Not only was Mike Webster at the forefront of the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ legendary dynasty in the mid-to-late 1970s, but many pundits also consider him one of the greatest centers in NFL history.
Webster, a late bloomer who didn’t play organized football until his junior year in high school, emerged as an All-Big Ten center with the Wisconsin Badgers during his college days.
Webster then broke into the pro football ranks as an undersized center. He put in the work, played 150 consecutive games in the trenches, and became a nine-time Pro Bowl center during his illustrious 17-year NFL career.
With Mike Webster snapping the pigskin to quarterback Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers won an incredible four Super Bowl titles from 1974 to 1979.
Little wonder the man known as “Iron Mike” has a gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH.
Michael Lewis “Mike” Webster was born in Tomahawk, WI on March 18, 1952. He was the second of six kids in their brood.
Webster grew up on a 640-acre potato farm in Harshaw, WI. He idolized fullback Jim Taylor and the Green Bay Packers when he was a child, per The Associated Press (via ESPN).
Webster’s future wife Pamela told FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore (via PBS.org) in the spring of 2013 that Mike, who came from a broken family, had a difficult upbringing in rural Wisconsin.
Webster’s parents, who he claimed were both alcoholics, divorced when he was just 10 years old in 1962. It grew worse for young Mike from there. A fire destroyed his family’s house just a year later. His younger sibling, Joseph, spent twelve years in jail for a sex crime, per ESPN’s Greg Garber.
Webster found refuge in sports. He competed in wrestling, discus, and track during his formative years in the Badger State. According to Pamela Webster, Mike earned several accolades in wrestling in high school. Unfortunately, he also damaged one of his ears after banging it on the wrestling mat countless times.
— Chad Franzen WSAW (@Chad_WSAW) February 15, 2020
Webster’s responsibilities at the family farm gave him a late start on the gridiron. He didn’t play organized football until his junior season at Rhinelander High School.
Rhinelander Hodags head football coach Dave Lechnir had to drive Webster home after football practice, so the latter could do his chores on time.
Despite being a late bloomer, Mike Webster learned the rudiments of playing in the offensive line fairly quickly. He remained in-state and committed to the Wisconsin Badgers as a senior in 1969.
College Days with the Wisconsin Badgers
Mike Webster attended the University of Wisconsin from 1970 to 1973. He played for Wisconsin Badgers head football coach John Jardine.
Webster rose through the college football ranks during his four-year tenure in Madison, WI. He earned Second-Team All-Big Ten Honors as a junior in 1972 and First-Team All-Big Ten Honors as a senior in 1973.
He also became just the second center in Wisconsin’s football program history after Dick Teteak to earn team MVP honors, per the Badgers’ official athletics website.
The Badgers averaged four wins per year from 1970 to 1973 and extended their bowl drought to eleven years.
Despite Wisconsin’s sub-par performance, Webster earned valuable consolation off the gridiron. He met his future wife Pamela on a blind date during his college days at Madison, WI, per ESPN.
Bigger things loomed on the horizon for Mike Webster, who served as the Badgers’ team captain as a senior in 1973.
— History of College Football (@HistColFootball) March 18, 2022
Chuck Noll, the man who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to an unprecedented four Super Bowl titles in six seasons from 1974 to 1979, already had his radar on Webster during his college days in Madison, WI.
Noll told the Steelers’ official website that Webster caught his eye when he was watching a game film featuring the Wisconsin Badgers against the UCLA Bruins.
The Bruins had some of the biggest defensive tackles in college football in the early 1970s. However, that didn’t faze Webster, who annihilated them in running plays and pass protection. With Webster in tow, the Badgers successfully moved the sticks against the Bruins.
To nobody’s surprise, Noll made Webster an integral part of a 1970s Steelers dynasty that set the bar high for years to come.
Pro Football Career
The Pittsburgh Steelers made Mike Webster the 125th overall selection of the 1974 NFL Draft. According to ESPN, some teams thought the 225-lb. Webster was too undersized for an NFL offensive lineman, so they passed up on him.
It was a grave mistake. Webster proved his naysayers wrong throughout his legendary 17-year pro football career.
The Steelers’ 1974 draft was arguably the best in the franchise’s 90-year NFL history. Aside from Webster, Pittsburgh selected wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, linebacker Jack Lambert, and safety Donnie Shell. All five men are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
Not only that, but the Steelers became the team of the 1970s. They won four Super Bowl titles over the next six seasons during the Chuck Noll era. It was an accomplishment that set the standard for excellence in pro football for the next four decades.
Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who acted as Webster’s presenter in his 1997 induction ceremony, discovered his arms were actually bigger than Webster’s the first time he met him. That was the only time Bradshaw remembered having bigger guns than a center.
However, that all changed as Webster gained more experience on the football field. He put in the work in the weight room, added 30 pounds of muscle mass, and flaunted his biceps that bulged out of his short sleeves in freezing field conditions over the years.
Webster’s wife Pam told Gilmore in 2013 that his favorite games were the ones played in the snow because he could go to battle and work in the trenches wearing short-sleeve uniforms. He did that so opposing pass rushers couldn’t hold him.
Bradshaw sang Webster’s praises from the moment he met the rookie offensive lineman in 1974. Webster could crouch down low and dodge a nose tackle with ease.
Webster also gave the Steelers a unique advantage. They didn’t have to resort to double teams because his hand speed, strength, and agility could hold off the best pass rushers in the game.
“He was the total package,” Bradshaw said as he presented Webster in the summer of 1997. “Nothing has ever compared to Mike Webster.”
Steelers head coach Chuck Noll also marveled at Webster’s strength and quickness. Although he wasn’t the biggest and most imposing offensive lineman in the league, he made up for it with those intangibles.
Webster’s wife Pam felt he was a natural center because he played low to the ground. Unfortunately, he paid a hefty price for it. His head took many poundings during his 17-year pro football career.
Nonetheless, Mike Webster hardly complained about his injuries when he played for the Steelers. He took things in stride and played to the best of his abilities.
“He wasn’t a complainer,” Pam Webster told FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore (via PBS.org) in April 2013. “But you could see the headaches, the body aches, the toll it took on him. But he was not going to miss a game.”
Webster shared center duties with veteran Ray Mansfield and saw some time at guard and special teams from 1974 to 1975. Pittsburgh averaged eleven wins during those two years and won back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
Webster earned his first signing bonus worth $8,000 during his rookie season in 1974. His ex-wife Pamela told ESPN that he bought three cars within 90 days after he received his signing bonus.
Webster’s conscience gnawed at him if he missed a game. He became firmly entrenched in the starting center position in 1975 – his second year in the pro football ranks.
He began an Iron Man streak of 150 consecutive starts that lasted for the next eleven seasons. A dislocated elbow, which forced Webster to sit out the first four games of the 1986 NFL campaign, ended it.
The secret to Mike Webster’s longevity and durability lay in his work ethic off the gridiron. He relied on a blocking sled and home gym in his front yard and backyard, respectively, to prepare his body for the rigors on the football field.
His wife Pamela remembered that they always brought the weights and blocking sled everywhere they went. She told Gilmore that she and her family never had an offseason. Mike regularly worked out four hours a day. After finishing the first half of his workout, he took a lunch break and then hit the weights hard again.
Webster himself admitted he wasn’t the greatest athlete among the other players he shared the field with. However, he believed he could gain an upper hand on the competition if he was in better condition than they were.
“The only chance I have to be successful is if I’m in better condition than the other guy,” Webster said (via The Associated Press and ESPN).
Webster’s work ethic paid off. Steelers defensive tackles Ernie Holmes and “Mean” Joe Greene used to dominate Webster in practice during his first few years in the National Football League. However, as Webster gained more strength, athleticism, and experience, they couldn’t do it anymore.
Before long, Webster became the Steelers’ offensive captain for nine seasons. He also earned the moniker “Iron Mike” for his strong leadership skills and play on the gridiron.
Not only did Webster become an accomplished offensive lineman during his 17-year NFL career, but he also stood out as a father.
Webster’s wife Pamela told FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore in 2013 that his four children were the most important thing to him. The couple agreed that Pamela would stay home and watch after them because Mike couldn’t get his mind right if his household was in disarray.
For all of Webster’s feats and success on the football field, he had a dark side. He confessed to Dr. Charles Cobb (via ESPN) that he took steroids during the Steelers’ historic dynasty in the mid-to-late 1970s.
Although Webster denied taking steroids to the public, his extensive medical records contain numerous references to it, per Garber.
For a while, it seemed Mike Webster’s illustrious NFL career was in the books.
The Kansas City Chiefs hired Webster as their assistant offensive line coach before the 1988 NFL season. However, Webster put his clipboard aside and laced on a pair of cleats to play center for Kansas City.
According to Webster’s wife Pam, not getting the Chief’s coaching job weighed heavily on Mike’s conscience. She noticed he was closer to some of the coaches than he was to his teammates. It seemed as if Mike Webster was destined to become an NFL coach someday.
Alas, it never materialized.
🏈 Games played = 245
🏆 4× SB champ
⭐ 9× Pro Bowl
✨ 7× First-team All-Pro
💯 Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) March 18, 2022
Webster suited up during the first two years of the Marty Schottenheimer regime in Kansas City. Although the Chiefs averaged ten wins per year from 1989 to 1990, they never made it past the AFC Wild Card Game during that two-year time frame.
Webster earned $400,000 in his second and final year in Kansas City, MO in 1990. According to Garber, he made wise investments that ultimately grew to $2 million in assets several years later.
That amount included three annuities that provided him and his family with regular income in his retirement.
Mike Webster hung up his cleats following the 1990 NFL season.
“It’s been a wonderful 17 years,” Webster said back then (via ESPN). “But one thing you learn in this game is reality. It’s time.”
The Chiefs offered Webster another assistant coaching position in the summer of 1991. However, he resigned just a few weeks into his new job after NBC gave him a chance to become a football analyst.
When the network dangled a modest offer to Webster to call several NFL regular-season games in 1991, he balked because it conflicted with his family’s relocation from Kansas City to his home state of Wisconsin.
Webster, a fifth-round draft selection who many scouts thought was too small for the pro game, retired as one of the best centers of his era.
No less than legendary Steelers head coach Chuck Noll considered Mike Webster the best center of all time.
“Mike Webster was the best center who ever played the game,” Noll told The Associated Press (via ESPN) in the fall of 2002. “He was the one position I never had to worry about.”
Webster ended his remarkable 17-year pro football career with four Super Bowl rings, nine Pro Bowl selections, six First-Team All-Pro selections, and two Second-Team All-Pro selections.
Despite Mike Webster’s slew of accomplishments on the football field, he was a deeply troubled man who couldn’t exorcise his many demons off it.
Mike Webster became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 1997. Terry Bradshaw, his Steelers teammate to whom he snapped the pigskin from 1974 to 1983, was his presenter.
Part of Webster’s enshrinement speech reads:
“That jacket that I took off is really, they got hundreds and hundreds and actually thousands of people in it…because football is a concept of a team sport and I needed guys to help me.”
OTD 1997 the greatest center EVER, Mike Webster, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“There never was and never will be again a guy committed and truly devoted to making himself the very best that he could possibly be.”
-Terry Bradshaw pic.twitter.com/dArVkSS1b2
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) July 26, 2022
Mike Webster is also a member of the University of Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame, the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Honor, the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team, the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team, the NFL 1980s All-Decade Team, the NFL’s 75th All-Time Anniversary Team, and the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Sadly, Mike Webster passed away due to a heart attack on September 24, 2002. He was 50 years old.
Webster also had significant liver and kidney damage, per ESPN.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, a famous neuropathologist, performed an autopsy on Webster’s brain in 2002. He discovered that Webster had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder linked to repetitive blows to the head. Webster became the first ex-NFL player diagnosed with CTE.
Webster was featured in the 2015 movie, Concussion. Actor David Morse portrayed him.
In the years leading up to Webster’s death, his ex-wife Pamela (they divorced six months prior to his death), told FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore in 2013 that he developed anger and concentration issues. He was constantly distracted.
Webster also experienced signs of dementia, ear-splitting headaches, back pain, signs of dementia, and a painful right shoulder stemming from a torn rotator cuff. He also had a stiff right elbow and a painful right heel.
Webster’s assortment of health issues – which manifested themselves in Pittsburgh – resurfaced when he and his family relocated to Pam’s hometown of Lodi, WI in the early 1990s. Webster failed to pay his bills and file his tax returns – a trend that began in 1992 and lasted until he sadly passed away ten years later.
The bank foreclosed on his property just one-and-a-half years after they moved to Lodi, WI.
“It was like living in a tornado,” Pamela Webster told ESPN in the winter of 2005. “There was no structure, nobody handling the details. It was horrible.”
At the time, Pam didn’t know how their savings dissipated so quickly. She told Garber that she and Mike set aside $90,000 in college funds for each of their four children. Those, too, went up in smoke.
Webster’s various failed business ventures were the suspected root cause. When he applied for disability benefits in 1999, the NFL uncovered these business failings, which included:
- CEO and treasurer of Pro Snappers, Inc.
- Employee of the printing firm Distinctively Lazer
- Investor of Terra Firma Development Trust
- Founder of Webster Asset Management Trust
- Employee of Olympia Steele Sports Management
- Director of operations of the Lestini Group
- Director of the National Steroid Research Center
- Founder of Webster Business Enterprises Ltd.
Webster endured seized annuities and lawsuits in his multiple failed business ventures. After Webster failed to land the Chiefs’ strength and conditioning coach position in 1994, he relied on autograph signings at card shows and speaking engagements for his income.
“It was obvious to me he was naive in business,” former Steelers director of communications Joe Gordon told ESPN in 2005. “In football, if you were tough enough you could overcome adversity. Unfortunately, that didn’t transfer to his life after football.”
Allegheny General Hospital’s Dr. Jerry Carter examined Webster in 1996. He recalled that Webster felt hopeless and suicidal because of his family’s dire financial straits and his inability to support his family.
Webster did whatever he could to help his family members back then. Whenever he earned, say, $1,500 from signing autographs, he gave $1,000 to his two youngest kids, Garrett and Hillary. He wired the money via Western Union. He also gave some money to his other daughter, Brooke.
Sunny Jani, Webster’s caretaker from 1997 to 2002, had to remind him to set aside some money for himself. Webster met him at one of his previous autograph signing engagements.
Mike Webster left the house for days at a time during his family’s ordeal in Wisconsin. His ex-wife thought he was just upset with her. It turned out he was dealing with serious health issues.
According to ESPN’s Greg Garber, Webster took an assortment of medications during his retirement years. These medicines – which helped him deal with various ailments such as seizures, anxiety, depression, and general pain – included Ritalin, Dexedrine, Paxil, Prozac, Klonopin, Vicodin, Ultram, Darvocet, and Lorcet.
Legal counsel Cyril Smith confirmed to ESPN in 2005 that Mike Webster “was hit in the head thousands of times and suffered many concussions” during his 17-year NFL career from 1974 to 1990.
Ironically, Steelers team trainers told ESPN Webster never complained about concussions during his 15-year tenure in the Steel City.
(1)This would have been All-Pro Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster.His mysterious neurodegenerative/behavioral disease led to and autopsy that revealed a major finding. That the repetitive concussions he suffered on the field led to CTE(chronic traumatic Encephalopathy)… pic.twitter.com/bMfXeHN6zR
— Michael Hirsh (@MichaelHirsh4) March 18, 2022
New York Giants Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson told ESPN in 2005 that he felt remorseful about the neurological issues Webster experienced in retirement. Carson hit offensive linemen on the head with his forearm with the force of a sledgehammer during his 13-year pro football career.
Carson felt his hits on Webster’s head contributed to his brain issues. However, he knew Webster wouldn’t blame him for his predicament.
Even more alarming, Smith also confirmed that Mike Webster was already completely disabled in the spring of 1991. He had retired from the National Football League just three months earlier.
When a physician examined Webster’s MRI, he asked the Steelers great if he had experienced an automobile accident before. Webster replied in the affirmative and said, “About 350,000 car accidents.”
Webster was in such frail health that he never made it to his son Garrett’s 10th birthday party. Garrett Webster told ESPN years later that he was initially upset at his father’s absence. When the former found out the reason why his stance softened.
Mike Webster was also a fitful sleeper during his retirement years. He stunned himself repeatedly with a black Taser gun, so he could get at least a few hours of sleep. He regularly slept in his dilapidated black Chevy pickup truck, per ESPN.
According to Garber, Webster was homeless from 1993 to 1997. He frequented cheap hotels such as the Red Roof in Robinson, PA during those four years.
Webster, who stood 6’2″ and weighed 250 pounds during his heyday in the National Football League, looked gaunt and frail many years later. There were times he didn’t eat for several days. Whenever he did, Pittsburgh Steelers employee Joe Gordon said Webster subsisted on potato chips and dry cereal.
Webster left behind his ex-wife Pamela, their two sons Colin and Garrett, their two daughters Hillary and Brooke, and several grandchildren.