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Pam Webster

She watched her husband, Steelers legend Mike Webster, become confused, angry and violent in the years after he retired from football. Pam Webster had to take a job as a waitress to support her family, and the couple ultimately divorced, shortly before Mike’s death at age 50. He would become the first football player diagnosed with CTE. Pam Webster spoke to FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on April 18, 2013.

She watched her husband, Steelers legend Mike Webster, become confused, angry and violent in the years after he retired from football. Pam Webster had to take a job as a waitress to support her family, and the couple ultimately divorced, shortly before Mike’s death at age 50. He would become the first football player diagnosed with CTE. Pam Webster spoke to FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore on April 18, 2013.

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    Pam, let's start with the early life. Describe a little bit about Mike's background. It wasn't an easy background.

    No, it wasn't an easy background. He grew up in Harshaw, Wis. and was born in Tomahawk, Wis. His dad was a potato farmer at the time, so he worked hard in the fields. His family was split up, so it was what we call now dysfunctional; it was a broken family. ... It was a hard life for him. You know, it was really hard. He worked hard, and it was out in the middle of nowhere in the Northwoods. It was a very difficult life for him.

    And football was --

    Football came along his junior year of high school, I believe. One of the coaches saw him and wanted him to try out for the team, Dave Lechnir. Now, Dave had to drive him to and from practice because his dad wasn't going to do that. He was busy with his potato farming. I think later in later years he went into well drilling. He wasn't the big supporter of Mike doing this at that time.

    So Mike was pretty much on his own. But, you know, you get strong working in those backwoods, lifting sacks and doing hard, heavy work.

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    Why football? What attracted him to football?

    I think he was just -- the size, his size and his strength alone. Plus he had been playing the other sports. And whatever, it seemed like he was an all-around athlete, like he had several trophies for wrestling, and actually had one bad ear from wrestling and hitting it on the floor so many times. And he did discus and track. He was just one of those people that are a naturally gifted athlete. ...

    Early days, was football sort of a refuge for him?

    I think football provided a lot of family for him that he wasn't getting at home. You know, it provided structure, and [athletics] also provides, like, a release for all that physical energy. I think he really enjoyed the encouragement, the hard work, the discipline and just the structure and family of football. ...

    Talk to me about Mike, what kind of guy he was. I know everybody always says he had this huge heart.

    He did have a huge heart, and I think that was one of the first things that attracted me to him. It wasn't his good looks and his charm; it was he just had a lot of good heart and good character underneath that. ...

    He was very simple, but he was very polite, a typical athlete in some ways, but nontypical in other ways.

    How was he nontypical?

    Nontypical [in] that he, you know, he had a kindness about him that you wouldn't expect from a guy who was that physical on the field. And he would open car doors for me and things like that. He was very old-fashioned in some ways. But I think we came from similar backgrounds, both small-town people, Lutheran people, had very similar interests.

    ... A lot of people say his kids were basically what he lived for --

    Mike's kids were the most important thing to him in his life. You know, even when he played, I had to stay home to watch the kids because he couldn't play with a sound mind knowing that he was worried about the kids. He was very worried always about their safety, their well-being, what they were doing.

    I mean, it was really -- in the good years, it was such a good family. It was really the all-American, almost Mayberry kind of family we had. And that was the number one thing to him, was his children.

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    ... As a rookie for the Steelers, give me an understanding of what it was like during those years. ...

    Well, when he was a rookie, we came in from Wisconsin, and we were pretty much alone in a big city. You know, I didn't know my way around. It wasn't like it is now where you're very familiar with everything. Basically this is our first big trip out of town for me.

    Mike, as a rookie, you have to earn your way onto the team. And of course you're not always accepted, especially by the veterans and their friends whose job you're going to be replacing. So there's always that underlying competition that you have there. So that was difficult.

    And then Mike really wanted to play. So sometimes patience and waiting to get that position on the team he knew he was capable of playing -- he needed to put on some weight, because he came in at 215. Weight and muscle came later. But there wasn't anybody harder-working.

    How did he do that? What was it about him? He's renowned for his workouts, for constantly lifting weights or constantly building up his body. What motivated that?

    Well, in later years, I had read where Mike was concerned about pure failure, and that was one of the reasons that he worked out. But I never saw it that way. I just saw that he had a work ethic. He wanted to be the best at what he could do, not let anybody down. And he was so knowledgeable about the game from every aspect, and he saw details while he was playing that no one else saw, and he knew what he needed to do to be good at what he did.

    We never had -- like, you talk about the off-season; we never had an off-season. We took our weights with us. We took our blocking sled with us everywhere we went. I mean, it was nothing for him to work out four hours a day and then take a break for lunch and go back to working out.

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    ... He's a center. It's the toughest position probably on the field. He's one of the smartest guys on the field.

    He was incredibly smart. And to see his brain declining years later was such a sad thing, because he was incredibly smart, and what I've said -- the boys have this gift that they see detail that no one else picks up on, and Mike had that gift.

    Like in the line several times he would see somebody flex, move, and he could draw them offsides just by body movement or position or what. He knew it so well. Plus he knew where everything was at the right time, you know, when he was on the line. And if you look for that in old films, you see him noticing something like this, and then turning around to [Terry] Bradshaw and telling him to change the play. I mean, he was a master at the game. I have no more respect for any football player than Mike.

    And the ability to sort of build up his body to become --

    Building it up, yes, to go from -- I mean, his muscle size, he had a huge strength and width to his muscles. His bone structure was very big. And he just added to that. I mean, it was never a gift; it was always earned with Mike. He lifted and he worked beyond anybody else. And he always was there to help somebody else do the same thing.

    Was one of the thing that motivated him this terror of losing his job?

    Yes.

    Explain that.

    Well, when we came in, of course there was the competition. We're going back to rookie season. I didn't come to Pittsburgh until he knew that he had made the team, until he got the official word, because you never knew.

    And every year he worked harder and harder because he didn't want anybody to replace him. He wanted to do his job, but the best he could do at his job. He was never satisfied [with] doing 90 percent; it was always 110 percent. He worked harder; he was more knowledgeable. He was like a student of the game.

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    Did he ever enjoy the success?

    No. I really don't think he ever was cognizant about success. He never, ever flaunted it. He was always very humble and not really comfortable with the success. He knew he had it. He knew he wanted it.

    He wouldn't have been happy not to be in the playoffs every year. That would have been beyond frustrating to be on a team that wouldn't have made the playoffs, because you want the reward at the end of all that hard work to get into the playoffs, not to just sit on the sidelines and say, "We almost made it."

    But he was very humble, and he wasn't comfortable with his own success ever.

    How was he treated?

    Oh, the fans loved him because he was very much -- this was the right city for Mike. You know, Pittsburgh was the right fans, the right city.

    He would be one of those guys that would stay at the -- one of my favorite times when he played was meeting him after the game, and he would always be the last one out of the locker room. Always last, the longest shower, talk to every reporter. And then when he got out, finally out of the door, there would be a crowd of little kids and people, and he'd sign every autograph. It would just take a long time to get back to where we were going. ...

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    You've talked a little bit in one of the last interviews about what it was like to be that "medieval warrior," [as] you defined it, on the field. Explain that a little bit.

    Well, as we had said before, when I was at the athletic department and looked out the window, it was much like watching almost from a nip of time the guys coming into the stadium like the gladiators would come in back at that time.

    And these guys were warriors. They used to call Mike's group "Webster's warriors." And it was a perfect name for them, because it was war out there. It's a different game now than it was then. But the amount of training and the physical abuse was much more back then, so I really compared it to being a warrior.

    Do people watching this game on television quite understand that?

    I don't think so. And I think there's just this marked change now where it's -- I believe it's more sports entertainment than it was the game of the '70s. And you may have the players from the '60s saying that about the '70s. But the '70s and '80s was a different -- where the physical toll, especially with that position, the offensive line, defensive line, is so much different than if you're a running back or a quarterback. That group of men had a personality of their own.

    Explain that. Why was it more dangerous?

    It was more dangerous because you took more hits. You had to be physically strong enough to sustain those hits. And if you fell down and lost, you know, the ability to get back up, somebody was going to take your job. They would just get somebody else to take that job. And your training and your stamina really had to be strong.

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    Mike's use of his head as a weapon

    And Mike's use of his head, how the head became a weapon.

    Yeah. Actually in some of the interviews, I've talked to people who actually use their head as a weapon, and admitted that on Mike, when they were playing against Mike.

    I think when you're at that position, center -- Mike's body was built for playing center because he was low to the ground and had a low back. But also every time you come up, your head is going to get hit at that position more than any other position on the field. You're going to get more head hits because you're coming up every time from a solid stance.

    How would he come home? Injuries?

    You know, he never complained about injuries. And the funny thing is, I never worried about him getting injured, never ever. And somebody thought that was so odd. And I said, "Well, he was 'Iron Mike.' Why would I worry about --?" I was totally confident in how he was training and that he was strong enough to sustain anything.

    He -- very, very few times would complain about things. He would just pretty much suck it up. He was Mike Webster, and this was expected of him, and this was what he had to do.

    But how much of that was because of his pride for being who he was and what he represented, and how much of it was make-believe? Did you see the injuries? Did you see him being battered?

    I think when you're married, and the wife that they come home to, they can let down a little bit. Yeah, there was definitely -- you could see the bruises; you could see how it would ache. But he wasn't a complainer. And I think he sort of expected that. But you could see the headaches, the body aches, the toll it took on him. But he was not going to miss a game. That would have killed him, to miss a game and not be with his line, being there with his team.

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    Give me your favorite moment of those good years.

    I just loved watching him play. I loved watching him suit up. And Mike's favorite games were the ones that were cold and snowy and frigid, and he could get up there with his short sleeves -- because he started the whole short-sleeve thing so people couldn't hold him. Not because he wanted to show off his muscles, [but] because he didn't want anybody to hold him.

    But just watching him play, and the dirtier and muddier it got, and it was just -- you know, the strength he had in playing. And of course winning is a big deal. You don't want to be on a losing team when you work that hard.

    How did it feel to be a member of a family of basically, in Pittsburgh, royalty?

    I never -- I would say now the football players are royal; I don't think we were. I think linemen are a group among themselves. They don't have that attitude of we're royalty and we're above everybody else. I think they're the hardworking front line; they get the job done.

    But it was nice when we'd go out to dinner to have, you know -- we would only go to -- we lived a very common life. We did not live a life of celebrity like today. It was a totally different game. It would be nice to be able to get a table, and everybody would say hello and stuff. But, you know, Mike and I didn't go out that much. We were really at home most of the time.

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    Let's skip up to the latter years. At the end of his career he's been pissed off because he doesn't get the big job of coaching that he'd always looked forward to. What had he hoped for? What happened that prevented that from happening? And how disappointed was he?

    I think it really broke his heart. It broke his spirit. We had talked to the coaches. I mean, Mike was closer sometimes to some of the coaches than the players, especially his old line coaches. He was very close to them. And it was almost like he was being groomed because of a maturity and his knowledge to be a coach.

    So I remember him coming home that day and saying, "They don't want me as a coach," and it was just -- you could just see how disappointed and how broken he was because of that. We honestly thought our life was going to be in Pittsburgh. That's where he was going to stay and coach out his years, and when he found out, it was just devastating to him.

    Why do you think it happened?

    We don't know to this day why it happened. [Mike and Pam's son] Garrett and I talked about it a little bit, and we don't know if it was a change of Art [Rooney] Sr., the chief, dying and this new regime coming in under Dan [Rooney, Art's son], or if they noticed something in Mike that wasn't there before.

    Because at that time, that was getting close to his retirement, I was noticing things about brain injury, you know, just at home, that he wasn't the same as he was before. I don't know if that happened. I don't know the reason it happened. We were totally in shock by it.

    What were you noticing?

    Just his ability to concentrate, his ability to pay bills, his anger, his not forgetfulness but his distractedness. And he just didn't enjoy things. His enjoyment was really removed from life. He just wasn't -- not that Mike was ever really a jolly, "I enjoy life" sort of guy, happy-go-lucky at all. It took a whole lot to get him happy. It was really -- I think it was a turning point for us.

    Is it at this exact same point where he realizes that they're reneging on the coaching job that he's also put on the unprotected list?

    That's right, and that was a real blow, not only to us but to some of the other players that we played with. You know, it was just -- that was really a blow, because in football, especially at that time, it's such a family unit. It's like a family unit not only between the players, because you're more like brothers than a team, but the management also becomes your kind of sole, like, adopted family, whether they know it or not. They're kind of like the father figure in the family.

    So when you get that, it's almost like you're unwanted. And I think when you come from a broken family to begin with, like Mike did, with some dysfunction and lack of father figure, that is really a hard blow.

    It must have been.

    Mmm-hmm. It really just changed things so much. I mean, you could see it in his face that day. He was just -- it really saddened him.

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    Explain the finances. In different families it's done in different ways. In your family Mike was the guy that handled the finances, so you didn't quite know what was going on?

    I didn't know what was going on. Mike handled that. He had a team. Sometimes his financial team was good; sometimes it was bad. But the last couple of years he had a very good team, and they took good care of things. And that was the last -- we were kind of transitioning to "Well, we've got to have a retirement plan." So we had things in a good place.

    However, I wasn't -- and this is, again, back in the '70s -- I wasn't as included as women are now in some of those decisions. In retrospect you should have been, but you weren't. It was the '70s and '80s.

    And we were fine. We had a lot of deferred money to go to Kansas City with. Kansas City was an option because at that point, you know, you've got an offer -- well, his first offer was to coach and then to play. But you're looking at that as bonus money, you know, to help you get through those years, because he didn't really have a plan. He didn't graduate from college, so there was no "OK, I've got a plan; this is what I'm going to do."

    I guess the plan was coaching, wasn't it?

    The plan was coaching. But if the coaching didn't work out, there was no backup plan.

    So how does the money disappear?

    You know, to this day I don't know where it all went. I know that Mike lost control of a lot of things, and I really attribute that to brain injury. When you look back and you know the reasons, you can identify brain injury; you see it coming up in these things. I think a lot of people took advantage of his injuries, his state of mind and that. The money was coming in, and all of a sudden I remember one day, we were living in Wisconsin, and he said the money stopped; our backup pay had stopped, what we had put aside.

    And then I found out we had no insurance. And that was another story.

    Why didn't you have medical insurance?

    We didn't have medical insurance -- we had it in Kansas City, we had it in Pittsburgh, but when we got out, I was under the assumption that the Steelers would cover us for a long period of time, or at least cover Mike. And I remember Garrett got an injury at school, and I got a bill for the insurance. I wanted to submit it, and there was no insurance, so we had to pay that off.

    And then that's when I got a job. I hadn't worked for years. So I had to get a job at a local hamburger place just to get insurance for me and the kids. But that was when things were really bad. ...

  11. Ψ Share'He didn't even want to go to the Hall of Fame.'

    Let's talk about the Hall of Fame. Describe that day. ...

    I think it was a real mixed day because we didn't know what would happen, ... and we didn't know what to expect from Mike because his behavior had been so erratic. Even his appearance had been not good. I mean, he wasn't dressed for it or had a haircut or anything for the Hall of Fame.

    In fact, he didn't even want to go to the Hall of Fame. He didn't want this honor. He didn't agree with the administration of the Hall of Fame. He totally didn't want this honor. He just didn't want any part of it.

    Why? This is one of the greatest honors for a guy --

    But he saw it as somehow that they were going to take advantage of him financially, because you don't get any kickbacks from stuff sold at the Hall of Fame, although they should be helping the families of their members, especially now when we see how the families are suffering. But he also saw it as another control thing.

    Now he didn't trust anybody. I mean, that's part of the brain injury: You lose trust, and paranoia is huge. He didn't want this honor. Well, you know, like we said before, Mike was very humble. He didn't really want honors. He didn't care about Super Bowl rings. He didn't care about trophies. We didn't have any in our house.

    So the Hall of Fame -- we were very nervous about would he show up? Would he be able to give a speech? Or if he gave a speech, what was going to happen? ...

    How was his speech? How did he do?

    He rambled on. I think he really struggled through the speech. For him to get up there and do that was a huge accomplishment at that time.

    And if you can look back at that and see the speech, you can see how he was suffering with it. It was really a humbling moment for him to have to get up there and have people look at him, and give opinions and see what had happened to this really strong man, this man of dignity and strength and pride, and how he had faltered through this. ...

    So for you and the kids, was it at least somewhat satisfying, or was it mostly sort of disappointing?

    I think we were proud that he was there. We were proud that he had made it. We knew that this was going to happen sometime, but we had been going through so much as a family that I don't think we were able to enjoy it like a functioning family could. It was just like -- financially we couldn't get there without the help of the Hall of Fame. Financially we were struggling. We were living on what I was making at Culvers [restaurant] and what Mike could drum up from what he was getting. And he lived on poverty level. So it was really a struggle.

    It wasn't a day where you're just really enjoying [it] like [Miami Dolphins coach] Don Shula could enjoy it, or someone else there could enjoy it. It was really a struggle for the family that day, and to be reminded of what we had and what we were, and what we don't have anymore. And I remember at one point, one of the photographers came up and said to Mike, "I'd like to get a picture of your family." And he leaned over to me and said, "This is probably the last family picture we're going to have together." And I think it was. So I think it was just a sad, sad thing.

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    ... What had happened to the marriage, and why?

    Well, as we find out now, and I've talked to other wives, living with somebody with this kind of brain injury is very hard, and you get the blame for it, because there's no -- you know, now with this knowledge -- and that's one of the goals of helping people now with brain injury is we can say: "If they act like this, don't take it personally. It's not your fault. It's brain injury, and this is how you deal with it."

    At that time a lot of things were my fault, a lot of things -- we didn't understand what was happening. You're just trying to get by in this storm. I mean, your money's gone; your pride's gone. You're not wanted in the city you played your heart out in. Mike's in one area, and he's not Mike anymore. You know, he's angry all the time; our bills are all overdue; our house is getting foreclosed. All the security is gone -- not only the security within the marriage, the security within football. All those parameters are removed.

    So everything's crumbling. Our relationship was very hard because Mike and I, more than anything, were best friends and talked about everything. But then the rage came in, the unexpected financial strains of having a family. And then moving to Wisconsin was a really bad move. We felt not wanted in Pittsburgh, and Kansas City he wasn't able to coach. So Wisconsin was a bad choice.

    Why did you feel you weren't welcome in Pittsburgh?

    Well, I think after we left Pittsburgh and the Steelers didn't want him, and that's where we were going to go and coach, that was our master plan, what was he going to do? He wasn't able to hold down a job. He wasn't able to do the thought process to take a job or to have the connections to get a job in Pittsburgh again. I mean, the jobs for athletes, at that time, you had to have connections. You had to be -- you know, have a financial background to do some of the jobs that were being offered. He didn't have that. He couldn't be a broker. He couldn't do that. He couldn't concentrate. He couldn't take care of our things at home, let alone anything else, let alone his physical condition, which went downhill so rapidly.

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    'Iron Mike couldn't carry his daughter up a hill.'

    So let's talk about some of the lousy stuff that happened. One of the things you talked about was the Christmas where you bought all the gifts and then all the checks bounced. Tell me that story.

    Well, you know, Mike had a good heart. Family was number one to him, and he wanted us to have Christmas. Our last Christmas together was like this -- I don't know if it was the Christmas before our last Christmas together, but he wanted so bad to promise you that he could bring through, come through with a check for Christmas.

    And he would write checks and send them to me, but then a week later they would bounce because he didn't have the funds for them. And that would be really hard, because number one, I knew it was Christmas, and number two, it had to be embarrassing for him. He couldn't provide for us the way he wanted to, or the way he wanted his kids to have Christmas.

    So at that point, when I found out, I bought the gifts; I thought, how am I going to cover this? So I just took all the wedding rings I had and all the jewelry and sold it. Got one-fourth of what it was worth, but I was able to cover the checks because I wanted us to have Christmas. ...

    I think you said at one point that one of the hardest things for him was that he couldn't be Daddy anymore.

    He couldn't be Dad. And it was really hard for him to even -- well, first of all, he didn't have joy in it. He wasn't experiencing those feelings anymore of joy. Mike wasn't Mike. He was angrier quicker than before, and didn't have the patience to have the kids on his lap or take a walk with the kids, like he didn't have that stamina physically. I mean, at one point he couldn't even carry my daughter up the hill at the zoo, which here's Mike -- Iron Mike couldn't carry his daughter up the hill. I think he wanted -- that was his dream, to get that family back, and it just never happened. It was heartbreaking.

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    You talked a little bit in the past about sort of also physically how he started looking.

    Yeah, he looked 20 years older at least than what he was, at least. He was 40 looking 65, 70. His teeth were falling out. His body -- he had cellulitis. His heart was getting enlarged. His arthritis in his hands were shaped like a football. His fingers were all broken. There were broken bones in his feet, so he would always wear cowboy boots, because that's the only thing he could wear. That's all he ever wore was that. But physically he was really tortured.

    He was not -- And the aging -- just to look at him, you didn't know. He didn't look like who he was before, and he didn't act like it. ...

    So how did this start affecting him? There's this story you tell about coming home and all his pictures are destroyed.

    Oh, yeah. His anger was inappropriate to what the consequence -- or the action was inappropriate to the consequence. His anger was out of control. And then at the same point 20 minutes later it would be like he's forgotten it and he's feeling really sad about it all.

    I came home, and he was angry about something; I don't even remember at this point what it was. But he took a knife and slashed all his football pictures. They were all destroyed and gone, and broken glass. And they were all down.

    And it wasn't Mike. Mike would have never done this. I mean, he was never one to boast about who he was or what he did or anything like that. He'd rather have pictures of his kids on the wall than his playing days. But I think he was so angry at himself and what had become of him, and in terms of being a football player and who he was and what had happened to the family that he just destroyed that part.

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    So the anger toward you, did it come to you?

    The anger did come to me. However, at that instance I think he was angry at himself. He was just angry. I mean, there was times he -- in later years he would take an ax and bash a headlight in the car if he was angry at something. There were times we were in the car and he took his fist and just hammered it into the dashboard because he needed to make a point.

    The governor on his anger was gone. So one time he might be this wonderful dad reading a story and cuddling in bed with the kids. The next time he might be lying in bed pathetically because he didn't have any Ritalin to get out of bed. And the next time he might be so angry that you were afraid to go to sleep. And he was very paranoid. So yeah, the anger was there, but you never knew when it was coming. ...

    And the violence toward you to the point where you were afraid of him.

    Yeah, I was afraid. I didn't know what to expect. There was only one incidence of physical violence. But his anger was just so out of proportion to what had happened or what would happen. He just -- and that wasn't Mike. Mike could be angry and strong and physical on the field, but at home that was not Mike.

    And that happens in so many cases of wives talking -- coming out now, which a lot of them aren't talking about this. You want to protect this guy. You want to protect what little is left of this wonderful man that has just disintegrated.

    But in that position as a wife, as a mother, what are you left to do? What can you do?

    You don't do anything. You cope. I mean, just getting through each day you're coping; you're just getting things. Your main thing is I've got to feed the kids; I've got to take care of them; I've got to get them to school. You become over a period -- now, a very short period for us -- you become desensitized to the crazy around you. You're just getting by. You've got to just go on autopilot, so to speak, just to get by, because you don't know this person that's with you anymore. And you have to be really careful [about] what you do that you don't upset him. And what the kids do, you don't want them to do something to upset him. He was a shell of what he was before. And the really sad part is, it wasn't his fault. And he didn't know that, and I didn't know that. ...

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    And how did the anger grow at football? We'll talk about the disability case in a second. But how did the anger -- as you said, he's 45 years old; he's a star, seen as a god by Pittsburgh fans. And you're living a lifestyle which you could never have imagined.

    ... This is a very short timeframe. This is maybe a year and a half that everything went from good to crappy as hell. I mean, this really -- so with brain injury, after talking to Garrett, it can come on really fast with some guys, and other guys it's a very slow progression where they're getting lost in the grocery store.

    With Mike it was -- and again, that might be his position -- with that position being stronger than any other position and the possibility for head injury, I think that centers, defensive linemen, people with that constant hitting, that's going to show up more.

    But for us it was never -- I mean, we were just thankful to get through the day. I mean, sometimes there wasn't food. Sometimes there wasn't heat in the thing. We had lost our apartment. We've lost Mike. We've lost our job. We don't have anyplace to go. We don't have any support system. We can't trust any of the people that we knew in Pittsburgh. Mike isn't reaching out to them.

    Why not? He cut himself off from all the other players.

    Yeah, he did. ... A lot of people were ignorant of it. The people that saw him and were asking, he didn't want to go out to lunch with them. You know, a lot of people did help, and I never knew of it. ...

    Cutting himself off from other people. I mean, there are stories of him ripping up checks. Pride? Not wanting them to see what he had become?

    Yeah. I think that you're embarrassed. He was a leader on the team. He was Mike Webster. And then to be down to a place of poverty, a place where your brain can't function to finish a sentence without some help from Ritalin or whatever you need to function for a short period of time.

    I think it was -- you know, the focus shouldn't be on me and what we went through; the focus should be on the pain and the brokenness he went through. ...

  17. Ψ Share
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    Mike Webster's Legacy

    Just give me this sort of overview of what the disability fight was about, and why it took so long.

    Honestly, it went on forever because we're battling the NFL. They're the strongest entity in the world. You know, the Vatican and the NFL, you just don't question; you don't battle. We weren't getting a lot of cooperation from everyone. We're battling an institution that's never been battled here.

    So, you know, this was Mike's last fight, and his greatest fight, getting cooperation, getting help, getting -- I mean, we were quieted in every way we can. I don't know what the struggle was for Mike and Bob [Fitzsimmons, the attorney who argued his case against the NFL], because I was in Wisconsin just trying to get by, just trying to make it through the day with the kids and stuff. This was happening out in Pittsburgh.

    But we kept getting calls, "Well, you know, they're going to court." He was promising and promising that "When this is settled I'm going to get you a house. When this is settled, things are going to be right again." He wanted that dream to go back for us and the kids, even if he lost everything himself.

    It didn't go that way, though.

    No, it didn't.

    Why was the NFL fighting so forcefully to --

    Well, I don't think they wanted to acknowledge it. And if it wouldn't have been -- I've said this for years. If it hadn't been for Mike, if it was any other NFL player bar Terry Bradshaw or somebody of that stature, this thing would still be in litigation. I think it wouldn't be the issue it is right now.

    I think a player of Mike's regard, talent, respect, knowledge -- I mean, he was Iron Mike on and off the field. He was Mr. Webster. So it took somebody of his stature to bring this thing through and to see this battle through. I think it was a given. I just think he was chosen for this. The NFL picked the wrong opponent to battle in that one. Mike compared it often to David and Goliath. ...

    He would call this his greatest battle. He'd say it was like David and Goliath over and over, because it was. He was taking on something that was bigger than him.

    Was he taking it on only for himself and his family?

    No. Mike was not that selfish, you know. I think he wanted to prove that there was more to what was going on than just Mike having a headache or Mike losing his money. It was for the right reasons. He took on this battle for the right reasons. He was the right person to do it.

    Unfortunately, it cost us everything. You know, we haven't had compensation to bring him back. The kids would turn it around any day and say, "We'd rather have a father or a grandfather that we could do things with, that could read us stories, than" -- but we haven't had anything. So we've lost out on everything.

    Our main thing, our main goal in here is to make other families aware of not having to go through what we went through.

    Did he understand that he was brain-damaged?

    I think on some level he knew things were wrong. He couldn't hold a sentence. One thing he wrote was getting thoughts across were like trying to talk -- he compared it to tangled fishing wire. When fishing wire gets tangled you can't untangle it -- not even like a necklace, but fishing wire. It's clear and it's all tangled up. And that's how his thought process was.

    I don't think it was a battle just to, like a lawsuit or a disability lawsuit to just win money. It was to get the NFL to admit that they had something to do with it, that whether it be a cover-up or the knowledge or the fault, he wanted to speak for thousands like him. ...

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    So how does it end up with divorce? Why is the final decision made?

    Well, it was kind of a divorce by default. It was like it had been on the books for a while. I had been getting notices from, I knew Mike was getting notices from the IRS. I was worried about my financial responsibility in this. It was just so hard to stay married anymore. And we were living two different lives.

    In retrospect, it would have been a lot better because I would have been getting some major benefits now. You know, it would have been a lot better staying married.

    I regret the divorce. I regret that I didn't understand more. I regret that my faith wasn't stronger at the time, that I would have been more supportive.

    A lot of this back then I remember it was my fault. Mike was angry at me. I was told repeatedly everything -- I was to blame on every level. And now when you look back and you have the understanding, this isn't Mike talking, this is his brain injury talking, then you can go back and say could have, would have, should have. I wish I would have done this; I could have been more of a support.

    I got out of focus, because for me, a lot of what I did was I couldn't deal with it. I had to have an escape. You know, I had to have someplace to go where my life wasn't crazy and my kids weren't rebelling, and Mike was falling apart and we were financially strapped. It was just -- there was no good times in it. There was a period of five years we didn't take a picture with a camera because we didn't want to remember anything. ...

    Did you know it was because of football? I mean, at the time, when you see what's going on with him, what was your answer?

    Well, I thought the anger was because of me. But Mike was blaming football. He knew that the change had had to happen because his body was falling apart. Well, for sure we didn't know it was brain injury. It wasn't diagnosed at that time. But he was really struggling with this and the lack of support for it. I mean, football was there when you were playing it. When you were over it, it was like goodbye, shut the door, and it's over. You know, it didn't come with that playbook, "Well, here's life; here's your playbook for life now." ...

  19. Ψ Share
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    Mike Webster's Legacy
    Did football destroy Mike's life?

    So when you look back at it, do you see -- you know, this is about a game, this is about football. Do you see the bottom line is that football destroyed his life, destroyed your life?

    No, no, I don't look at it at all like that. I think he paid a very high price for it. I don't see it as football destroying our life; I think brain injury because of football destroyed what we had and made it a lot harder than it had to be.

    I think the NFL certainly shirked the responsibility to the families left behind. You know, that's where my big issue is, the families left behind -- my children, my grandchildren, not so much me. I don't need a lot, but I think of the families and the players before Mike. ...

    Their position -- a lot of these NFL doctors to this day say the connection to, number one, CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] is not proven to be connected to football.

    ... But if they admit it, it's going to cost them a lot of money, because it's kind of like their Pandora's box, because if they would have handled this right, saying "Oh, wow, we see that there's a problem; how can we help? What can we do to make this better?," instead of denying it, hiding it under the rug, waiting for somebody of Mike's stature to die to bring it to their attention.

    They fought us tooth and nail because they don't want to discuss this. You know, they didn't want it known.

    And if it wouldn't have been -- like I said all along, if it wouldn't have been for Mike, it wouldn't be known right now. Maybe when somebody of Mike's stature died again.

    You know -- the suicides, I think Mike didn't commit suicide because he loved his children so much; he couldn't do that to them. If he didn't have those children, yeah, he would have been gone long before. It was too hard for him to live. ...

    So one of these NFL doctors the other day told me that: "Listen, we don't know enough about the science, number one, of all this. And number two, I know a lot of retired football players, and you know what? They're doing fine. This idea that this illness is connected to this, and that there's so many people scared of getting CTE now, is ridiculous."

    Well, you know, I think if you're talking from a medical standpoint or if you're talking from a standpoint where you're diagnosing it, it's two different things of who's talking. If you talk to players, players' families, yeah, it scares the hell out of them. Would you want to end up like Mike Webster? I don't think so, for you or your family.

    But I think that now some of the preventative steps are guys aren't going to play that long. You're not going to see NFL players with 17-year careers. They're going to be short careers. So will they end up as bad as Mike? No. They're also being able to within the next few years, maybe diagnose it while the guy's still living. ...

    But, you know, at Mike's funeral, I looked at everybody else there. Some of the players were there, and I think, why did our lives change so much, and your life doesn't look like it changed at all? That was really hard to see our lives had changed so much. But then I think Mike's God-given quest was to make this issue, you know, when you look at the circumstances and the things involved, this was what he was supposed to do with his life. My biggest regret is I wasn't able to support him in the way I should have. ...

  20. Ψ ShareRelief, vindication and sadness at the diagnosis

    Talk about the irony. Here comes this Nigerian doctor [Bennet Omalu], doesn't know football because he never watched it, comes from Nigeria. He sort of takes up the fight where Mike leaves it off.

    Some things you say in life: "Well, God had a plan. This is all a part of this master plan." And if you look at the players in this thing, they've all got this thread running through it all: It was all meant to be. The doctor -- you know, the way that things happened for him, the connections.

    And it was just like a doctor that Mike would have picked. You know, this guy wasn't just a famous doctor from -- that everybody, was well respected. The NFL didn't want him talking. Nobody wanted him to do it. He just felt led to do this. The circumstances fell together in all this plan.

    I remember being at the funeral and we were told they wanted to do an autopsy on Mike. Actually Mike was an organ donor, too, and we said, "Well, if it can help somebody, go ahead and do it, because that's what he would have wanted."

  21. Ψ Share

    How do you find out that, oh my God, there's actually something there?

    Yeah. Garrett had told me. [The Websters' other son] Colin was at war, so he couldn't have been on firsthand. You know, you've got to remember, this family's all split up all over the place. For me it was a relief and a vindication. But it was also a really sad diagnosis, you know.

    Why sad?

    Because you realize that it will happen again to someone else, because they're finding out why he acted this way. So we know we're not the only people that played football that's going to get this kind of diagnosis. But it was just sad that he had to suffer and that he didn't have the cure, and he wasn't made comfortable by the NFL or by a doctor. He has suffered. You know, the most in this whole story is not me or my children or the NFL; it's Mike Webster who suffered the most.

    I mean him sitting in the car, getting lost on the roads --

    Yeah, or living in a car, living in a train station. You know, we'd get calls, and it was like, "What happened to Mike?" "Oh, he's in the train station, and somebody said you've got to pick him up. He can't stay here." You know, to see him humbled from being this huge star and this strong, strong man, Iron Mike on the field, to living in a train station or getting lost in his car, just, you know, not being able to chew food because he doesn't have teeth. I mean, that was heartbreaking.

    And that's the part, the story that the NFL doesn't want told, the story, or maybe people want to hear. Colin and I are writing a book, and this is the story we finally feel that needs to be told, so others can see this and say, "Oh, my God, that's what's happening." ...

  22. Ψ Share

    So after Mike's death, you get a phone call from Bob Fitzsimmons saying that he had finally won the suit. They had gone through multiple courts over many years, and in 2006 the win, $1.5 million for the total disability. Bittersweet win?

    Yeah, that was bittersweet, because of course it was Mike's win. It was something that he battled and that he would have enjoyed the win, and he wasn't there. You know, he's gone. I'm sure he would have been happy in heaven saying, "It's helping my kids."

    It didn't help super much. We didn't get that much, and we went through it. For a family who's had nothing for years, and all of a sudden to get a little gift of money, you go out and spend it recklessly, not wisely. It was finally a victory for him that he had fought hard and he gave his life for. So very, very bittersweet victory. ...

  23. Ψ Share

    The response of what you feel when people say, "Well, you know, it's football"?

    "Oh, he got paid a lot. He deserved that." I've read so many of those, and it makes me so angry when somebody said: "Well, he got paid a lot of money; he deserved that. He knew the risk going in." They need to back-step. They didn't live with this guy. You know, you didn't sign up for this when you knew at that time.

    Now it's different. You know, now you're getting paid millions of dollars. And if you want to call it a trade-off, you're trading X amount of years of your life and your sanity for $20 million, you can say that now.

    But you cannot say that with players from the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s. We didn't have that. You can ask any of my kids would they rather have $10 million or their father back, they'll take their father back.

    And did you know the risk?

    No, no. We did not know the risk. At that time, you come out of football thinking, well, I've probably blown my knees; my ankles are bad; I'm going to have some arthritis. But nobody ever thought, my brain's going to be mush.

    It's going to be kind of like Humpty Dumpty and all the king's men, and all the king's horses couldn't put Humpty together again. I mean, that's what it's like. We have the technology now to put those parts back together, but not his brain. You know, that was a risk that was unknown to us. ...

Topics in this interview

?> Mike Webster's Legacy
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