Garrett Webster searches online news stories for echoes of his father, NFL great Mike Webster, who died in 2002.
Webster works for the Brain Injury Research Institute, a group trying to advance the understanding of concussions and neurological disorders. Webster spends part of his day reaching out to the families of deceased football players and military personnel. He asks the relatives if they might be willing to donate their loved one's brains to science. "It's not easy," Webster says of his delicate work.
The feature story in this week's issue of The Pitch describes the efforts to treat concussions with the seriousness they deserve. The plight of Webster's father was an early warning sign that football players were not receiving sufficient care. A member of Pro Football's Hall of Fame, Webster was demented and living as a recluse at the time of his death.
Garrett Webster says media attention to the dangers of concussions has made it somewhat easier to call the relatives of the deceased. He also tries to make arrangements with athletes who are still living, which is also a challenge. "Nobody wants to be told they're going to die, and we're going to take something from your body," Webster, 26, says.
Webster works at the institute with Dr. Julian Bailes, a former Pittsburgh Steelers physician and the medical director at the Center for Study of Retired Athletes, and Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who found chronic traumatic encephalopathy in Mike Webster's brain.
Garrett Webster says he loves the game that, in effect, mortally wounded his father. "I don't want to see football go away," he says. "I think it's a great sport."
Instead of abolishing football, Webster would like to see player care continue to improve. The NFL has written stricter guidelines about when players can return to action. Still, Webster was dismayed at the speed at which concussed quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler got back under center earlier in the season.
Webster and other player advocates believe that the NFL could show a real commitment to player safety by guaranteeing contracts. Pro football players are treated as disposable objects in relation to baseball and basketball players, who receive the full value of their contracts irrespective of their injury status. "How many NBA players do you see miss a game with an ingrown toenail or some fucking thing," Webster says.
It took a lot more than that to get Mike Webster off the field. And he paid the price.