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Steelers Mike Webster at center of long line of excellence

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

By Bob Smizik, Post-Gazette Columnist

Traditions of excellence abound in the National Football League, but there's not likely one that can match the extraordinary line of three centers who played almost without interruption for the Steelers for the final 35 years of the 20th century.

Mike Webster's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997 offered him and Terry Bradshaw, right, a reason to hook up again. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

It's hard to believe there has been another position so well manned for so long by players who combined outstanding skill with extraordinary toughness.

The death yesterday of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster brought to mind the long line of excellence the Steelers have had at center.

Webster, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, was the middle man of the three. Ray Mansfield, the Old Ranger, started the streak in 1965 and didn't miss a game until he retired after the 1976 season. Dermontti Dawson assumed the job in 1989 after Webster retired to join the Kansas City Chiefs' coaching staff.

Mansfield was good; Webster, who came out of retirement to play two seasons with the Chiefs, and Dawson were great. The latter two combined for 16 Pro Bowl appearances and rank among the very best to play the position. When Dawson become eligible for the Hall of Fame, he'll almost certainly be elected in his first season.

Mansfield and Webster were teammates for three seasons and eventually shared the position with each playing about half the game. This arrangement gave Webster an opportunity to break in slowly. Dawson never had that chance. He was projected as a guard and started part of his rookie season in 1988 at that position. But when Webster retired, he was moved to center.

But that one year of playing beside Webster left its mark.

"The biggest thrill of my career was when I was in there playing beside him as a rookie," Dawson said over the phone yesterday. "He was a link to the Super Bowl teams. It was an honor to play with him.

"What I saw him do in his 15th season was a great learning experience for me. He never lost sight of the small things. He would write everything down in meetings. Although he had been in the league so long, he never forget what he had to do to stay sharp and strong."

It wasn't by accident that the Steelers had such outstanding centers.

"Everything we do starts with the center," said Tom Donahoe, when he was the Steelers' director of football operations. "The game has become so sophisticated and the role of the center has changed dramatically. [Dawson] has to make a lot of calls and a lot of adjustments. It's a very demanding position."

Chuck Noll, who coached all three men in his Hall of Fame career, said: "Center is very important. It's like baseball. You want to be strong down the middle -- center, quarterback, fullback. That's the beginning."

This 35-year era took root after the 1963 season when Steelers coach Buddy Parker purchased Mansfield from the Philadelphia Eagles for $100 -- making it one of the greatest bargains in Steelers history. The Steelers already had a competent center in Buzz Nutter, who had made the Pro Bowl the year before. But Nutter retired after the 1964 season, and the job belonged to Mansfield.

Mansfield played 182 games for the Steelers, a team record when he retired. Both Webster and Dawson are among those who passed him. Webster played 220 games, most by a Steeler, and Dawson 191.

All three were known for their toughness, but none was tougher than Webster, who made 178 of a possible 182 starts from 1977-88 and for six years in that span (1980-85) played every offensive down.

Webster was held in awe by teammates and opponents. No matter how serious the injury, his teammates knew he'd be on the field Sunday. Several times, he was all but ruled out of an upcoming game, only to show up in the locker room Sunday morning.

His streak ended when he missed the first four games of the 1986 season with a dislocated elbow. Not even Webby, as he was known to his teammates, could play through such an injury.

The player who replaced Webster for those four games is Dan Turk -- a great trivia answer.

Dawson carried on the tradition. He was a man who couldn't be driven from the lineup. He played the second half in Denver in 1991 with a badly sprained ankle that swelled to the size of a balloon. In 1996, he played with fractured ribs in Miami. He missed only two plays in 1998 after his elbow was hyperextended against Jacksonville.

A hamstring injury that simply wouldn't heal eventually drove him to retirement.

Although Mansfield didn't have the legendary durability of Webster and Dawson, his record speaks for itself. He never missed a game in his career from 1964-76. His streak of 168 consecutive games played is third best in team history, trailing -- of course, Webster at 177 and Dawson at 170.

Dawson might have been speaking for his two predecessors when he talked about his dedication.

"I'm paid to play. It doesn't matter what the score is or what's at stake. You never give up. It's a dogfight out there, and I have an obligation to my teammates. It's not a macho thing, I'm just not going to let my team down."

For more than three decades, Mansfield, Webster and Dawson gave the Steelers a dynasty of excellence at center that likely will never be equaled.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.

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