Mike Webster, the indestructible Steeler with the rolled-up shirt sleeves and the ever-present stare that warned don’t tread on me, never met another man he couldn’t beat.
With Webster often serving as his solitary defender, Terry Bradshaw always had the best protection. With Webster pushing aside much bigger defensive tackles, Franco Harris always had the biggest holes. The Pittsburgh Steelers always had the most Super Bowl rings.
Webster, the man in the middle of so much greatness, had it all from 1974-90 as a nine-time Pro Bowl center on what in the late 1970s was the best team in pro football.
“Just the way he broke the huddle, you could tell it excited the Steelers’ offense,” former Dolphins coach Don Shula says. “On defense, you knew he was coming after you on every play. He was a real warrior.”
Then, in seemingly as little time as it once took Lynn Swann to beat a defensive back, Webster lost it all - his livelihood, his family, his home, his identity and, nearly, his life.
Now, on what should have been a great weekend for him, his induction Saturday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, with Bradshaw as his presenter, Webster is a pained man trying to rebuild his life.
“I’ve been better off,” says Webster, who has battled recurring health and financial problems since leaving the NFL seven years ago. “But I’m not destitute.”
No, destitution arrived years ago, when one of the most recognizable figures in Pittsburgh sports was so broke he slept in the downtown bus station or the back of his car.
The fashionable house in Pittsburgh that was home to Webster, his wife and their four children was long gone, lost to financial problems that led him to file a malpractice lawsuit against his former lawyers.
Webster estimates he was homeless for about a year and a half out of the last five years.
Today, things are better, but not dramatically so.
Home is a budget-rate motel near the Pittsburgh International Airport. He works for a sports marketing company, but much of his time is spent pursuing his lawsuit and undergoing medical tests. He fears he may have Parkinson’s disease, similar to the malady that struck Muhammad Ali. He is 45, but looks 10 years older.
He suspects he had a couple minor heart attacks a few years ago, causing his lungs to fill with fluid and leading to breathing problems. He has been tested for depression, post-concussion disorders and convulsive spasms that disrupt his sleep and inhibit his concentration.
Webster also must deal with persistent speculation about the true reason behind his health problems, which appear unusually severe for a relatively young man who once went 10 years without missing a game.
Webster’s medical troubles seem to mirror those of Steve Courson, a former Steelers lineman and close friend of Webster who has spent the last decade speaking out against steroid abuse.
Webster was always the first in the weight room and the last to leave, and his Popeyelike forearms, always bare, even on the coldest December day, were his signature of proof. But he insists - not just publicly, but to his doctors - that steroids were not part of his training regimen.
But many who knew Webster as one of the NFL’s strongest men wonder how a man so healthy and energetic could have had so much medical misfortune.
Maybe it took until his career was over to find the one man he has never beaten - Mike Webster himself.
“I know I’m on the way back, it’s just a matter of time,” he says. “I always finished everything I ever started, every game. I’ll finish this, too.”
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