The estate of NFL Hall of Fame center Mike Webster is entitled to collect more than $1.5 million in disability benefits because brain damage left him unable to work following his football career.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Baltimore judge’s order that the NFL pay Webster’s estate benefits retroactive to the date of his retirement, plus interest and legal fees. The amount is about $1.5 million to $2 million, the estate’s lawyers estimated.
The court said the board that administers NFL players’ retirement and disability plans ignored overwhelming evidence that the pounding Webster absorbed during his 16-year career left him totally and permanently disabled when he retired in March 1991.
Webster died of a heart attack in 2002 at age 50.
“The main thing this would mean to my dad is vindication for all he went through,” said Garrett Webster, 22, of Madison, Wis., who will share the benefits with his three siblings and their mother.
A lawyer for the estate said the ruling also gives hope to other NFL players fighting for benefits.
“We’re happy first of all for Mike’s family,” said attorney Cy Smith of Baltimore. “Somewhere up there, Mike’s very happy too. We’re also happy for other players that got a raw deal from the NFL pension plan.”
Edward Scallet of Washington, D.C., a lawyer for the NFL’s pension board, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment, but NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said no decision has been made on whether to further appeal the case.
From 1974 to 1988, Webster anchored the offensive line for a Pittsburgh Steelers team that won four Super Bowls. He played 245 games — the most ever by a center — and played every offensive down for six consecutive seasons, earning the nickname “Iron Mike.”
Webster finished his career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“His remaining 11 years of life were plagued by a series of failed business ventures and stunted career attempts,” Judge Allyson Duncan wrote in the appeals court’s opinion.
Webster was homeless at times, sleeping in his car or the equipment room of the Chiefs, who briefly employed him “as a favor” to help the strength and conditioning coach. A trial run as a TV football analyst lasted only two games, and several business investments failed.
Garrett Webster spent his high school years trying to help his father cope.
“There were times I had to remind him to eat, change clothes, little things like that,” Webster said in a telephone interview. “I love my dad and would not trade those memories or spending time with him for anything.”
In 1999, Webster applied for disability benefits under the NFL plan. At issue was whether Webster was already disabled when he was retired or whether his condition was “degenerative,” which would reduce his benefits by about half. The board, consisting of three members from NFL management and three from the players’ union, classified the injury as degenerative.
“All six trustees of the plan saw it differently, but the judges decided to overrule the board’s unanimous decision,” Aiello said.
The appeals court noted that even a physician hired by the board wrote that Webster “was completely and totally disabled as of the date of his retirement … and will not be expected to improve.”
The court said the board could have required further evaluations, but that it could not simply ignore the opinion of its own expert and others who found Webster was totally disabled upon retirement.
Joining Duncan in the ruling were Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III and visiting U.S. District Judge Henry F. Floyd of South Carolina.
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