ike Webster, whose Hall of Fame pro football career was followed by more than a decade of physical and psychological turmoil apparently brought on by repeated blows to the head on the field, died yesterday in a Pittsburgh hospital. He was 50.
The cause of death was a heart attack, the Pittsburgh Steelers said. Webster played center for 15 seasons (1974-88) for the Steelers and two seasons (1989-90) for the Kansas City Chiefs. In 1997, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and in 2000 he was named to the National Football League's all-time team.
Webster was a pivotal player on the standout Steeler teams that captured four Super Bowl championships in the 1970's. He was an undersized 225-pound center at the University of Wisconsin who lingered in the N.F.L. draft until the fifth round, when he was selected by the Steelers. He transformed himself into a 260-pound tough-minded professional, a man known as Iron Mike who played bare-armed in freezing weather and helped set the tone for a Pittsburgh offense that included the future Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
Of the 22 players who were part of all four Steeler Super Bowl teams, Webster was the last to leave and the first to die.
"I couldn't have been the player I was without him," Bradshaw said. "He was so smart, so prepared for everything we would face in a game. We all worked hard, but none as hard as Mike did."
Chuck Noll, his Steelers coach, said, "He was very smart, a great technician."
But Webster's transition to post-football life was filled with setbacks. He increasingly lived away from home, sometimes sleeping in his car. His marriage broke up. He lost money in bad investments. He was often reclusive.
In 1997, just before his Hall of Fame induction, his troubled life became public, and he told The Atlanta Journal and Constitution: "Because of all this publicity over my situation, people treat me like I'm dying or something. And I don't want their pity. Things in general, they're getting a lot better."
At the time, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Webster was "homeless, unemployed, deep in debt, beset with medical ailments, lacking health insurance, in the midst of divorce, in the care of a psychiatrist and on medication, and involved in a complex lawsuit over real estate investments."
But Webster tried to reassure people that his life was not as damaged as it seemed. "I don't think it's anybody's business," he said of his problems. "I'm not destitute." And responding to reports that he had lived in his car for 18 months, he told The St. Petersburg Times:
"From time to time, yes, I did sleep in my car and stay in my car. There's a broad definition of what living out of your car is. And yes, I slept in a train station one time. I had some things to think through. I wasn't broke. I wasn't in danger. I was just out of gas, tired and exhausted, and that's as far as I got that day."
In 1999, Webster was charged with forging 19 prescriptions to obtain Ritalin, a stimulant mainly used for children with attention deficit hyperactivity. He said he was using the drug to treat brain damage caused by repeated head injuries that had led him to behave erratically.
Webster's doctors said that the concussions Webster had in his career had indeed damaged his frontal lobe, causing cognitive dysfunction, and that his attention span and concentration had been affected.
Webster also stated that in his playing days he had tried anabolic steroids — illegal body-building substances that can cause health problems — but he maintained they were not responsible for his condition.
"I am not seeking your pity or sympathy," he said at a news conference at the time. "I'm not seeking a pardon for my actions, and I'm not really asking for your understanding, even though grown men need understanding. But I do promise you this: No matter what happens, I will answer the charges."
During that same period, Dr. Fred Jay Krieg, a clinical psychologist, said Webster had "the football version of punch drunk."
"It doesn't get better," Krieg added. "You get more and more demented. It's sad."
In September 1999, Webster pleaded no contest to the forgery charges and was placed on probation for five years. Later, he was treated for depression and symptoms of congestive heart failure.
Two years ago, Webster's son Garrett moved from Wisconsin to live with him in Pittsburgh. The son, at 6 feet 9 inches and 340 pounds, is a high school senior and an offensive lineman on his football team.
"I have to take care of my dad," he said a week ago. "There will be some mornings he can't get up from the couch because he feels so terrible."
Webster's erratic habits and continued absences contributed to a breakup of his marriage, and his former wife, Pamela, said she had to sell their house and car and take a job as a cleaning woman.
Webster is also survived by two sons, Colin of Camp LeJeune, N.C., and Garrett; two daughters, Hillary and Brooke; two grandchildren; his father, William, of Harshaw, Wis.; two brothers, Reid and Joe Webster; and two sisters, Wendy and Jane Webster.
Michael L. Webster was born March 18, 1952, in Tomahawk, Wis., and was reared on a 640-acre potato farm. He didn't play high school ball until his junior year, but won a scholarship to Wisconsin. As a Steeler, he played in nine Pro Bowl games and 245 N.F.L. games, including 177 in a row. He earned $16,000 in his first season, $400,000 in his last.
When Webster was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he chose Bradshaw to present him. And Webster's acceptance speech was emotional and prophetic.
"You only fail if you don't finish the game," he said. "If you finish, you won. You have to measure by what you started out with, by what you overcome. Who wants to get to the end of their life and find out they haven't lived at all? You're going to fail — I did — but that's O.K. because in your life no one is keeping score. Just finish the game."