"Who could have known that day we were watching one Hall of Famer block another Hall of Famer?"

That's a better memory than the ones a lot of us have of Webster from late in what became a tortured life.

Webster never was the same after the Steelers forced him into a brief retirement after the 1988 season after a bitter contract dispute. It wasn't just that he took his value -- right or wrong -- from playing football. He had given everything he had to the organization for 15 seasons. How could it abandon him when he needed it the most? He felt betrayed until the end.

Webster came back to play two seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs, but he wasn't the same player. The Steelers had been right. He couldn't play at a high level anymore. One of sports' brutal truths is that everyone loses it eventually, even the legends.

By then, Webster also was dealing with serious financial problems. Some say he made bad investments, others that he was duped by conniving associates. There were marital problems. There was a period of homelessness during which he told ESPN he lived out of his car. Later, he lived in a room at the Red Roof Inn in Robinson. Worst of all, there were debilitating health problems.

Maybe all of it was from steroids, which were the rage in the NFL then. Webster always denied taking them, even though he exhibited some of the classic signs -- rapid weight gain, hair loss, acne and symptoms of congestive heart failure.

Or maybe it was the result of repetitive head trauma as he claimed during a painful 1999 news conference after he was arrested for obtaining drugs with forged prescriptions. At a time, we were amazed by his incredible durability play after play, game after game and season after season, he said he slowly was being beaten brain-dead.

Either way, Webster must have felt like half a man. Warriors aren't supposed to break down. Not like that.

Webster's induction into the Hall of Fame in 1997 provided a lift. It's amazing how much a guy can make in these memorabilia-crazed times by signing his name and putting HOF after it. But not even that could give him back his dignity. Certainly, it couldn't give him back his health.

That news conference in '99 had to be one of Webster's toughest days. As a player, he never had been comfortable in the media spotlight. Now, he was in the news for all the wrong reasons. With former teammates Mel Blount and Rocky Bleier seated by his side, he broke down when he apologized for embarrassing himself, his family and the great fans of Pittsburgh. He regrouped enough to make a point of stressing he wanted neither sympathy nor pity.

Webster began being seen at fewer and fewer of the Super Steelers' many reunions. His health always was the excuse, but he could have attended if he had wanted. Sadly, he chose to stay away.

It was a matter of pride. Most of Webster's teammates went on to highly successful, highly visible careers after football. Bradshaw. Greene. Ham. Blount. Bleier. Andy Russell. Franco Harris. Mike Wagner. L.C. Greenwood. The list goes on and on. He couldn't stand for them or for us to see him as he was, something much less than an invincible warrior. That same pride is why he turned down repeated offers of help, not just from teammates who admired and even idolized him -- Tunch Ilkin, Craig Wolfley, etc. -- but from the Rooneys, who were, in his mind, the cause of his bitterness. He frequently wouldn't even return the calls.

Until the end, Webster was convinced he could make it on his own, just as he had in football.

What a sad, lonely death his must have been.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.

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