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When CTE Steals Your Dad: Garrett Remembers Mike Webster

Garrett and Mike WebsterSeptember 27, 2019
Derek Helling

Covering the NFL concussion settlement litigation as it plays out, it’s easy to get caught up in the dockets and the numbers. It’s essential to remind ourselves that behind those figures and words are families and personal stories.

One of the individuals who was instrumental in beginning the story was former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Mike Webster through his family. Webster, who anchored the Pittsburgh offensive line through a dominant stretch of the middle and late 1970s, passed in 2002. Webster was also one of the first former NFL players to be diagnosed post-mortem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Witnessing most of Webster’s story was his son, Garrett.

Garrett shared his experiences of his late father, going through the initial stages of the NFL settlement, the family’s relationship with the NFL/Steelers and the community of families who have similarly been affected by neurological diseases.

“I was born in 1984 and my sister Hillary was born in 1987,” Garrett Webster said. “I don’t really remember anything of Dad playing before Kansas City, but there are parts of memories. I remember going to the Steelers locker room. I remember my dad’s last game at Pittsburgh. We were picked up in a limousine and all of us just thought that was the coolest thing. You know, if your dad is important enough to get a limo ride to the Steelers game in Pittsburgh, he must be the mayor or something like that.”

“I remember Kansas city a little better and the change to a large extent of how dad acted,” Webster continued. “When he got to Kansas City that was a clear break, like in a movie. Everybody in the family: my mom, my older brothers and sisters, my older brother and my older sister will say that. When he went to Kansas City, that’s when things started to change. Some of them were subtle. He stopped hanging out with the family as much. It was all the normal things you hear from athletes when they retire.”

The following years were rough for Webster’s family as his father’s cognitive decline affected his ability to provide for the family. Webster recounts the frustration and struggles.

“The original plan was that he would retire as a Steeler and then he was going to coach,” Webster recounted. “I think that all athletes and anybody who’s been in an all-consuming career field, once that’s over, they deal with a part in their life in which they are aimless. Everybody noticed that with Dad. I think my dad to a large extent was so hurt by leaving the Steelers. He never came out and said that he was hurt by it but it was a feeling of you were being cast aside, being thrown out. I think that’s how he felt.

“He didn’t want necessarily them to come kiss his ass and be like, oh, you’re Mike Webster, here’s a free job for doing nothing,” Webster continued. “My dad said to me many times, especially when things were really bad, he’d say, I want to work. I want to earn, you know, I want to pay off my debts. I want to work for a living, I want to earn my keep and stuff like that. He didn’t want a handout. I think that he was surprised there was no help. There was no work around and there was nobody for his family to reach out to and get help from. He would say to me, I’m not mad about what happened to me from playing football. I’m mad about what’s happened to you, about the life you kids missed out on. My dad had things set up. He was responsible and did things the right way. When he needed help, during the whole time when we were suing for that original pension, the NFLPA, the people who were supposed to represent the players, that guys like Dad paid into their pension to support, never reached out, never said, hey Mike, what can we do for you?”

“If anything the union was in the way of my dad getting his pensions,” Webster added. “That’s what shocked us. That’s what hurt the most because a lot of those guys, especially Gene Upshaw, were people that my dad thought of as friends. My dad said he used to sit next to Upshaw when they went to the Pro Bowl and he considered him a friend. So when he came out and said we don’t represent Mike Webster. We represent current players, not former players. My dad was just shocked because he did so much for these people. He was a union rep for a long time. It hurt him. It was a psychological blow on top of all the physical and mental issues he was going through.”

After Mike’s death, when the family was approached by Dr. Bennett Omalu to help with his research on CTE and athletes, it was the beginning of a new chapter for the Webster family as well.

“If you take out the head injuries, Dad was ruled completely disabled from football,” Webster explained. “During that time, none of us thought he had this revolutionary condition that was going to change the world. I remember really distinctly two days after he passed away when our lawyer came to us, said he was contacted by Dr. Omalu and he wanted to do a brain exam. This guy thinks he can come up with an answer, a solid, concrete answer for why Dad struggled so much. Dr. Omalu was very responsible and he did things right away. I remember him showing me the autopsy photos and showing me the brain scans. That was definitely hard but it was good too because I still feel this to this day my dad would have been fascinated by it and he would have been honored to be part of Dr. Omalu’s research.”

While Dr. Omalu provided answers regarding Mike’s behavioral and neurological issues, the concussion settlement in 2013 did anything but for the Webster family. Instead, it further compounded the struggles.

“We initially were not part of the settlement class,” Webster stated. “When we heard about it, it sounded wonderful. We couldn’t imagine us not being included. A couple of months later, they got ahold of the actual paperwork. I remember them saying that we were not part of it and there was this cutoff date which really only cut out us and two or three other families. Eventually, the judge did go back and let us basically appeal that, but it was like being stuck in limbo. We went from one extreme of feeling just completely left out, ignored, denied, vilified to having that hope of being part of it. A lot of people forget this started out as a discussion and examination of the NFL’s retirement policy and how almost impossible it was to get the benefits. I remember the NFLPA bragging about how they had something like $10 billion in their retirement fund. Then they were talking about how they’ve gotten that by not giving pensions out. It was kind of like, what’s the point of having something if it’s basically impossible for people to get a pension? My dad played 17 years and we did eventually win our pension suit. But since he passed away, nobody in the family gets any more of that pension.”

In the aftermath of the settlement, Webster found that the franchise his father gave his life to enrich, the Steelers, treated him with indifference if not contempt.

“One of the things that hurt him the most is we were pretty much ignored, not just by the NFL, by the Steelers too,” Webster commented. “We weren’t included in things, whether it was part of an NFL toughest players of all time or greatest linemen or greatest Steelers. Dad was never a part of those, even when he was alive. As things came out with the concussion it was a big can of worms. We were cut out even more. You couldn’t help but take it as a slap in the face. This psychological aspect of just being ignored was the hardest part and what we had to keep reliving. Since then we have had some positive instances, in the past couple of years, but overall it’s been the same thing, over and over again is that instead of people being like this is great, we know about this now so let’s fix it, it’s been more of that asshole ruined things for everybody, you know, and that’s, you know, that continues to be the hardest part.”

Webster is now happy to share that his family’s relationship with the Steelers has improved, however, his opinion of the league’s handling of the concussion settlement hasn’t similarly improved.

“Right now we have a very good relationship with the Steelers,” Webster said.”It’s the best relationship we’ve had since my dad played for them. I got to sit down with Art Rooney. He invited me in. We talked and we talked frankly. We said that stuff’s in the past. Let’s focus on the positive, on how these things can never happen again. Since then it’s been great. I wish the NFL would do that stuff with us and with other families. Just acknowledge it and say, how can we prevent this stuff from happening again? That’s what for whatever reason they don’t do because let’s be real, they could settle with every single one of the people in this lawsuit for the maximum amount and make the money back.”

One of the best silver linings in the course of the situation has been the community of families that either are enduring or have endured similar circumstances that the Websters are part of.

“We’re definitely part of that. For example, my mom, she’s part of a number of wives’ groups of former and current NFL players that talk and support each other with what goes on with concussions and CTE and stuff like that. That stuff gets passed on through the grapevine. Somebody is struggling with something. Obviously there are times when things are in the news you can’t avoid. I did some work with a brain injury group. I can’t do that again. It’s too tough. I do actively seek out sons, daughters and family members of NFL players. I know growing up, one of the biggest things that was tough was having people that you could tell things to and you can relate to. People who play in the NFL, they’re not normal guys. I’m not saying in a concussion way. They have their quirks, they have their workout routines. They have their competitive streaks. They can’t go out in public like normal people and stuff like that.”

The work of helping former NFL players with head injuries is ongoing, just as the concussion litigation will continue for years yet. Webster has firsthand experience of how devastating diseases like CTE can be on entire families and because of that, he not only wants to work toward preventing it from happening to others but support those who are enduring the pain as he did. The strengths of Mike’s character live on in his son, Garrett.

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Freelance journalist

Derek Helling is a journalist out of Chicago. Illinois, who covers the intersections of entertainment and sports with business, law, media and technology. He publishes a newsletter, "The Ninth Circle of Helling," that focuses on labor issues in North American sport.

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