The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.
“Once he got into your body, you were done. He was relentless. We used to call him ‘Hydraulic Man’ because his legs were always pumping. I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve heard say they had their worst days against Mike Webster. He was one of the greatest centers of all time.”
— Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham on Mike Webster
BY MIKE LUCAS | UWBadgers.com Senior Writer
Mike Webster, a Tomahawk, Wisconsin, native, was the first prospect John Jardine targeted after taking over the Badgers program. Jardine was well-versed on Webster, who was an MVP in football, wrestling and track at Rhinelander High School. At a face-to-face meeting during the recruiting process, Jardine expressed how much the Badgers wanted him and offered a scholarship. Without the slightest hesitation, Webster stood up, shook Jardine’s hand and assured him. “I’ll be there.” Done deal.
For three seasons, Webster helped clear paths for 1,000-yard rushers in Rufus Ferguson (twice) and Billy Marek. As a senior, Webster was the team MVP and anchored an offensive line that also featured Dennis Lick and Terry Stieve, both of whom ended up in the NFL. (In 1976, Lick was taken in the first round, No. 8 overall, by the Chicago Bears.) Webster, a fifth-round pick in ’74, went on to a sterling Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played in 245 games and nine Pro Bowls over 17 years.
“Oh, my God, I can still remember practicing against Mike Webster when we were together with the Steelers,” said Jack Ham, a Hall of Fame linebacker. “They called a blitz and I hit a gap and ran right into Mike. Once he got into your body, you were done. He was relentless. We used to call him ‘Hydraulic Man’ because his legs were always pumping. I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve heard say they had their worst days against Mike Webster. He was one of the greatest centers of all time.”
It was billed as the “Battle of the Little Big Men” — the game within the 1971 game between Michigan State’s 5-foot-9, 161-pound Eric (“The Flea”) Allen and Wisconsin’s 5-6, 190-pound Rufus (“The Roadrunner”) Ferguson at Camp Randall Stadium. Both tailbacks were crowd-pleasers.
“He (Allen) is a great daylight runner and I’m worried about stopping them (the Spartans), especially their option attack,” said UW coach John Jardine, who also had concerns with his offensive line. Sophomore center Mike Webster had torn cartilage in his right knee and was not expected to play.
After the Wednesday practice, Webster pulled off his jersey, and brushed off any suggestion that he wouldn’t be in the lineup for Saturday’s game by saying, “I’ll be there.”
“He was a guy who didn’t improve every day but every hour at football because he was so dedicated to it. He was always working and if someone got the jump on him, he worked harder. He was driven, there’s no doubt about it, he was driven.”
— Former UW lineman Mike Passini on Mike Webster
And, sure enough, he was. “Mike actually played on only one sound leg out there,” said Wisconsin’s O-line coach Chuck McBride, who admired such toughness as a former Frank Kush assistant at Arizona State. He got it out of Webster. “He was all guts and heart,” McBride said.
After the Badgers outlasted Michigan State, 31-28, snapping a six-game losing streak to the Spartans, dating to 1961, Jardine praised the play of the offensive line and Webster for playing at all. “Webster played a helluva game,” he said. “The kid has got a lot of courage.”
Nothing was handed to Webster, not even the starting position, even though he was Jardine’s initial recruit. At the end of spring drills in 1971, Mike Passini, a junior from Middleton, was listed ahead of Webster on the depth chart. They briefly split time until Webster assumed control of the position.
Passini, a realist, saw it coming. “He was a guy who didn’t improve every day but every hour at football because he was so dedicated to it,” Passini said. “He was always working and if someone got the jump on him, he worked harder. He was driven, there’s no doubt about it, he was driven.”
As a sophomore, Webster had some good players around him in juniors Keith Nosbusch and Bob Braun and senior Roger Jaeger, a starting guard who also handled placements, field goals and extra points. Going into the ’72 season, Jardine called Webster “one of the real unheralded stars of our team.”
As it turned out, it was an emotionally taxing season that fell short of expectations.
That summer (July 4, 1972), Tim Klosek, a free-spirited senior wide receiver, was struck and killed by a car in a freak accident on the south Beltline. After attending a wedding in his hometown (Whiting, Indiana), Klosek was changing a tire on his vehicle when hit by a passing car. He was 21.
“In all honesty,” said Passini, “I don’t think we recovered from that.”
The Badgers went 4-7, 2-6 in the Big Ten.
But there was renewed optimism going into Webster’s senior year.
“He was a relentless warrior who taught me how to win in this league.”
— Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merrill Hoge on Mike Webster
“Mike is a bona fide All-American candidate,” Jardine proclaimed.
Webster was a captain along with cornerback Chris Davis and defensive tackle Jim Schymanski.
“Talk about a hard worker,” said quarterback Gregg Bohlig, “Mike was totally committed.”
Webster set the tone for his teammates, according to Jeff Mack, then a junior flanker.
“Practice was over and we were on our way to training table,” recounted Mack, who led the team in receiving in 1972. “I heard some clanging in the weight room and I looked in and there was Mike. I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘Jeff, I’m just finishing up.’
“After I left him, I realized that I’ve got to do more work, I’ve got to work harder — I want to be like Mike. You learn from the upperclassmen, that’s the transition, because they give the younger guys some knowledge on how they have to apply themselves. Mike stimulated me to work harder.”
Webster continued to have that impact on his teammates when he joined the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1987, Merrill Hoge was a rookie running back who found himself rooming with Webster. At the time, there was a 13-year difference in their ages and frames of reference. Webster, then, was 35.
“He was a relentless warrior,” Hoge said, “who taught me how to win in this league.”
Two weeks before his 1997 induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio — where he would take his rightful place among the greatest centers to have ever played the game — Webster talked about his career and the highs and lows that he had encountered in retirement.
“I’ve been blessed in a lot of ways,” Webster told the Capital Times. “I’m not a big man. Never was. I came into this league at about 243 pounds and I played, at times, at 260. That’s not a big weight differential. I just couldn’t put on much weight. And I couldn’t get any faster.”
But he had other physical tools. As a prep, he wrestled (third in the state) and threw the shot put. “I tried to stay quick,” he said, “because there was nothing I could have done to match the size of the defensive tackles. My strength came from leverage. I worked at what I did. I really worked hard.”
While reminiscing, Webster talked about his trademark sprint out of the huddle to the line of scrimmage where he would read the defense. With his biceps bulging out of the Steelers jersey that he wore with so much pride during those four Super Bowls, he would direct traffic for the O-line.
Two weeks before his Canton induction, Webster wiped away tears when he talked about his family: Pam and the four kids. “My biggest pain is for them and the sacrifices they’ve had to make for me,” he said, measuring each word. “They’ve shown so much resiliency under so much stress.”
Jardine was extended “family” to Webster.
“John’s had a tremendous impact on so many lives,” he said. “He worked like heck to have success, and even though he didn’t have much, he put every ounce of his energy into coaching a winner. He was a tough guy but he was fair. He was the guy who gave me a step up in life. He got me started.”
On September 24, 2002, the HOF center who wore No. 51 with the Badgers, No. 52 with the Steelers, and No. 53 with the Kansas City Chiefs, died from a heart attack. Mike Webster was 50.