If Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center for the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers, made any mistakes during his hard-hitting career, it was playing 17 years in NFL.
Yes, he won four Super Bowls and was a hero in Pittsburgh. But his playing had a direct connection to his death in 2002 at the age of 50.
"It was a real tragedy," said Ted Petersen, a former teammate who lives in Momence.
"Mike Webster was the absolute best center, I'd even say lineman, to ever play in the NFL. He never made a mistake. He was the greatest guy in the world."
Having just retired as Kankakee Community College's athletic director, watching the new Will Smith film, "Concussion," was on Petersen's to-do list. But the film brought back some hard memories. After all, Webster's death is where this controversial film begins.
Following his death a forensic pathologist handling Webster's autopsy with the Allegheny County, Pa., coroner's office (Dr. Bennet Omalu portrayed by actor Will Smith) discovers that he had severe brain damage. He ultimately determines that Webster died as a result of the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head — a disorder he calls chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The movie shows some of the struggles that plagued Webster after his NFL years, particularly dementia.
Petersen was all too familiar with the story.
"One of my former teammates, Tunch Ilkin, and I heard 'Webby' was living in his car," Petersen said. "We tried to help him with food and clothing. We put him in a hotel room. We visited and it was obvious his mental capacity was really challenged. There would be small pieces of paper all over the room with notes on things he needed to do.
"I remember he told us if he wasn't a coward he would kill himself," Petersen remarked. "I told him what a man he was, to get those thoughts out of his head, and what he meant to his friends and teammates. But he was distraught.
"He needed more help than we could give him. We'd schedule medical appointments for him but he wouldn't show up."
Petersen said he remembered Webster as "very compulsive. He was very detailed and thorough in season or out of season." The Webster he saw near the end was not the same man. "He had trouble with his train of thought."
While he primarily played right tackle on the offensive line, Petersen was also the back-up center for Webster. "Outside of preseason, I never played a down (at center)," he said.
That's because Webster considered himself a warrior. In fact, he started 150 consecutive games and played 245 total games during his career. In comparison, Petersen played in 94 games with 34 starts.
"We played in a time when you hit people helmet to helmet every play," Petersen said. "The accumulation of those hits is what concerns me."
That is the thrust of the movie. Other stories touched on are the deaths of ex-Steeler Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long, former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters and ex-Chicago Bear Dave Duerson — all suffered the debilitating effects of CTE and all of them committed suicide.
Petersen called it a powerful film. "I wasn't too emotionally attached because it's Hollywood. I don't know how much of it is fact and how much is fiction," he said.
"It was interesting to see how it unfolded once Mike died. And the resistance by the NFL was not surprising."
It's a story that's been in the news. Last April, a federal judge approved a settlement to resolve a concussion lawsuit between the NFL and thousands of former players. The final settlement comes about three and a half years after the first of more than 200 suits filed by more than 5,000 retired players, including Petersen.
The agreement, which will span the next 65 years, could cost the NFL $900 million or more. That will include payment of monetary awards to retirees diagnosed with certain neurological conditions, funding for a program to monitor, diagnose and counsel ex-players.
Petersen would prefer not to be one of those players. Today, at 60, he says he is in excellent health, but he said he knows the punishment he put his body through during his nine years in the NFL.
In 1977, his rookie year, the NFL played six preseason games and had nine weeks of training camp before the regular season even began.
During training camp and preseason in 1983, Petersen was the only healthy offensive lineman. "I played every down of practice and preseason games," he said.
In practice he had to go against Pittsburgh's famed Steel Curtain — hall of famers and all-pros like Mean Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Dwight White, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount.
Actual games were a relief. "Sunday was like a day off for me," Petersen joked.
Despite the hard knocks, Petersen never recalls losing his memory.
"The lights went out a few times and I saw stars but I was never knocked out cold," he said. The toughest hits were when he would be on the ground following a block and a player's knee would slam into his helmet. "Those hurt a lot," he said.
Webster played from 1974 until 1990, and at least one medical report suggested that he suffered the damage equivalent to being in 25,000 car accidents. Petersen hasn't estimated the damage he may have suffered.
"I don't think I have any symptoms, but you might want to check with my wife," he said. And it should be noted that Webster's symptoms showed up years before his death.
"I can't explain why it was Mike and not some other guys," Petersen said. "My question would be, Can you have CTE on a smaller scale? I wonder about guys like (NFL greats) Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke and Willie Lanier and if they were impacted.
"I know they're doing a lot of research, and I keep an eye on it."
He said it's also time to look at how the NFL does business.
"I've been working with the NFL and its 'Heads Up' program. We try to teach proper blocking and tackling techniques (to prevent head and neck injuries). The movie will help to show young players what could happen if you don't play responsibly," he said.
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