A federal judge in Baltimore yesterday awarded full mental disability benefits to the estate of Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who played in the NFL from 1974 to 1990 and claimed he suffered brain damage as a result of his 245 games in the league.
Webster died in 2002 and his estate has been seeking to recover disability benefits it said should have been awarded as early as his first year out of the game in 1991. The NFL's Retirement Board, which comprises representatives from the league and the NFL Players Association, had argued that his disability was degenerative and that benefits should have been awarded no sooner than 1996.
Federal judge William D. Quarles, in a summary judgment, cited what he described as "overwhelming evidence" that Webster suffered brain damage as a direct result of playing all those games for all of those seasons. He asked the estate's attorneys to submit the monetary figure Webster should have been paid, a sum his attorneys, Cy Smith of Baltimore, and Bob Fitzsimmons of Wheeling, W. Va., estimated to be about $1.2 million.
"It's important for Mike's family and his four surviving children," Smith said yesterday. "It's also important for other ex-players who had the same type of injuries. We hope it tells the NFL that it just can't focus on physical injuries, but has to account for players who suffered mental injuries as well."
Fitzsimmons took on Webster's case in 1997 and said that Webster had been unable to hold a job since he retired from the game after his final two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. He said Webster visited him about every 10 days and would have rambling conversations with him that never reached a conclusion. He also had memory problems and died from a heart attack in September 2002.
"He completely understood what this was all about and he was passionate about it," Fitzsimmons said. "He wanted to get the message out to other guys that if you had these kinds of problems, go to a doctor and treat the symptoms. He wanted to get the message out that this was a medical problem and an illness that could be treated."
The judge's decision is subject to appeal. An NFL spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment. If the NFL decides to appeal the case, it would next be heard by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.