'If it was a Steelers game, we shut them out'

Updated: April 27, 2005, 7:10 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

Shortly after 1 o'clock Tuesday, the phone rang at the home of Garrett Webster, the son of former Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.

He was sleeping, but answered anyway.

And on the other end was attorney Bob Fitzsimmons, with the news the Webster family had been waiting for since 1997.

Citing "overwhelming evidence," a U.S. district court judge in Baltimore awarded Webster's estate full disability benefits on Tuesday for brain damage he suffered during his 17-year NFL career.

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

"I didn't know who it was, I was groggy. And he made it sound like it was something bad," said Garrett, 21. "But then he told me and I was absolutely ecstatic.

"You feel a bunch of things. Vindicated that this struggle has been worthwhile. Sad because the person who did the real work isn't here to enjoy the moment. But happy because this opens the door for a lot of other players to further their cases. It creates a visible benchmark."

Attorney Doug Ell, who represented the NFL retirement board in the case, said he was "disappointed" in the decision and an appeal was likely.

The board, including three former players, had already agreed to pay Webster and his estate more than $600,000 to cover his disability from 1996-99. This lawsuit sought out an additional $1.142 million in disability payments, plus legal fees and expenses, dating back to Webster's retirement following the 1990 season. Fitzsimmons and co-counsel Cyril Smith argued that Webster, who died in 2002, was mentally disabled when he retired from the game in 1990 and thus should have started receiving benefits then, not in 1996.

Fitzsimmons said all three doctors who testified in the case -- including an expert on the NFL's witness list -- agreed that Webster was "totally and permanently disabled" from the head-to-head blows he suffered in 245 professional football games as a center for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1974 to 1990.

"If it was a Steelers game, we shut them out," Fitzsimmons said. "It might have been a record."

After Webster retired in 1990, his days were filled largely with pain. His brain showed signs of dementia. His head throbbed constantly. He suffered from hearing loss, herniated disks and a torn rotator cuff. His fingers bent awkwardly and his knees lacked cartilage. He slept only a few hours each night, often upright because the pain was too great to lie down. By 1997, Garrett said, the only thing that brought him relief was a black Taser gun he would ask a friend to use to stun him into unconsciousness.

After his disability claim to the NFL's pension plan was denied, Webster was referred to Fitzsimmons by a group of Pittsburgh attorneys. Going over the case, reviewing Webster's condition, the two met about once a week for a span of three years. Those meetings led to the release of the original $600,000 as well as Tuesday's sum, likely to be more than $1 million.

"The money is great, don't get my wrong," Fitzsimmons said. "But this meant so much to Mike; here's the big NFL giant and he's filing a disability that he thought was obvious. He was standing up not only for himself, but for all the players."

In Tuesday's decision, Judge William D. Quarles Jr. scolded the NFL, saying the league "abused its discretion" in denying Webster's claims. The decision likely will open the door to other former professional athletes who were too intimidated to challenge the NFL getting fair benefits that they deserve.

"We think there are players out there with the same types of injuries -- especially those that played during the head slap era," Smith said. "And they could benefit immensely."

Attempts to reach NFL officials for comment late Tuesday were unsuccessful, but Ell expected support for an appeal.

"Everybody is trying to paint this as the insensitivity of the league," Ell said. "But that's not accurate. He's not suing the league. He's suing the plan. And you're only entitled to the benefits outlined in that plan."

When he was still alive, Mike Webster told his son Garrett that if he ever were to win this case, the celebration would be a simple one. The Hall of Famer was going to get into his car, open all the windows, crank the stereo as loud as it could to Bob Seger's anthem, "Old Time Rock & Roll." If that wasn't enough, Webster said, he was going to honk his horn all the way up and down the highway.

With his father no longer around, that responsibility fell to Garrett's shoulders Tuesday night.

"I'm not sure about that," Garrett said. "Me, my mom, my sister. We're going to head out to dinner and celebrate. But just because we have a little bit of money doesn't mean we're going to go out and act like the Beverly Hillbillies."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.