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NFL feud goes to Congress

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The son of late Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster says he'll tell a Senate committee today that he fears other retired players will die as destitute as his father did unless the NFL and its players union boost assistance to needy players.

"No disrespect meant to any other players, but my dad was one of the most widely respected players in the league, and even with all that, look what happened to him," Garrett Webster said in an interview yesterday. "What happens to Joe Schmo?"

Webster, 23, a Pittsburgh-area bookstore worker, is to join NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players Association chief Eugene Upshaw, Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers and a handful of others as witnesses at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the league's pension and disability benefits system.

It will be Upshaw's first Capitol Hill appearance on the issue since relations with a faction of retired players and their families became markedly strained earlier this year. He told The Sun last month that he resents retired players' statements that he hasn't tried hard enough to improve a pension system less generous than Major League Baseball's and a disability system that some retirees say is stacked against them.

"No one's done more for retired players than I have," Upshaw said. "In many ways, we didn't make the gains that the other sports made because the owners were very good at dividing us."

Upshaw was on a European vacation when a House Judiciary subcommittee held a June 26 hearing on the matter. Goodell also missed that hearing because of a scheduling conflict.

Some of those on today's witness list - such as former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Brent Boyd - appeared at the earlier hearing. Others, such as Sayers, former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston and Garrett Webster, did not.

Some players, including former Baltimore Colts and Buffalo Bills defensive back Dwight Harrison, are expected to appear at a post-hearing news conference organized by Gridiron Greats, a nonprofit organization that provides financial aid and social services to former players in need.

Mike Webster became destitute after an NFL career in which he won four Super Bowls. He played six straight seasons without missing an offensive down.

According to attorney Cy Smith, Webster lived in cars and - for a time - in the Kansas City Chiefs' equipment room. Smith said Webster had become "punch-drunk" after sustaining multiple blows to the head during his career and couldn't hold a job.

"The reason my dad was homeless was basically his own pride. He didn't show his family and friends that he was basically destitute," his son said.

The center, known as "Iron Mike," had died of a heart attack by the time a federal judge in Baltimore awarded his family significant new pension benefits in 2005.

Webster, 50 when he died, previously had qualified for some benefits, but his estate got more than $1.5 million from the judge's ruling.

Upshaw said the pension and disability system steadily has been improving.

Between April 2006 and March, active players gave up $116 million to fund retirement and disability benefits for former players, the union said.

"That's a lot of money. That was $116 million; that wasn't a tip," Upshaw told The Sun. "It came right out of the locker room. Ray Lewis paid for that," Upshaw said, using the Ravens linebacker to represent current players and their contributions.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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