It was a locker room filled with huge personalities—Mean Joe Greene, mercurial Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, who was always good for a laugh, and Jack Lambert, who'd take out his teeth and growl, just to keep you loose. A reporter could fill a notebook in half an hour with those Steelers during their quadruple Super Bowl run of the 1970s, but if I wanted to know what really happened on the field, if I had technical questions, I went to Mike Webster.
The center position has had a long run of greatness on the Steelers. Ray Mansfield had the job for 12 years and holds the club record of 182 straight games. Then came Webster, then perennial All-Pro Dermontti Dawson, and now Jeff Hartings, who's close to Pro Bowl level. In 1975 I talked to Mansfield about a second-year pro, Webster, who was splitting the job with him. "No one's learned this offense so fast," Mansfield said. "No one's as technically perfect. You watch, he's going to be one of the greatest."
Webster was as revered for his toughness and durability—177 straight games, a Steelers record 220 overall—as he was for his ability. It was his badge of honor: You don't miss a game, you don't miss a practice. That's the tragedy of his life. Who knows how many concussions Webster sustained in his 17-year career, how many wallops he absorbed from Greene and Fats Holmes in practice? In 1999, 11 years after he'd retired, he was found to have brain damage. Doctors say the trauma of blows damaged his frontal lobe. He ended up as foggy as a punch-drunk fighter, barely able to function—the condition he was in when he died of a heart attack last week. He was 50.
I talked to Webster in that Steelers locker room many times, and he never lied or sugar-coated. And after I'd interview him, he'd thank me, then smile and point to the crowded section of the locker room and say, "Better go talk to the superstars." In his mind he was just a workingman who played center. Many people feel no one ever played it better.