Michael Lewis "Iron Mike" Webster (March 18, 1952 – September 24, 2002) was an American football player who played center in the National Football League from 1974 to 1990 with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Iron Mike" anchored the Steelers' offensive line during much of their run of four Super Bowl victories from 1974 to 1979 and is considered by some as the best center in NFL history.
Mike Webster was regarded as the best center in the Big Ten during most of his career at the University of Wisconsin. At 6-foot-1, 255 pounds, he was drafted in the 5th round of the 1974 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Serving as a backup at center and guard for two years and being mentored by veteran Ray Mansfield, Mike became the team's starting center in 1976, where he would remain for 150 straight games until 1986. These years included four Super Bowl wins by the Steelers, and Mike and Terry Bradshaw are consequently one of the most well-known center-quarterback pairs in history. Webster was honored as an All-Pro seven times and played in the Pro Bowl nine times. An avid weightlifter, Webster was known for playing with bare arms to intimidate his opponents on even the coldest of Pittsburgh winter afternoons. Webster is also perhaps the best-known of a long line of All-Pro centers for the Steelers. From 1964 to 2006, just four men started at that position: Mansfield, Webster, Dermontti Dawson, and Jeff Hartings. In his last year in Pittsburgh, Webster returned the favor by mentoring the then-rookie Dawson in the same manner Mansfield mentored Webster earlier in his career.
Retirement and legacy
Webster was a free agent after the 1988 season. He was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs, who initially made him an offensive line coach before allowing him to return as the starting center. His career ended after the 1990 season, with a total of 245 games played at center. At the time of his retirement, he was the last active player in the NFL to have played on all four Super Bowl winning teams of the 1970s Steelers. He played more seasons as a Steeler than anyone in franchise history (15 seasons), one season ahead of Hines Ward.
While the Steelers no longer officially retire jerseys, Webster's #52 has not been reissued by the team since he retired and it is generally understood that no Steeler will wear that number again. In 1999, he was ranked number 75 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. The football stadium at Rhinelander High School, his alma mater, is named Mike Webster Stadium in his honor. Webster was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007.
Webster was proven to have been disabled before retiring from the NFL. After retirement, Webster suffered from amnesia, dementia, depression, and acute bone and muscle pain. He lived out of his pickup truck or in train stations between Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, even though his friends and former teammates were willing to rent apartments for him. In his last years Webster lived with his youngest son, Garrett, who though only a teenager at the time, had to act as the parent to his father. Webster's wife divorced him six months before his death in 2002. He was only 50 years old.
Webster is seen as an example of the difficulties American football players suffer when their careers are over. Other players who retired because of the effects of concussion or other head injuries include Johnny Unitas, Roger Staubach, Merril Hoge, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Dave Pear, Wayne Chrebet, and Al Toon.
Webster was cremated. His ashes were divided among his wife and their four children.
After death, Mike Webster was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist, examined tissue from Webster and eight other NFL players and determined they all showed the kind of brain damage previously seen in people with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, as well as in some retired boxers. Omalu's findings were largely ignored by the NFL until Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry was diagnosed with CTE shortly after his death in 2009. It has been speculated that Webster's ailments were due to wear and tear sustained over his playing career; some doctors estimated he had been in the equivalent of "25,000 automobile crashes" in over 25 years of playing football at the high school, college and professional levels.
Nicknamed "Iron Mike", Webster's reputation for durability led him to play even though injured. Despite rumors, Webster never admitted to using anabolic steroids at points during his career. He did state, however, that if he did take steroids, "they were legal at the time".
Webster's estate brought a lawsuit in Maryland's U.S. District Court against the National Football League. The estate contended that Webster was disabled at the time of his retirement, and was owed $1.142 million in disability payments under the NFL's retirement plan. On April 26, 2005, a federal judge ruled that the NFL benefits plan owed Webster's estate $1.18 million in benefits. With the addition of interest and fees, that amount was estimated to exceed $1.60 million. The NFL appealed the ruling. On December 13, 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia affirmed the Baltimore federal judge's 2005 ruling that the league's retirement plan must pay benefits reserved for players whose disabilities began while they were still playing football.