A Sort-of Hometown Hero
I should have puffed up with pride when a photo of a ferocious-looking footballer appeared in the University of Wisconsin alumni magazine with this caption: “Mike Webster as a Badger: the Tomahawk, Wisconsin, native was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1974 and played seventeen seasons in the NFL . . .”
Like all small communities, my hometown hasn’t produced a big crop of famous people, so a legitimate hero means a lot. The trouble here is that referring to the man who became known as “Iron Mike” for stellar play that took him to four Super Bowl victories and a berth in the NFL Hall of Fame as a “Tomahawk native” is stretching things.
Webster’s parents were potato farmers north of Tomahawk, but Mike went to school and played high school football at Rhinelander, which is about 18 miles from my hometown. The Rhinelander High School stadium is named for him.
Although he ranks right at the top in discussions of the best center ever to play pro football, the sport did not treat Webster well. He suffered numerous head traumas, was hooked on painkillers by the time he retired, had bouts of amnesia, depression, and dementia, and died while still a young man. His family sued the NFL for disability payments in 2006 and won a $1 million judgment.
The lawsuit and attendant news stories did much to raise the level of concern about effects of concussions on athletes. The topic is on the front-burner today throughout the sports world.
The Webster family saw to it that Mike made a contribution to the cause of better protection for athletes. After he died, his brain was sent to the University of Pittsburgh. There, a pathologist did an autopsy resulting in the first diagnosis of CTE, a condition caused by years of absorbing blows to the head. That made Webster the first NFL player to receive that diagnosis, a research breakthrough upon which others are building as they study effects of repeated jolts to the head and how to prevent the damage.
Webster’s posthumous contribution may turn out to be his finest. He became a hero, hometown or not, once again after he died.
The pro football anti-heroes right now are the greedy owners trying to convince the players’ union to agree to expand the schedule by two for a total of 18 games. This is unconscionable with ample scientific evidence in hand that damage from repeated head-knocking is cumulative.
My favorite club, the Green Bay Packers, is a nonprofit corporation and thus has no greedy owner. We small-fry shareholders should be watching closely on this one to see what position our representatives take. Clearly, the players’ health should be the top priority.