Wandering through the fog

Originally Published: January 27, 2005

With a pending court case involving the NFL retirement plan and Mike Webster, ESPN.com explores the life and tragic death of the former Steelers center. Fourth in a five-part series:


By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Through a leaden curtain of fog, you can just make out the gleaming towers of Pittsburgh industry rising to the south of McKees Rocks. It's only a five-minute drive into downtown, but this grimy section of the city feels like another country altogether.

Mike Webster
Suffering from depression and broke from failed business ventures, Mike Webster often made himself at home in his truck.
Go past the flat, faded warehouses, past the decaying homes built snug against the dung-colored brick streets, turn onto Broadway and follow it through a working-class neighborhood to the Blue Eagle Market. The blue "A" in Eagle is missing on the dingy white fašade, but inside it is warm and ordered. The snacks and sodas and sundries are stacked neatly in rows. Judging by the haggard appearance of some of the customers, necessities are purchased here, not items of convenience. This is where you'll usually find Sunny Jani, a small Hindu man with a pleasant, round face. Jani, 34 and a terminal Steelers fan, runs the store for his parents.

For the last six years of Mike Webster's life, from 1997 to 2002, Jani was his most consistent, most constant companion. Walk into the back office and you will see Webster's No. 52 jersey, autographed, hanging in the corner. They met in 1994, when Jani asked him to sign autographs at a card show he was promoting at the Holiday Inn in Greentree. Webster was only scheduled -- for a fee of $1,500 -- to stay for two hours, but he insisted on taking care of everyone. Three and one-half hours later, after his last labored signature, Webster, wearing long blond hair, a cowboy hat and boots, got up and Jani drove him back to the Red Roof Inn in Robinson.

"Mike Webster, at Red Roof? You've got to be kidding me," Jani said, leaning back in his leather office chair. "I had heard on the radio that he was sleeping in his car, but I didn't believe it. This is Mike Webster, Mr. Steeler. Three months later, he walks into the market and we talked about a business relationship. I started booking him all over the place."

Webster often slept in his black pickup truck in the parking lot behind the Blue Eagle Market. He spent hundreds of hours in the back office, sometimes sleeping overnight on the green couch against the back wall. Eventually, Jani became his caregiver, the one who managed his meager money from a joint checking account. Sometimes, when referring to Webster, he uses the word "us." Of all the people in the world, why did Iron Mike allow Jani to help him?

Garrett Webster
Andy ManisGarrett Webster says his father turned down help from old friends and teammates because he wanted to be remembered as a champion.
"Because he wasn't Terry Bradshaw or Mel Blount," said Webster's youngest son, Garrett, who considers Jani a father figure. "If you were destitute 10 years from now, would you want your friends to see you? Sunny was devoted to him and my dad knew that."

It was Sunny, more than anyone, who had to clean up after the elephants. But to him, it wasn't a chore at all. For when he looked at Webster, he didn't see the derelict so many others did; the rabid Steelers fan saw his personal hero of two decades before. It was Sunny who usually drove Webster to the doctor and card signings. Sunny was the one he called when, inevitably, he found himself in trouble. One time, it was 2 a.m.

"Mike says, 'I'm pulled over by the side of the road and I don't have any money and I don't know where I am,' " Sunny remembered. "So I told my wife, 'I've got to go get Mike, rescue him.' I got in my car and drove nine hours to get him. It was, like, nine hours. He was almost to Milwaukee.

"Later, I got smarter. I'd stash $50 bills and $20 bills in the back of his truck. I'd say, 'Mike, go to the back of your truck and inside the cap I duct-taped some money.' I loved him, sure, but I didn't want to get up at 2 in the morning."

Jani laughs to punctuate the thought, but Webster's dependence on him proved costly. He and his wife, Marcia, used to argue about it all the time; Marcia insisted that he spend more time with his children, Alexis, 10, and Devin, 8. It was, Jani conceded, a factor in their recent divorce.

When former teammates offered help, Webster usually refused it. He was too proud to accept handouts. Former linemates Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley, now Steelers' radio analysts, rented him a $300 apartment in nearby Bridgeville, but Webster never stayed there. He did stay with former teammate Steve Courson for three months and he allowed Ilkin and Wolfley to fly him home to Wisconsin for the holidays in 1997.

A Steeler's Melting Point
Mike Webster walked away from the NFL with four Super Bowl rings. Walked away with more than an assortment of chronic aches and pains. Walked away and found out years later that he was mentally disabled. In a five-part series, ESPN.com explores the after-football life of the former Pittsburgh Steelers great, from his odyssey of bizarre behavior and failed business ventures to his eventual homelessness and untimely death.

Monday: A tormented soul
Tuesday: Blood and guts
Wednesday: Man on the moon
Thursday: Wandering through the fog
Friday: Sifting the ashes

Webster constantly worried about money, but rarely for himself. When he made a $1,500 check from a card show, he would typically send more than $1,000 via Western Union to Pam in Wisconsin to help take care of the two youngest children, Garrett and Hillary, and maybe $200 to his oldest daughter Brooke, who was living in Canada at the time. Since the payments were irregular, at best, Jani had to convince him to keep a few hundred dollars for himself. Eventually, Pam was forced to sell her house, car and take a job as a cleaning woman. Scrubbing other people's toilets, she would reflect on how quickly things fell apart.

In 1997, Webster's condition continued to worsen. The daily headaches, he told Dr. Patrick Sturm of Tri State Pulmonary Medicine, were "blowing the top of his head off." His days were filled with pain from his numerous football injuries. He often slept only a few hours each night, usually sitting up in a chair because the ache was too great to lie down. By that time, he was taking Vicodin regularly and, at different times, Darvocet, Ultram and Lorcet. He also had a regular prescription for Ritalin and used Paxil and Prozac to dull his demons. Sometimes, the only thing that brought him relief was a black Taser gun. He would ask Sunny or his son Garrett to stun him into unconsciousness, usually in the thigh but sometimes in the back and neck. When no one was there, which was often, he would try to do it himself.

Webster no longer had a real sense of time or commitment. Often, when Sunny came to pick him up for card shows, he couldn't summon the effort to shower, shave and dress. Food held little interest for him; his weight dropped to 225 pounds, down from 260. His sense of taste was indifferent at best. The things he liked best were Coca-Cola and Copenhagen, a steady dose of caffeine and nicotine. Jani and his sons constantly had to remind him to eat. When he had money, he'd indulge himself with Pringles, Little Debbie pecan rolls and waffles at Denny's. When he didn't, he simply didn't eat -- sometimes for days at a time. For a while, Jani took to leaving milk and snacks at the door of his motel room; Webster wouldn't always accept the food if it was given to him face-to-face.

One of his favorite places was the Kinko's in Moon Township, where he could hang out 24 hours a day. He'd make copies and organize his request for NFL disability. He'd read there -- biographies of JFK and Churchill, mostly -- and sometimes sleep. If Jani was looking for him, even at midnight, that was often where he was. They would go shopping at Kmart and Wal-Mart, where he'd stock up on $6 shirts, duct tape and Super Glue. One day, in a typical haze, he tried to glue a couple of his rotting teeth back into his jaw.

It was odd: In one moment, autographing fans' artifacts, he would astonishingly recall a first and last name from a dozen years in the past. In another, he would head out into the frigid snow without a jacket. Webster, who fluctuated between anger and hopelessness, was aware it was happening, too; he would write for hours in his journal and, later, in a more lucid moment, burst into tears when he couldn't follow the meandering train of thought.

Hall of Fame
"You only failed if you don't finish the game," Webster said during his Hall of Fame induction.
While Webster's 12 years of life after football were filled largely with pain and confusion, there was a seven-month respite in 1997, from late January to late July, when he approached happiness. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the highest professional honor for a football player, and the concept warmed him like the sun on a spring day. At the banquet before the enshrinement speech, in a cavernous hall, Webster caught Jani's eye as they were introducing him with the usual long-winded hyperbole.

"They're talking about me," he whispered, tapping his finger to his chest as if they were talking about someone else.

In a sense, they were. Word of his struggles had leaked into the public domain and there were worries that he would embarrass himself during his enshrinement speech. But fortified by 80 milligrams of Ritalin and supported by former teammates and the proximity of family and friends, he somehow managed. They cleaned him up and got him a sharp-looking tuxedo. Terry Bradshaw, his old quarterback and presenter, stepped under center one more time and the fans in Canton, Ohio, roared with delight and gave him the longest and loudest ovations of the day. Webster rambled a bit and digressed often; his speech consumed 20 minutes -- double his allotted time -- but he got through it. With football as the metaphor, he seemed to be talking about his current life.

"You only fail if you don't finish the game," Webster said, adding that, contrary to reports, he still had his four Super Bowl rings. "Sometimes you can be down and struggling but as long as you keep working at it, you win. The important thing is that I'm here and moving forward."

Webster left the ceremony with bitter feelings that typified his growing anger and paranoia in the final years. After the announcement of each incoming class, the Hall of Fame flies the enshrinee and the guest of his choice to Hawaii for a weeklong celebration at the Pro Bowl. Webster brought his four kids and was furious when the Hall of Fame refused, in accordance with its guidelines, to pick up the extra tab. When they deducted the expense from the money he earned signing Hall of Fame memorabilia, Webster threatened to resign from the Hall of Fame -- something he seriously considered until his death.

The day before the ceremony, Stan Savran, a Pittsburgh television and radio personality, asked Webster if he'd be interested in working as an analyst for a television show on Fox Sports Net. Webster agreed. Every Monday after the Steelers games, Webster would show up at Three Rivers Stadium at 1 p.m. to tape a five-minute segment. Savran didn't find out until later that Webster was commuting the 17 hours from Wisconsin for his fee of $300.

"One time the Steelers' receptionist told me he was an hour away and that he might be little late,' " Savran said. "I had no idea he was living in his car outside his ex-wife's house and driving all that way. He missed only three or four of the shows, which was amazing considering the condition he was in. His mental state, at that point, was fractious. He wasn't the guy I had known."

In February 1999, Webster made headlines again. Police arrested him for forging 19 prescriptions for Ritalin after he walked into a drug store in Rochester, 25 miles west of Pittsburgh. They took Webster away in handcuffs. Jani used his four Super Bowl rings as collateral for a loan from a lawyer friend to pay the $2,000 bail. They're still in the lawyer's possession today, diamonds set in gold, sitting in a safe deposit box in nearby Altoona, according to Jani. Webster's doctor had left him with a pad of signed, blank prescriptions. Since Webster moved around a lot and would often lose his pill vials, he would sometimes stop for Ritalin at the local Eckerd, CVS and Rite Aid -- all in the same week. The public embarrassment, certainly, was worse than the probation he received after pleading no contest.

A press conference was organized to put a positive spin on Webster's situation, and the call went out to former teammates.

"It was basically damage control," Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount said. "I just remember me and [linebacker] Robin Cole being there. It was interesting that players he went through the wars with didn't step up. But in their defense, Mike was so proud. He didn't let anyone help him."

Sometimes, when people were persistent -- or discreet -- Webster did accept help. Franco Harris, the Hall of Fame running back and successful owner of Super Bakery Inc. in Pittsburgh, handed him an envelope after they crossed paths in 1999. Webster was stunned when he later discovered it was a check for $5,000 -- he promptly sent most of it to Pam and the kids.

It didn't take long to see that Mike Webster had difficulty with higher order executive functioning, frontal lobe stuff. When you talked to him, there were so many symptoms it was pretty obvious what was going on. That's how it is with traumatic brain injuries.
Fred J. Krieg, a clinical psychologist
Webster first considered asking the NFL for disability in 1995, but never followed through. He told friends the one-page application was too complicated. But after a 1998 medical appraisal suggested brain damage, Robert Fitzsimmons, a friend and Wheeling, W.Va., attorney, initiated a claim in April 1999. Fred J. Krieg, a clinical psychologist at Marshall University, was one of those who examined Webster in preparation for the claim.

"He would have reminded you of a street person," Krieg said from his office. "It didn't take long to see that Mike Webster had difficulty with higher order executive functioning, frontal lobe stuff. When you talked to him, there were so many symptoms it was pretty obvious what was going on. That's how it is with traumatic brain injuries."

Dr. Jonathan Himmelhoch, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, examined Webster six different times. His conclusion: Webster was "totally and permanently disabled" and had a "traumatic or punch-drunk encephalopathy, caused by multiple head blows received while playing center in the NFL."

Dan Rooney
Though Dan Rooney worked behind the scenes to help Webster secure his disability pension, the center remained aloof with the Steelers owner.
The Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Plan and the NFL Player Supplemental Disability Plan, following a protocol established in the league's 1993 collective bargaining agreement, authorized a "football degenerative disability pension" that paid Webster $100,020 annually, beginning in November 1999. Dan Rooney, the Steelers' owner, had privately lobbied the pension board on Webster's behalf.

This temporarily eased Webster's financial situation. Although he still sent most of each month's check to Pam and the kids, Jani was able to secure a lease at Waterford Apartments in Moon Township. The ground-level unit, at the back of Building No. 3, is a study in beige elegance. Jani, who wanted Webster to live in comfort after so many years of scuffling without a bed of his own, paid the $1,500 monthly rent out of their joint account. But after 15 months, Jani said, the IRS seized the NFL disability check and, after missing three rent payments, Webster and his son Garrett -- who, at 6-foot-9, 345 pounds was playing high school football and living with his father -- were thrown out.

They moved into an $800-per-month apartment, also in Moon, where they lived in something approaching squalor. They didn't have any furniture and slept on the floor. When Jani visited he would find fast food wrappers and other trash strewn about. It was Garrett, at the age of 17, who played the role of father. He placed a flag in the front window, so his dad would know which apartment was his. Still, sometimes late at night, Webster would find himself knocking on the wrong door when the key wouldn't fit.

The Mel Blount Youth Home, about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh in Washington, Pa., is a refuge for disadvantaged and delinquent kids. Work ethic and self-sufficiency, the trademark values of those old Steelers teams, are stressed. Blount and Webster were teammates for 10 seasons, which is why Blount remembers, all too vividly, a card signing show in New Jersey.

"It was 2001, the year before he died," Blount said. "For those of us who were able to walk away from the game, well, we feel fortunate. The human body wasn't designed to take those kinds of blows. It's a shame something you love so much -- in Mike's case, something you do for a living -- can take such a drastic toll on your life.

"I spent some time at the show talking to Mike. It took me a while to realize he didn't even know who I was."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Greg.Garber@espn3.com.

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