Mike Webster’s death was significant. Iron Mike. The best center in the NFL. Nine-time Pro Bowler. Hall of Famer. Four Super Bowl rings. He had played in more games—220 of them—than any other player in Steelers history.
Plenty of guys had a hard time after retiring from football—you had to adjust to a new identity and a new schedule, like coming home from war. But Webster’s reaction seemed extreme. He got lethargic. He forgot to eat. One day he peed in the oven, frightening his wife and kids. Then he wandered off, meandering through Pittsburgh. He slept under bridges, in the Amtrak station, then in his truck. Somehow, he got guns. He would walk up to strangers and rant. “Kill ’em! I’m gonna kill ’em!”
His teeth started falling out. He got Super Glue, squirted each fallen tooth, and tried to stick them back in. He wrapped his hands with duct tape and stuck a pen in the tape so he could write thousands of letters. He bought himself a taser and used it on his stomach or his thigh. He zapped himself into unconsciousness, just to get some sleep.
And now here he was in the morgue, dead at 50.
With the electric saw, the pathologist Bennet Omalu carefully cut a cap out of the skull, pulled off the cap, and gently reached inside for the brain. He was thinking about football and brain trauma. Specifically, he was thinking of dementia pugilistica—“punch-drunk syndrome,” they called it in boxers. The condition’s clinical picture was somewhat like Webster’s: “Punch-drunk syndrome” was characterized by severe dementia—delusion, paranoia, explosive behavior, loss of memory—caused by repeated blows to the head. If chronic bashing of the head could destroy a boxer’s brain, couldn’t it also destroy a football player’s brain?