Former Chiefs doctor Joseph Waeckerle -- a veteran of the NFL's concussion wars -- is on a mission to protect young players 

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"It was bad shit, bad juju," Waeckerle says, sitting in the office of his Leawood home.

Waeckerle became a star in emergency medicine, chairing task forces and editing journals. He honed an expertise in sports medicine as both a player and a physician on rugby clubs. "Believe me," he says, "rugby was the ultimate educational testing grounds."

The Chiefs asked him to be a team doctor in 1990. His tenure spanned Mike Webster's final season and the day a collision knocked quarterback Trent Green out of the season opener. With Green and others, Waeckerle saw how far professional athletes pushed themselves to stay on the field, even when they became woozy after a blow to the head.

"They're motivated to go back," he says. "They don't want to lose their job. They don't want to lose their income. They don't want to lose that year of productivity. They don't want to miss a game. They certainly don't want to miss the playoffs or a chance to go for a ring."

Though Rockhurst regularly contends for a state title, only a handful of Rockhurst Hawklets play football at the next level. But everyone will need his brain. So Waeckerle says he works to establish a rapport with the players.

"If you tell them, 'If you come talk to me, I'm pulling you out of the game and you can't play anymore,' especially at the high school level, they're not going to come tell you," he says.

There's compassion in his voice, which you might not expect to hear from a founding member of the NFL's concussion committee: doctors who came to be portrayed as apologists for barbarism.


In 1989, Mike Webster came out of retirement to help lift the Chiefs out of the dregs.

The franchise had appeared in one playoff game in the 17 years before his arrival. New General Manager Carl Peterson and Coach Marty Schottenheimer wanted Webster, who had been released by the Steelers after the 1988 season, to work as an assistant coach. But Webster ended up starting all 16 games that year, and the team finished with a winning record. The next year, they made the playoffs.

Garrett Webster was kindergarten-age when his dad played for the Chiefs, his final two seasons. The organization invited the elder Webster to return as a coach in 1991. "Carl Peterson gave him sort of a token coaching job," Garrett says. "Carl knew he was struggling. Dad really couldn't even handle that."

Mike Webster's job as a coach ­— like his later job as a broadcaster — was brief. His post-playing days became a blur of failed business deals, tax liens, and an arrest for forging a Ritalin prescription. He subsisted on pills, sugar and chewing tobacco, and he filled journals with paranoid scribbles. When Garrett was a teenager, he and his dad shared an apartment outside Pittsburgh. Garrett had to place a flag in the window to help his father find his way home.

With help from a lawyer, Mike Webster filed a disability claim with the NFL. He managed to squeeze partial disability payments from the league in the final three years of his life, though there was nothing partial about his inability to function. The way Garrett saw it, the NFL pension board looked at his father as a "classic eccentric athlete who's having money trouble and is just trying to get a last payday."

A federal appeals court saw it differently and awarded the family $1.5 million — in 2006, four years after Mike Webster died. The official cause of death was heart failure. But it was football that broke the player known as Iron Mike.

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