Man on the moon

With a pending court case involving the NFL retirement plan and Mike Webster, ESPN.com explores the life and tragic death of the former Steelers center. Third in a five-part series:

By Greg Garber

When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon 35 years ago, he became the first man to set foot in another world. That giant leap for mankind was a high-water mark for humanity and, by implication, nothing in the celebrated astronaut's life would ever approach the magnitude of that moment.

So it often is with players in the National Football League, for those who live in that world, even briefly, sometimes struggle when they are forced to leave it.

Very few -- former Bills quarterback Jack Kemp (U.S. Congress), former Vikings defensive tackle Alan Page (Minnesota state supreme court justice), and former Raiders offensive lineman Gene Upshaw (director of the NFL players' union) are exceptions -- manage to turn their NFL experience into a stepping stone to a higher calling. To be a physical specimen of the head-turning order, to make vastly more money than ordinary people do and to live an appropriately out-sized lifestyle, to play in arenas filled with 60,000 adoring fanatics, to exist in an environment where people want to name their children after you -- well, that can skew even a healthy sense of perspective.

"When you're an elite athlete and you reach a certain level of success, you have a different set of rules," said Garrett Webster, the youngest son of Mike Webster, the center of the Pittsburgh Steelers' dynasty of the 1970s. "He had people to handle all of those things that need to be handled. Then, when you retire from the NFL, you're done. Just like that.

"For 17 years, you have somewhere to be, every minute of every day. The coach tells you what to do and all the details are taken care of. All of a sudden, you're on your own."

In February 1988, when the Steelers left Webster unprotected under the NFL's Plan B system, the league's first stab at free agency, Webster retired. He was the last active member of that select group of Steelers to play in all four Super Bowl victories. Five days later, the Kansas City Chiefs announced he had been hired as an assistant offensive line coach. Some years earlier, Webster had left the Steelers for two days to join Forrest Gregg's coaching staff with the Cincinnati Bengals. His coaching career with the Chiefs didn't last much longer. With the blessing of the team's hierarchy, he played center in Kansas City for two more years before retiring for good after the 1990 season.

"It's been 17 wonderful years," Webster said at the time. "But one thing you learn in this game is reality. It's time."

Reality, at least initially, was a pleasant prospect. Two months shy of his 39th birthday, Webster contemplated his off-field options with typical enthusiasm. Family and friends say he considered coaching, broadcasting, a career as a chiropractor and a stockbroker, as well as various business opportunities. He didn't make the seven-figure salaries that today's players enjoy, but football afforded him a comfortable living. His first signing bonus, in 1974, was only $8,000 -- his ex-wife Pam said he spent it all in three months on three cars -- but he made $400,000 in his last season with the Chiefs, apparently invested wisely and conservatively, and had in excess of $2 million in assets, including three annuities that provided a steady, if unspectacular income through the early 1990s.

Kansas City offered Webster another assistant coaching job in July 1991, but he left the position a few weeks later when NBC offered him a broadcasting trial. He was assigned as an analyst for two preseason games, but when NBC followed up with a modest contract offer for a limited schedule Webster passed on his first regular-season assignment, saying it conflicted with his family's move from the Kansas City area to Wisconsin.

Feeling adrift, Pam had convinced Mike to relocate the family to the place where she grew up, Lodi, Wis. They moved into a large Victorian house, where the four children had plenty of space. But by then the symptoms that Pam first noticed in Pittsburgh began to manifest themselves on a more regular basis. Mail, bags and bags of it, piled up. Bills weren't paid. According to records, Webster stopped filing tax returns in 1992 and didn't for the last 11 years of his life. This, from the man who knew the tax laws in every state when he was a player. The electricity was turned off. Sometimes spare change was scrounged together to buy macaroni and cheese or toilet paper. Eighteen months after the Websters moved in, the bank foreclosed on the house.

"It was like living in a tornado," Pam said. "A counselor told us that we were living in so much stress we didn't know what stress was. Mike would leave for days at a time and I didn't understand that he was sick. I just figured he was mad at me.

"One thing I found out later was that after football, 60 percent of marriages fail. There was no structure, nobody handling the details. It was horrible."

The couple separated in 1992 and Pam would initiate unsuccessful attempts to divorce Mike in 1994 and again in 1996. Finally, six months before he died, Pam officially divorced her husband of 27 years.

So, where did all the money go?

"I still don't know," Pam said. "We were set for life. We had $90,000 in college funds (invested in tax-sheltered zero coupon bonds) for each of the kids. But then the money would disappear, and we tried to follow it. People took advantage of him. He always blamed the attorneys.

"When your mind isn't working straight you aren't going to make good decisions."

Joe Gordon worked for the Steelers for 29 years, most notably as the team's director of communications. He had dealt with Webster often in his later years with the Steelers and worried about his post-NFL life.

"It was obvious to me that he was naïve in business," Gordon said from his Pittsburgh home. "He was too inexperienced to recognize that too much of this was pie-in-the-sky. In football, if you were tough enough you could overcome adversity. Unfortunately, that didn't transfer to his life after football."

After Webster began petitioning the NFL for disability benefits in 1999, the league commissioned a thorough background check of him for throughout the 1990s. Of particular interest were his business dealings. The report, completed in January 2001, details a tangled web of bad judgment and failed ventures:

  • In 1990, Webster was the CEO and treasurer of a Pennsylvania business known as Pro Snappers Inc., which no longer exists.

  • He listed himself as an employee of Distinctively Lazer, a graphic printing company in Pennsylvania, in a 1992 loan application with PNC Bank.

  • In 1992, he was an investor in Terra Firma Development Trust, a Pittsburgh real estate company.

  • Webster Asset Management Trust was formed by Webster in 1993, with a capital contribution of $230,000, but soon passed into nonexistence.

  • That year, Webster listed Olympia Steele Sports Management of Pittsburgh as his employer on a hospital admission form.

  • Later in 1993, Webster was among several names on an application for a business known as "Tins, Totes and Tees." During this time, he carried a business card with the title of director of operations for the Lestini Group.

  • He was listed as a director of the National Steroid Research Center in 1994 and later that year formed Webster Business Enterprises, Ltd., which also failed.

  • The Chiefs, partly in sympathy, offered Webster a job as a strength and conditioning coach in 1994, but like so many things it never worked out.

In the wake of these business failures were several lawsuits and, as a result, Webster's annuities, sacrificed as collateral for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bank loans, were seized. After 1994, his only income was a modest compensation for signing autographs at card shows and speaking engagements. In 1996, the Internal Revenue Service filed a tax lien for $251,015.

"It is without question that Mr. Webster attempted to work at any number of businesses after his career as a player ended, mostly in the capacity as investor," investigator Thomas A. Keating wrote in his report to the NFL. "I was unable to find any evidence that any of them succeeded."

The separation with Pam in 1992 was another damaging blow to Webster's sense of family and his sense of self. It was instrumental in establishing a vagabond existence for the former center. For the next five years, from 1993 to 1997, he would not have a permanent address. Homeless was now a word that described Iron Mike Webster. He spent time in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and rural parts of West Virginia and Wisconsin. Sometimes he stayed with friends, but more often he stayed in cheap hotels -- he was a regular at the Red Roof in Robinson, Pa. When he didn't have the cash, he slept in his car, a gas-guzzling late 1970s Cadillac and, later, a Chevy S-10 pickup truck. He'd fall asleep wherever it was warm and people didn't disturb him -- the airport, the bus station, the train depot.

With his brain deteriorating from the hits suffered during a 17-year NFL career, Webster suffered from dementia and was often disoriented. The multiple medications he took for pain -- since he had no health insurance after he retired, he paid for these out of pocket -- certainly had a muddling effect. On numerous occasions, he would call his family from somewhere between Pittsburgh and Wisconsin, a daunting 900-mile, 17-hour ride to say he wasn't going to make it.

"That was the standing family joke," Pam said. "Where's Dad this time, Ohio? The police in [nearby] Columbus [Wis.] would recognize him at the train station and call to tell us he was OK."

But, clearly, he wasn't.

In September 1996, Webster was examined by Dr. Jerry Carter of Allegheny General Hospital, who produced a comprehensive psychological profile. Webster, Carter said, constantly dwelled on his crumbling financial situation and an inability to help his family.

"He has periods of despair during which he feels hopeless," Carter wrote. "He states he thinks about suicide every day, although he doesn't think he would ever act on it. He states this is because God would not want him to do that and he can't help his family if he is dead. During some of his periods of despair, he states he curls up into a fetal position and may remain in this position off and on for three to four days.

"Often during these times, his mind races, trying to find solutions for the problems he has, although he is unable to find any solutions."

A few weeks before this analysis, Webster was discovered in this catatonic state in the Amtrak station in downtown Pittsburgh. The manager recognized Webster and immediately called the Steelers. Gordon took the call.

"He told me Mike had spent the entire night in the station," Gordon said. "Since it was only a mile from Three Rivers Stadium, I told him I'd be right over."

Gordon spoke briefly with Steelers owner Dan Rooney, grabbed $200 out of petty cash and raced to the station. He found Webster sitting in the waiting room, surrounded by an array of papers, brochures and photographs of sports stars like Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer and Mickey Mantle. He excitedly told Gordon he had obtained a distributorship for promotional pieces for a sports memorabilia company.

"I asked him where he was staying," Gordon remembered. "He said he had a place, the Red Roof Inn, but I said, 'Why don't we put you up in the Hilton for the weekend?' That was the hotel we used, and we made a reservation for him and I gave him the money and dropped him off."

Webster stayed there for three months.

Eventually, in November, Gordon persuaded him to check out. Sometimes the daily phone and room service charges were more than the cost of the room itself. The Steelers quietly paid the "significant" bill, according to Gordon, and Iron Mike Webster, with the weather turning colder, walked back onto the street.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Greg.Garber@espn3.com.