We continue with our roundups of the next players in the Football 101. Thanks for reading, and for those who aren’t subscribers, I hope you’ll consider joining! Starting at No. 50, these posts will move behind the paywall.
No. 56: Dwight Stephenson
No. 55: Mike Webster
I never watch centers … except when they snap balls over quarterbacks’ heads or step on quarterbacks’ feet as they get into their stance or something like that. Even on the already anonymous offensive line, they are anonymous. Being a center is like being in the witness protection program from your witness protection program.
Dwight Stephenson and Mike Webster are, I feel pretty confident in saying, the two greatest centers in modern-day football (if you want to go way back, there’s Mel Hein and Bulldog Turner and guys like that). But what made them so great?
It’s probably easier to explain with Stephenson — he was a true freak of nature. “He was one of those guys,” Pro Bowl nose tackle Fred Smerlas said, “who God makes to do things that nobody else can do.”
What things? Well, Stephenson was lightning quick, probably the quickest and most explosive player to ever play center. The Dolphins used to routinely have him pull on running plays. And his footwork was absolutely flawless. He went multiple seasons without giving up a single sack. Here are the Dolphins during Stephenson’s five full seasons:
1982 (pre Dan Marino): 11 sacks (fewest in NFL)
1983 (Marino started nine games): 23 sacks (fewest in NFL)
1984: 14 sacks (fewest in NFL; the next team, the 49ers, gave up almost twice as many)
1985: 19 sacks (fewest in NFL)
1986: 17 sacks (fewest in NFL)
In 1987, Stephenson played nine games before suffering his career-ending injury at age 30. That year, the Dolphins gave up just 13 sacks, again the fewest in the NFL.
Now, it’s true that Marino’s quick release was a huge factor in this — the Dolphins continued to lead the league in fewest sacks for years after Stephenson retired — but that shouldn’t take away from Stephenson’s pure dominance.
“I dominated pretty much everybody I played against,” Smerlas said. “But he’s lightning quick, he never gets tired, and he pancakes you. To play against that was just a revelation. … If Dwight Stephenson was playing today, they should put him in a bubble so people could watch him and marvel. Because there’s nobody even in the same world.”
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Webster’s dominance is a bit harder to explain because it wasn’t as visual or obvious. Webster was a fifth-round pick in the greatest draft a team has ever had — just so you remember the 1974 Steelers draft:
1st round: Lynn Swann (only Hall of Famer taken in the first round — next-best pick was probably Too Tall Jones, selected first overall by Dallas).
2nd round: Jack Lambert (one of two Hall of Famers taken in the second round — next-best pick was Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper by Oakland).
4th round: John Stallworth (only Hall of Famer taken in third or fourth round — next-best pick was either Dolphins receiver Nat Moore or Dallas quarterback Danny White).
5th round: Mike Webster (only Hall of Famer or Pro Bowler taken in fifth round).
What a dream run that was — the Steelers literally took the four best players in the draft. The only thing they missed, best I can tell, is that was they should have taken Billy “White Shoes” Johnson before the Oilers did in the 15th round.
In any case, Webster’s greatness sprung as much from his persona as it did from the way he blocked. He didn’t play center … he WAS a center, through and through, the guy wearing short sleeves on icy days, the one who never gave up on a play, the one who would break every huddle with enthusiasm and then run to the ball as if he couldn’t wait to start again.
“He was our strength,” Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw would say, and that word defined Mike Webster: strength, physical strength, mental strength, pure strength. He was a ferocious run blocker, opening holes for Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, who in 1976 (Webster’s first year as a starter) each ran for 1,000 yards in 14 games. Webster was a fierce — even if not especially graceful — pass blocker, especially in the late 1970s when Bradshaw needed extra time because he was always going long.
And he seemed indestructible, starting every single game from 1976 through 1985. They called him “Iron Mike,” long before Tyson ever came along.
The indestructible part made the ending seem even more tragic. While Stephenson played his last game at age 30 — his knee blew up when his old college teammate Marty Lyons blocked him on a fumble return — Webster played until age 38, finishing his career with the Kansas City Chiefs. His 245 games are the most ever played by an NFL center.
Even before Webster retired, he was already dealing with numerous terrible health issues, and within four years of his retirement, he was suffering from amnesia and depression. He was homeless for a time. He was charged with forging prescriptions for Ritalin, which he said he needed to treat the brain damage he had endured as a player.
After his death, he was the first NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE by Dr. Bennet Omalu, who said that Webster’s brain did not resemble what would be expected from a 50-year-old man. It was, according to the PBS “Frontline” special about concussions in the NFL, “the autopsy that changed football.”
It certainly changed the way so many of us see the game. Webster represented something; he was the ideal football player, the guy who wore short sleeves on icy Pittsburgh days, the force of will who played through any and all pain, the ultimate team player who brought to life all of those throaty coaching cliches about sacrifice and unity and giving all you have. And for all that, he paid a terrible, terrible price.