The book is League of Denial, from brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada (co-author ofGame of Shadows) and Steve Fainaru (2008 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting), and it is one that the National Football League probably wishes was never written. The book explores the football factory that was the city of Pittsburgh, why it became the epicenter of the NFL's concussion crisis, and how an improbable character by chance flicked the first domino to set off a devastating chain reaction with which the league is still grappling. Since assisting these two ESPN investigative reporters with research on their book, I've replaced my weekly excitement waking up in anticipation of an autumn Sunday morning filled with football to one of mostly disgust.
Early on in League of Denial, we are introduced to Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center and linchpin for the dominant Steelers teams of the 1970s and early '80s that won four Super Bowls. "Iron Mike," as he was known, was a fan favorite because, dating back to his modest, workman-like Midwestern upbringing, he absolutely epitomized the hardhat population that made up the blue-collar community of the era. He went on to became a nine-time Pro Bowler and five-time First-Team All-Pro, at one point after a contest was held even owned the title of "The Strongest Man in Football," and is unquestionably one of the greatest to ever play professionally.
The problem, however, was upon Webster's retirement in 1990 at the age of 38 following two final seasons with the Chiefs, his wife and children immediately noticed a serious change in him. After building what the family thought was their dream home in Kansas City, Webster rapidly transformed into less and less the man they knew and loved. He would suddenly disappear for weeks on end, miss important family events and school functions, often sleep in his pickup during his mysterious sojourns or in bus and train stations along the way, and began to require myriad prescription drugs to even function on a day-to-day basis.
Just a few years later, Webster and his family were unexplainably in financial ruin, his health was quickly deteriorating and his mind was perhaps going even faster. The former strongman and anchor of the Steelers powerful offense was only in his 40s, but in the shocking physical and mental condition of applying duct tape to deep, unhealing cracks in his feet as if it were bandages, employing a stun gun to knock himself unconscious in order to sleep, and using Super Glue to reattach the teeth that began falling out of his head. No one could quite understand what happened to the man who had previously almost never left the football field because of injury. The doctors who examined him feared brain damage from his 17 years of professional ball, but the NFL refused to acknowledge any correlation, until its retirement board finally granted him a pittance late in his life. In 2002, 12 years after retiring, and at just 50 years old, he was dead.
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