Mike Webster would have celebrated his 61st birthday next week although if he were still alive, there may not have been much to celebrate.
But if a problem can only be solved by having some people be victim to the cause then at least his death may not have been in vain for although he was not the first, Webster’s tragic story for many people will always remain the touching point for the struggle over the past 11 years to have the NFL pay more attention to head disorders linked to football.
And in the roots of his pathetic demise from football champion, tough guy and Hall of Famer to homeless and mentally ill was the explanation for commissioner Roger Goodell’s letter to fans which some of you may have received by email on Monday.
Goodell held a press conference this week in New York to announce a partnership with General Electric and Under Armour protective clothing which will be funded to the tune of $60million and which is designed to go deeper than ever in the search for answers into what happens when football players go through repeated head trauma.
Some cynics would say that Goodell’s plan – called the Head Health Initiative – and its announcement this week was designed to protect the NFL from the growing number of lawsuits against it from former players and their families who claim the NFL was negligent or even responsible for causing brain injuries which shortened lives, left players mentally unbalanced or incapable, and led to players taking their own lives, unable to deal with severe headaches, crippling insomnia, pain killer addiction, and depression.
The reasons for Goodell’s announcement are irrelevant. The action is all that matters. While there are many who still want the league to admit liability from the past and to pay for it, those are cases which have already taken place and which the courts will have to decide on. But for all the players who have yet to be exposed to the physical horrors of playing in the NFL, the most important thing, surely, is that positive action is taken now to minimise and even prevent that being an issue.
The NFL has changed in many ways over my lifetime. Speed, size, equipment, training techniques, diet and money are all markedly different from the so-called golden age of the 1960s and 1970s. But what has barely been advanced is the attitude toward manliness, the way that players and fans approach the macho issue.
It is not just in football and the blame for the attitude cannot be restricted solely to players who are either eager to show off their macho side or are afraid of being benched or binned by their coaches for showing apparent weakness simply by trying to protect their own health.
As fans, we love to hear tales of bravery on the sports field above and beyond the call of the contract. Just last weekend, Ireland rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll suffered a dead leg, a lacerated ear which required stitches during the game, and spent time in the concussion bin. And then he still went back into the game to help stop France winning late on. It would be a great story of derring-do if not for the concussion bit. And to make matters worse, a couple of days later, his coach was urging him to be available for this weekend’s game as well when the reality is that it should not even be a consideration. The ear will heal and the dead leg will go away but the concussion – on top of the many previous ones - could come back to haunt him years after he has retired.
The NFL, at least, has made some sort of effort in this area but the test over whether or not to allow a player back in the game and subsequently on whether or not to allow him to play the following week is still a long way from being an exact science. But perhaps this week’s announcement is a step in a much better direction.
Part of what Goodell unveiled was a challenge to make improvements in recognising and diagnosing the problem much quicker. He said: “The objective of working with GE, the world's leader in medical imaging, is to produce the next generation of medical equipment to improve concussion diagnosis, protection and treatment. Under Armour will deliver its knowledge and understanding of athletes to help make safety not just part of, but essential to, the culture of athletic success.
“This is just the beginning. In the next two years, the NFL, GE and Under Armour will solicit ideas from scientists, entrepreneurs, academics and other experts from around the world to help better protect athletes against concussions and identify brain injuries. In two innovation challenges, we will reward contributors who offer the best ideas on these two topics as judged by independent experts.”
Again, I accept the cynics’ claims that this is partly for show in an effort to head off lawsuits from future players to add to the hundreds against the league already in the works. And I am certainly not here to shill for the commissioner on that front. But it is essential that the top of the pyramid is seen to be treating this as priority No.1 because if he doesn’t then how will attitudes ever change? How will we get coaches and players to think that way if the commissioner doesn’t? So, if it makes anyone feel better, then they should go ahead and throw all the accusations they want about window-dressing, about legal protection, about too little too late. But don’t pretend at the same time that there isn’t validity to this announcement.
The NFL are not the first organisation to address it, of course. The issue of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been attacked by medical experts for years while sports people have sat on their hands and hoped it would go away. Well, the cases in the last two years of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau disavowed a lot of people of that notion. Two good NFL players, one of them a once-in-a-generation great, who both shot themselves in the chest – one at 43, the other at 50 - because they hated what the pain and the depression had turned them into. They shot themselves in the chest to preserve their brains for CTE specialists to be able to look at and learn from. Incredible acts of sacrifice but told in stories whose depth of sadness is galling.
As tragic as each of their suicides was, perhaps they marked progress, at least from the days of suffering by Mike Webster. He had to go through this at a time when there was far less comprehension of what went on in some players’ brains after a lifetime of knocking heads on football fields.
Webster suffered in silence and ignorance. After 16 years of snapping the ball into the hands of Terry Bradshaw and other Pittsburgh quarterbacks, and being the last active player from the Steelers four Super Bowl wins in six seasons, his life descended into hell once he retired. Webster died in 2002 from a heart attack, aged just 50, but his real problems were in his head. Doctors diagnosed him in 1999 as having suffered brain injury from too many hits. That same year, nine years after he stopped playing football, Webster was put on probation after pleading no contest to a charge of forging prescriptions for Ritalin.
The mental illness that engulfed him saw him end up on the streets, sleeping in his car, separated from his family, refusing help from his own son. And yet when he died, former teammates, those who had been closest to him, seemed to have accepted they were powerless to stop him.
Bradshaw, whose career was blessed by having Webster as his center, said on hearing news of his death: “You knew he had problems. Dying was not something I had in mind.” Bradshaw had been at Canton, Ohio to see Webster inducted into the Hall of Fame, he had owed so much of his success to Iron Mike, and yet he admitted at the time that he had not spoken to Webster for more than a year prior to this death as Webster avoided relationships. Mental illness does that to people.
Steelers running back Franco Harris said: “He was a great person and friend. Unfortunately, he had some turmoil and some misfortune after his football career. He is now at peace.” Mental illness brings on that kind of turmoil and misfortune.
The ironic twist to Webster’s fall from grace is that it was a brain injury that did it because while he was playing football, what many people failed to recognise was that it was his brain every bit as much as his brawn that carved out his astonishing career.
Steelers president Dan Rooney said of his football intelligence: “He helped Terry Bradshaw very much. Mike knew every player’s position on both teams. He would talk to Terry after a play and say where the line splits were and where the defense was and what running plays would work particularly well.”
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Webster’s tragic end – one which is the essence of the head trauma issue and which should be drummed into modern-day players – is that many ex-teammates tried to reach out and help but in his altered mental state, he turned them all away. That is what it can do to you and that is why active players – much against their own protestations – need to be protected from themselves for their own good. A player can tell you how his hamstring feels or where his ankle hurts but he is the worst judge of his own mental state because he is conditioned to get back in the game, regardless of the risks.
It used to be said of Mike Webster that not only did he not miss a game in 10 years, he didn’t miss a play. How many times, do you wonder, did he get back in the game when the prudent thing would have been to stop and think for a minute.
Mike Webster played football with a religious zeal because he was good at it and he loved it. He even loved the preparation and was renowned for his ferocious workouts to keep in shape. He did it at a time when then-commissioner Pete Rozelle would have known little about what the game was doing to him. Players had helmets therefore players were protected.
But that can’t be good enough for the man who fills the commissioner’s chair these days. There is a wealth of knowledge on the subject although only the surface of discovery has been scratched. It is the duty of Roger Goodell, every NFL owner and all coaches to do whatever is in their power to help in that journey of discovery. They owe it to every player in the NFL today. They owe it to every player yet to begin an NFL career. They owe it to Dave Duerson and Junior Seau.
And more than anyone, they owe it to Mike Webster and every player who made this a great sport and a great league at a time when they didn’t know what it was doing to them.