Iron Mike’s Gladwellian Traits
By Dani Hofer | Biokinetics Major and Psychology Minor at Bethel University (St. Paul, Minnesota)
Mike Webster’s body was wheeled into the examination room. Cold. Mangled from his exponentially decreasing health from multiple concussions and years of playing football leading to his death. Later in years he would super glue his teeth in, his solution to his teeth falling out. Herniated discs and a cracked vertebrae from years of football worsened. He was too disoriented to take care of himself. Duct tape around his feet to prevent the bloody cracks from reopening. His forehead “glued” to his frontal bone from years of scar tissue that formed due to all the hits he took to the head. Mike Webster, “Iron Mike,” the Pittsburgh Steelers star center now dead (Kirk 8:00:00).
Why is his body this way? Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who conducted his autopsy, wanted to solve Webster’s mystery. At the Allegheny County coroner office in Pittsburgh, everyone made a ruckus because it was Mike Webster’s body, except Omalu who had never heard of Mike Webster or knew anything about football. Omalu started the autopsy. When he got to the brain he expected a brain similar to an Alzheimer’s brain, shrivelled. Or maybe he would find a boxer’s brain, mushy. Instead he found a perfectly normal brain to the naked eye. Omalu, puzzled, wanted to figure out why he looked worn out, and looked 70 at the age of 50. Why did Webster need all those drugs to function, So Omalu followed his instinct, and he found the reason why.
Omalu found Webster’s brain to look normal in spite of the many head injuries he suffered. He would later discover that Webster had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE. This is when a protein, Tau, enters broken neurons in the brain. Once it enters the broken neuron it makes its way to the nucleus or “brain” of the neuron. If the neuron re-connects it comes back slow and cloudy. Over years of untreated concussions you can have someone with dementia, personality changes, and impulse control issues just like Mike Webster. “A disease process well-recognized in boxers, military personnel, and more recently, in American football players” (Tharmegan Tharmaratnam). Did the NFL know this information? How could there be no one testing these players and taking care of them? Mike Webster knew he could help others and prevent them from having the same crippling demise CTE gave him. Webster ends up depressed and on many drugs just to have basic functions. Football hurt him so he decided to get a lawyer to fight the careless actions of the NFL. Like Gladwell states “a community around them that prepared them properly for the world” (Outliers 112–113). Junior Seau wanted to participate in the research because he has seen the negative effects football has on the body. He had the same brain injury CTE. Sadly, Junior he committed suicide in May 2013. He shot himself in the chest to preserve his brain for the testing they could do to prove what football also did to him (NFL players with CTE). If Mike Webster had the community from the NFL, that players have today his story would have been different. But Mike’s experience inspired Omalu to further research CTE with the goal of helping football players. Mike Webster exemplifies Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers theories about grit, community, and meaningful work leading to his part in being a whistle-blower of the NFL.
In Outliers, on the rice patty farms, the work put in was almost more than what the outcome was. Being a rice farmer is challenging because rice is very finicky. You have to put in hours of daily work that is tedious. Due to the weather and level of growth the rice is at, depends on what work they have to have done. Any neglect during this very careful growth process and they could lose their crop. But to these people that’s worth it. To their family and to them that’s enough to push and do the meaningful work. They love their work. For the wet rice farmer In Outliers Gladwell says, “You have to care. It really matters that the field is perfectly level…” (237). Webster was that type of player, who saw what he did to be the best at football meaningful work. It mattered that he did everything it took to be the best. “He started 150 consecutive games, beginning at the end of the 1975 season and lasting until 1986” (Steelers). His ability even helped others to realize their own goals such as running back, Franco Harris and quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw listed Webster as one of the players that helped him fulfill the childhood dream of playing on a championship team. He said of Webster, “What good is a machine if you ain’t got a center? And, oh, did I get a center…I got the best to ever play the game, to ever put his hands on a football” (Steelers). Mike Webster became the most important player. An Icon.
Mike Webster stood 6 feet, 4 inches, but skinny. He always struggled with his size and would push harder than anyone to be the best. He would even use vacation time to practice by dragging football equipment to keep his skills sharp. “I don’t think he cared about being a hero, he just liked the game” said Mike Webster’s father (Gordon). Grateful to be playing in the big time, Webster compensated for his size by becoming the hardest-working, play-with-pain member of the team. “Mike would be the first one at the stadium and the last to leave, he was so afraid to fail,” recalls Pamela, his wife (Gordon). Webster understood the 10,000 hours practice even if he didn’t know about the concept. Mike was hard working and lived for the game. He put the game before all, even his health. Fans would scream his name with every hit he gave as the center, with his greatest weapon. His skull (Kirk 10:00:00). Webster was known for his ability to hit people with impeccable force with his head and get up like it was nothing. But could it be nothing? As years of this extreme sport took a toll on him he began his rapid decline and cognitive impairment.
Bennet Omalu requested to do further research on Mike Webster’s brain (Laskas). This fulfilled Webster’s final meaningful act. Webster wanted to help and make sure that other football players were gonna be taken care of. Mike’s brain sparked research and testing that changed football forever. The pathologist’s decision caused a chain reaction. Other football players would come forward, wanting to be tested and researched for the condition. Franco Harris said at Webster’s funeral that the other players were talking about getting checkups for themselves. Knowing that Webster’s son was going to play the game he said “A lot of guys look back and love the game…but there are some who can’t walk, who find it hard to do simple things. You can’t help but wonder, is it worth it” (The Healthy). In order to become a “pro” at anything, he needed to get in 10,000 hours of it. When you get 10,000 hours quicker than others you are an elite player and valuable asset. Mike Webster got this 10,000 hours and maintained the 10,000 hours by being the first and last player on the field. He would bring football practice tools on vacations. Those 10,000 hours and more helped him be the best in his position, and the cost was only redeemed by his brain helping the health community find a better way to protect players.
Kelly Hinseth said she fails more times then she succeeds. That’s what her job was. She would interview an athlete, have to write a paper everyone wants to read, and do it before others get theirs in. The grit and passion she exhibited was similar to Webster. She took the blows for the wins (Hinseth). Webster was a fighter. As a center in football his job was to create openings and make time for the quarterback to throw the ball. Being one of the best in the NFL in his time he took hit after hit for his team. He had grit in his bones. The muddier, the colder the game the better. Mike Webster was a beast. He would wear short sleeves during the snowing games to intimidate the other team (Kirk 12:00:00).
Webster and Michael Oher, on the Blind Side, were similar in their abilities in being such valuable assets to their teams. Michaels grit in the game also made him a valuable element of fear for the other team. Oher’s size helped him and Webster’s skull helped him. What Webster said at the 1989 Hall of Fame was fitting for both Oher and himself, “Do not be afraid to fail. You’re going to fail, believe me. No one’s keeping score. All we have to do is finish the game. Then we’ll all be winners” (Steelers). Webster was proud. He had grit and pride till his final days.
“Webster wanted to prove to the world he was the toughest” (Gordon). A Chinese proverb sums up Mikes hard work, “Hard work, shrewd planning and self-reliance or cooperation with a small group will in time bring recompense” (Gladwell 238). Mike Webster worked the hardest for the game. He lived for it and in a sense died for it. He took hit after hit for the game. In the end this game he loved so much ended up being what killed him. The cost was too great for his family. If Mike Webster’s (ex) wife and children were given a choice between the big football star that slowly crumbled or their loving father that was patient with his kids, they would have chosen their father (Kirk 15:00:00). After his death in 2002 Paula, his ex wife, also wanted compensation from the NFL for taking her husband away. Webster owned his position on the field like the wet rice farmers owned their business of growing rice. The Chinese and Japanese royalty realized that the farmers of these fields could not be forced to work because too much counted on the hard work, timing, and care that went into the farming. This precise farming means “You’re controlling all the inputs in a very direct way. And when you have something that requires that much care, the overlord has to have a system that gives the actual laborers some set of incentives…” (Gladwell 237). Webster’s incentive was that roar of the crowds and the score on the boards, knowing he created them with the precision of his hits. “Mike was a guy you could always count on” (Gordon).
Mike received those disability checks from 1996–2002. His lawyer, Bob Fritzsimmons, even pushed for him to get compensation all the way back to 1991, a year after he retired, because his health decline started at this time. “The thing that struck me the most was how intelligent Mike was. And the problem was that he couldn’t keep those thought patterns longer than thirty seconds” Bob Fitzsimmons Webster’s attorney (The Healthy). Webster was intelligent. The people around him, his community, knew that. They wanted to help. Like Michael Oher he was the one with the will but the one that needed protection. Michael Oher had a family to protect him. Oher didn’t just have family looking out, he had teachers too (Lewis). Webster’s community during the game and during his self destruction were other players who were being inflicted with similar wounds so they would make light of it. “He got his bell rung all the time, just like the rest of us,” says former teammate Rocky Bleier. (The Healthy) “Players worry about ending their career, says Miki Yaras-Davis, director of benefits at the NFL Players Association and “Some of the guys will treat a concussion like a hangnail” (The Healthy).
Another part of Webster’s community were those who would find him sleeping at odd places because he would lose his way. These were after the injury had taken its toll on his mental health. Another part of his community also didn’t understand his problem and that was his wife. “I didn’t realize he had a brain injury,” says Pamela. “I just thought he was angry at me all the time” (The Healthy). His friend Jani was a fan who read about his troubles and befriended Webster. “He was my hero,” says Jani and would bail Webster out as needed. “Mike would call at 2 a.m. and say he’s lost” (The Healthy). Mike Webster had a community of people after his death looking out for him and wanting him to get the justice and credibility he deserved. A psychologist, Fred Jay Krieg, that Fitzsimmons asked to examine Webster, said that there was no other explanation for Webster’s deterioration; the repeated banging of his brain against his skull had damaged the brain’s nerve cells (The Healthy). Omalu after discovering the CTE in the brain wanted to do further examination on his brain and wonder why that 50 year old man looked 70 and had the comings of dementia. He didn’t want to give up on that case.
The film, League of Denial, by Michael Kirk, was made because of the information found in Webster’s autopsy. Which led to further research into the matter of concussions and head injuries sustained in football. This was his community. He had researchers, doctors, and his family trying to get the compensation they deserved and Iron Mikes reputation back. After Webster’s death people were shocked. This also led to the investigation of exposing the NFL and the safe testing of the health of the NFL players today. Webster had community and it grew as others came forward too. His family, after his death, continued to push the NFL for compensation on Mike Webster’s death. Gladwell knew that you couldn’t get anywhere without support from your community (Outliers).
Mike Webster took an average of 1200 hits to the head a year; he played 17 seasons. Getting hit to the head during a play had an equivalent force of hitting a wall in a car at 35 miles an hour. At about 20,400 hits in his NFL career (Kirk 35:00:00). If we are advised to get into 1200 car crashes a year then why wouldn’t the NFL take this more seriously. But Mike Webster had a passion for football. He lived for it and dedicated his life to be and stay the best. Through meaningful work he strived to be the best football player. After the price for being the best was paid he then put his life and story to preventing CTE from happening to anyone else. Through grit and pride he didn’t let his underweight body for a 6 feet 4 inches man stop him from pushing. He continues to fight but for a different reason. He wanted to be repaid for his sacrifice.
His family, community, life, and his sanity were given up involuntarily for a game he loved so much. He didn’t care if he was a hero, he wanted the NFL to admit their fault. After his death, his family continued his fight. They wanted their husband/father to be honored. They wanted to be compensated for him being taken away. Community will be the people supporting you before and after death. Gladwell states “They lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: community around them that prepared them properly for the world” (Gladwell 112). Webster had his family there too late. He was already “gone” in a sense. He had his lawyer there helping him with his case in the NFL. After his death he had all that other community to research and support. Mike Webster died and became evidence in a case that would later change football. The NFL had a payout of 765 million dollars to the retired players. “The NFL has given everyone 765 million reasons why you don’t want to play football” (former NFL star Harry Carson) (Kirk 1:50:56). Finally, the NFL paid for the damage it caused.
CBS News. “NFL Players with CTE.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 24 Jan. 2018. Web.
Garber, Greg. “A Tormented Soul.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 24 Jan. 2005. Web.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.
Gordon, Meryl. “An Inside Glimpse of NFL Player Mike Webster’s Tragic Final Days.” Reader’s Digest, 28 Sept. 2018. Web.
“Healthy Living with Expert-Backed Advice.” The Healthy.
Hinseth, Kelly, Interview. Interviewed by Scott Winter, 23 April 2020.
Laskas, Jeanne Marie. “The Brain That Sparked the NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 2 Dec. 2015. Web.
Lewis, Michael. The Blind Side. New York. W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2007.
Kirk, Michael, director. League of Denial. PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, May 2013. Web.
Laskas, Jeanne Marie. “Men’s Fashion, Style, Grooming, Fitness, Lifestyle, News & Politics.” Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Web.
Tharmaratnam, Tharmegan. “National Center for Biotechnology Information.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web.
“Steelers Home: Pittsburgh Steelers.” Steelers Home | Pittsburgh Steelers — Steelers.com. Web.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dani Hofer, a freshman from Bloomington, Minn., seeks an acceptance letter into the Bethel University PA program. Hofer likes to watch the same 3 movies for weeks on end, cuddling with her 3 dogs (Bella, Jack, and Jojo), and eating at odd hours.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED
Eric Adler taught me fragments in a story are in fact. Okay.
Scott Winter taught me the unlimited value of an underdog story.
Name the Dog. I have four dogs: Jack, Bella, Piper, and Jojo.
I learned to start where you finish. Eric Adler taught me to bring the reader back where you started.
Scott Winter taught me the conclusion isn’t just for restating the whole paper. That's boring. It’s for giving that big final story of your topic and making it count.
A book club over a zoom call is actually quite possible and just as fun.
Getting called on over a zoom call class is just as stressful as it is in person.
I can say I survived the pain of FlipGrid glitches that caused me to redo a speech on Moneyball, the movie … 3 times.
It’s 9 p.m. on Sunday the 10th and I have about 20 percent of a paper that was supposed to be done the 8th. I get on a zoom call with my story partners Gabby and Susan because we were determined to get our papers done together. With a check-in every thirty minutes we slowly inched our ways through our papers. It’s now 4:15 a.m. and a ROUGH draft is complete.