Mike Webster was one of the best centers in the ’70s and ’80s. In an era before players threw tantrums before being sent out of town, this Steeler was as no-nonsense and tough as they come. This should’ve been his most prominent, lasting legacy. Unfortunately, the health problems Webster experienced post-NFL came to define him.
While he may be an extreme example, elements of Webster’s troubling health issues are rather common for retired players. Here’s why we’ll never forget this Steeler legend’s impact on the football and medical communities.
Mike Webster’s NFL career
- Nine-time Pro Bowl selection
- Five-time All-Pro
- Four-time Super Bowl champion
- 1997 inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Webster spent 15 years with the Steelers and two more at the end of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs. He retired a Pittsburgh legend.
Webster’s tragic post-retirement life
Sadly, Webster’s life after the NFL took a turn for the worse due to deteriorating health conditions. In 2002, the 50-year-old died of a heart attack. Webster suffered the effects of severe brain trauma for years after he left the NFL. In 2003, Reader’s Digest detailed his physical and cognitive decline.
The Pittsburgh legend often forgot where he was or how to get home. His frequent mood swings frustrated his wife, who didn’t understand his condition, leading to his divorce. He also made bad investments that left his finances in disarray. The Steelers tried to help Webster. Ultimately, his health problems proved too much.
Webster often had trouble concentrating and holding down a conversation. Near the end of his life, he attempted to help his son with his football career by training him. Unfortunately, Webster’s health went from bad to worse near the end. As issues mounted, he had the heart attack that claimed his life.
Webster’s ultimate legacy
Webster’s story was prominently featured in the film Concussion, where Will Smith portrayed Dr. Bennet Omalu. In both reality and the movie, Omalu examined Webster’s brain and found troubling evidence that he’d suffered significant head trauma. Omalu reflected on his reaction to the findings for PBS’s Frontline:
“I saw changes that shouldn’t be in a 50-year-old man’s brains, and also changes that shouldn’t be in a brain that looked normal …
I saw abnormal proteins in his brain, so-called neurofibrillary tangles, threads. But I looked at several, you know, the topographic distribution. It was different from Alzheimer’s disease. Again, that complicated my disposition, my state of mind. So I took the slides home, said, “This is something I need to spend time with.”
Omalu may not have realized it at the time, but this was the beginning of a revolution: doctors, media, and even the NFL more closely examined the effects of football on people’s brains. The film drew a lot of attention not just to Webster’s life and health, but also to the greater cause of all retired NFL players.
Webster’s legacy goes beyond just that, however. According to his wife, Pam, he was an intelligent man ravaged by the sport he loved so much. “To see his brain declining years later was such a sad thing because he was incredibly smart, and what I’ve said — the boys have this gift that they see detail that no one else picks up on, and Mike had that gift.”
Fans will always remember Webster as a great Steeler as well as one of the athletes who started the NFL on the path to better player safety.