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Steelers Mike Webster's abridged dictionary started and ended with same word

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The people who coached Mike Webster kept coming back to one thing yesterday: his work ethic. From his habits in the weight room to the practice field to the classroom, his Steelers coaches said he was without peer when it came to preparation.

Webster would work out at home before practice, get another workout in at practice and work out again when he got home. (Associated Press)

"It came from inside him," fellow Hall of Famer Chuck Noll said of Webster, who died yesterday at Allegheny General Hospital. "He was self-motivated. He wanted to do it very badly. And he was willing to pay the price."

This center played for Noll and the Steelers from 1974-88, at one point setting a team record by playing in 177 consecutive games. He was enshrined in Canton, Ohio, in 1997, after that famed presenter speech in which Terry Bradshaw made him hunker down for one last snap together.

"He was the best," said Ron Blackledge, among Webster's coaches from 1982-88. "When you define hard work, Mike was it. He always wanted to be a perfectionist. Every day after practice he would take another 40 or 50 snaps. No matter how cold it was, he would say, 'Now remember, Ron, we have to work after practice.'

"I would try and get away from him sometimes, but he would have to take another 50 snaps and hit into the sled. He just worked so hard. He wanted to win so bad."

Hal Hunter, now a pro scout with the Carolina Panthers, coached Webster from 1985-88. When other players would recuperate on Tuesdays, an off day for many NFL teams, Webster would perform a grueling workout in the upper deck of Three Rivers Stadium.

"He would run the upper deck," Hunter said. "There were 24 rows up there, and he would do it Tuesdays and Thursdays. He would do it Thursdays after practice. I decided I would try it one day. I did six rows and I thought I was going to have a heart attack. He did that so he wouldn't get out of shape."

Webster needed a strong work ethic because he was not a great athlete or the standard NFL-sized offensive lineman coming out of the University of Wisconsin. Rosters and newspaper articles from the time might have listed Webster at 240 pounds as a senior at Wisconsin, but former Steelers assistant Dan Radakovich, who coached Webster in his first four NFL seasons, said he weighed 220 pounds as a rookie.

"He weighed 245 by his third year," Radakovich said. "He was strong in the legs and tougher than nails. He was a high-energy guy. He made the Steelers famous with his hustle. He was the perfect offensive lineman."

Noll remembered watching the Wisconsin kid at the East-West Shrine game, manhandling a UCLA defensive lineman who stood 6 foot 6, 285 pounds. The Steelers' coach came away thinking he didn't care how small the center was. The guy was, in Noll's words, a good football player.

The Steelers all marveled at his toughness. In a game against the New York Jets at the Meadowlands, Webster's elbow was dislocated, and he had to pull himself out of the game.

"I can still remember when he came out," Blackledge said. "He said, 'You guys better get someone else in there.' The sight of his elbow almost made me sick, and all he was worried about was who we were going to put in there to replace him."

"He was told he was going to be out three or four weeks," Hunter recalled. "I come in on Wednesday, and he's doing the bench press with 45-pound plates on each side. I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'Oh, I'm just working with light weights.' I think he ended up missing one game."

Webster also set himself apart in his mental preparation.

"He was a student of the game," Blackledge said. "We used to talk about the strength of the other team's personnel, how we would try and play against another player. Webby used to write almost a thesis, and he would keep it for the next time he faced a player. Mike would write it out in such detail.

"Instead of writing a paragraph, he would write two or three pages on their strengths and weaknesses on how he would counteract their movements. He prepared himself."

Webster often is mentioned as one of the greatest centers to play the game, along with Dwight Stephenson of the Miami Dolphins and Dermontti Dawson of the Steelers. Blackledge coached Webster and Dawson and another great center, Kirk Lowdermilk, when he was with Indianapolis.

"Webby would do it on brute force," Blackledge said. "You couldn't get away from him. He was a technician and he knew he had to be. He was textbook. Mike relied on his ability to think. He would have made an excellent coach."

Hunter coached four All-Pro centers in a long career as an offensive line coach: Webster, Dawson, Ray Donaldson and Mike Baab.

"He was by far the best," Hunter said. "He was a person with unbelievable work habits. He was a coach on the field. In 1986 or 1987, we were going to play Kansas City, and they had been playing a 3-4 defense. They had a linebacker who was questionable that week, and they didn't like their backup people, so they switched to a 4-3 for the game.

"Using hand signals, Mike was on the field telling people what to do. We didn't have a busted play that game. He carried Terry Long and the rest of the guys that game. He was their mentor."

Noll saw Webster occasionally at Hall of Fame and Steelers function, such as the taping of a television show in late July at Heinz Field. Blackledge and Hunter maintained relationships with Webster after his playing career ended. Both knew of his recent health problems, but they were surprised by his death.

"I ran into him two months ago at the [Pittsburgh International Airport]," Hunter said. "He looked so good. We talked for 45 minutes over coffee. Not one time did he wander off the conversation. I saw nothing wrong with him at all.

"We were discussing how players coming into the NFL now aren't ready to play because they don't understand the looks. He was talking about getting together with a couple of other guys and doing a camp for guys coming out on how to understand the NFL. They do it for 40-yard dash times. He wanted to teach them things mentally. He was completely coherent. It was just like the old Mike, the old Webby."

Despite his recent problems, Webster always made an effort to remember old friends.

Radakovich last saw him two years ago. His son, Garrett, was doing a project at Robert Morris, and Webster bumped into Radakovich. After a short talk, Webster went to his car and brought back a signed football that read: "To Coach Bad Rad: You are a great coach, a champion. You made men out of boys and champions out of men. Your friend, Mike Webster."

Noll said: "Mike was fulfilled on a football field. I think he had difficulty when football was over. Which is a shame.

"People should remember him as a champion, because I think he was."

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.

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