Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center who helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls and whose life spiraled into drug use and homelessness after he retired, died Tuesday at age 50.
Webster died in the coronary care unit at Allegheny General Hospital, but the hospital did not announce a cause of death.
Webster was widely considered one of the game’s greatest centers and he was voted in 2000 to the All-Time NFL Team. During his career from 1974-90, he made the Pro Bowl nine times and won the four Super Bowls in his first six seasons.
When he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, he was separated from his wife and children. There also were reports he was heavily in debt, living in his car at times and was suffering from depression and memory loss.
Recently, Webster was living in suburban Pittsburgh with his son, Garrett, a senior lineman in high school.
Webster often went entire seasons without missing an offensive play, anchoring a Steelers line that paved the way for Franco Harris’ numerous 1,000-yard seasons and protected Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
He left the Steelers after the 1988 season, and played his final two years with the Kansas City Chiefs.
"Mike’s toughness and unswerving dedication to excellence, often hidden by his quiet demeanor, inspired all who knew him," said John Bankert, executive director of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Webster was diagnosed in 1999 as having brain damage caused by repeated head injuries during his career. His doctors said several concussions damaged his frontal lobe, causing cognitive dysfunction. The progressively worsening injury caused him to behave erratically, and Webster briefly was homeless, sleeping in bus stations several times when he could not find somewhere to stay.
He was placed on five years probation in September 1999 in Beaver County after pleading no contest to forging prescriptions to obtain Ritalin, a drug commonly used to treat children with hyperactivity.
Doctors said Webster’s injuries were similar to those suffered by boxers – one said he was essentially "punch drunk" – and affected his attention span, concentration and focus. They said the condition could not be cured and an operation would not improve his brain functions.
In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week, Garrett Webster said his father sometimes couldn’t get off the couch in the morning because he "feels so terrible."
"My dad has some health problems no one knows about and that I don’t want to get into that much," the son said. "But he has some brain injuries from football. I have to take care of my dad."
Webster was born March 18, 1952, in Tomahawk, Wis., and went to the University of Wisconsin. As an undersized 225-pound center, he was taken by the Steelers in the fifth round of the 1974 draft, part of the best draft class in NFL history.
The Steelers drafted four future Hall of Famers in the first five rounds: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Webster, and they went on to win the Super Bowl that season.
Webster initially split time with veteran Ray Mansfield, but in the final game of the 1975 season he began a string of 150 consecutive starts that lasted until he missed the final four games in 1986 with a dislocated elbow.
A strong, punishing blocker and tireless worker whose ability to pull and trap meshed perfectly with Steelers coach Chuck Noll’s running schemes, Webster was widely considered the strongest Steelers player. He won an NFL Ironman competition in 1980, after building his playing weight to 255 pounds.
Former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier said that Bradshaw, during the time he called his own plays, often allowed Webster to make play calls in short-yardage situations.
"He was very smart, a great technician," Noll said. "From the get-go, there was no question about his ability."
Webster, a perennial All-Pro choice, was approached by several teams about becoming an assistant coach after his playing career ended in 1990 with the Chiefs. But his health and personal problems would soon begin.
"Webby was the best ever," said Bradshaw, who presented Webster during his Hall of Fame induction.
Copyright © 2002 The Associated Press