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Steelers Great: I Have Brain Injury

March 10, 1999

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster said Wednesday that a brain injury suffered during 17 years of professional football explained the bizarre recent charge that he passed a forged Ritalin prescription.

``I didn’t know how severe the damage was until November of last year,″ said Webster, who read from a prepared statement and did not take questions during a news conference at a Pittsburgh hotel. ``I would never intentionally let any of you down or cause you any pain.″

Webster, a member of four Super Bowl champion teams, looked fit but vulnerable in a tie and sports jacket and dabbed at tears as he apologized to family, friends, fans and former teammates for any embarrassment caused by the Ritalin charge. It was filed last month in Beaver County, near his Monaca home just west of Pittsburgh.

Webster, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, had refused help for recurring financial and health problems since retiring from the NFL in 1990. He was homeless for a time in the early 1990s.

Webster, so tough he insisted on short-sleeved jerseys even during the bitter cold of winter games in Pittsburgh, said pride and arrogance prevented him from recognizing the symptoms of his brain injury. He said he now welcomed assistance.

He showed off his four Super Bowl rings and his Hall of Fame ring, joking that they would be for sale soon. Then he said he wanted to dispel rumors that he had sold the rings to get out of financial trouble.

Webster was accompanied by former Steelers teammates Mel Blount, Rocky Bleier and Randy Grossman, as well as lawyers and doctors.

``The repeated head trauma has caused damage to my brain and thought processes,″ said Webster, known as Iron Mike during his career for his ability to absorb punishment and still play 10 years without missing a game.

``I do promise you this _ no matter what happens, I will answer the charges, I will pay my debt to society, whatever it is claimed to be,″ Webster said.

Dr. James Vodvarka of Trinity East and West Hospital in Steubenville, Ohio, said Webster has a medical condition that required the use of Ritalin. Neither Webster’s doctors nor his lawyers would explain why Webster sought the drug with prescriptions that were allegedly forged.

Vodvarka declined to name Webster’s condition but said it was a cognitive dysfunction brought on by repeated blows to the head during the center’s long career. He said he is treating other professional football players from Webster’s era who seem to be suffering from the same affliction. He declined to name them.

Vodvarka and another of Webster’s doctors, Dr. Fred Krieg of Parkersburg and Wheeling in West Virginia, said that the injury interferes with Webster’s judgment, memory and attention span.

Vodvarka said Webster would get progressively worse, possibly experiencing a type of dementia as time passes. He wouldn’t say how soon that might happen, but said it could happen quickly.

``I can pretty well assume it’s going to progress in a rapid manner,″ Vodvarka said.

Bleier said Webster probably played some days when he shouldn’t have, but said other players did too. He emphasized that Webster didn’t blame football or the Steelers for his injury.

``When you’re there, you want to play and there’s that iron man mentality. You don’t want to sit on the bench. You want to strap it on and play. Ultimately, that takes its toll,″ Bleier said.

Blount said Steelers from the Super Bowl teams in the 1970s always thought of themselves as a family as much as a team, and were anxious to help Webster, a man most looked to as their anchor during difficult contests.

``We’ve got to make sure he gets the best medical treatment he can get, but at the same time, show that his teammates support him. We love him and want to reach out and help him,″ Blount said.

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