Any Pittsburgh Steeler fan over the age of 36 could tell you about Mike Webster. He was our All-Pro center who, alongside Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene and so many notorious others, carried the team to four Super Bowl wins in the 1970s. Mike was bigger than Mean Joe but known for a heart of gold.
Pittsburgh heard the news a little before it went national in 2002.
Webster died at the young age of 50 after a few years of suddenly erratic behavior occasionally reported upon in local papers. His life had unraveled inexplicably, not due to drugs or alcohol but some strange other force. He seemed sidelined by debilitating depression, disjointed thinking in public, and bouts of anger previously foreign to his easy nature off the field.
There were murmurings but nothing made fully public until after Webster’s death. The diagnosis was a first for the National Football League (NFL), but one that slowly made its way into the banner headlines of the game over the next decade: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Indeed, the diagnosis was becoming intrinsically connected to America’s most popular sport. Doctors surmised that what happened to Webster’s brain happened because of the hits he took to the head as a football player. Now such hits, even at the junior and high school level of playing all across our country, are being critically examined and debated, and the NFL is scrambling to defend itself against unprecedented legal action by former players and their families.
Webster’s family felt like he had been disappearing before their eyes. And the city of Pittsburgh sighed and seemed to collectively look away upon hearing of his confused state and eventual death — saddened and ashamed that a sports hero and gentle man could be so reduced by ill mental health.
But no one forgot Mike Webster as a Steeler, a man who had to compete against mental illness or this brain disease.
At the Brain Injury Research Institute in Pittsburgh, Webster’s son Garrett approaches families about brain donations. With in-depth study, more is being learned about just how debilitating continual hits to the head are to athletes and soldiers. Such work seems to have had an effect over the 10 years since Webster made an even bigger impact off the field.
David Duerson and Ray Easterling were two NFL players also likely suffering from brain injury. They committed suicide in ensuing years after after Webster’s bout with brain disease, and both left notes to donate their brains for research. They and their families and, it seems, society had begun to see all the hits more clearly.
The NFL currently is fighting a lawsuit led by former players or their families. It doesn’t matter if either the league or the players knew the dangers. Generous compensation for hits to the head resulting in disability or death is called for.