The play is called “12:52: The Mike Webster Story,” according to London Cain, owner of the Iron Horse. “I just think it’s an amazing story and it needs to be told and people need to know what happened,” Cain said. “It’s a very touching story.”
Pittsburgh Hall of Famer Franco Harris, Webster’s former teammate, made a special appearance at the theatre’s recent fundraiser that also featured musicians, comedians, and local celebrities, to rally around Team Webster.
“Myself, personally, I was able to have a great career with the Steelers and that was only because of that offensive line, and they were anchored by that guy in the middle, Mike Webster,” Franco Harris recalled. “He was the center of it all and he led the charge.”
Harris remembered Webster as “a true champion” when the two played in the 1970s under legendary Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll.
“It could be 20 below zero and he’d come out there with short-sleeved shirts with those muscles showing, running out there,” Harris said. “It didn’t matter what the weather was, you know? It doesn’t affect us, we’re the Pittsburgh Steelers. We’d get into the huddle, break the huddle, and run into the line. He led the charge. He set the tone.”
Webster died in 2002 of a heart attack after years of showing signs of severe mental illness. Performing an autopsy, Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered Webster had CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy--a degenerative brain disease--due to the impact of football and concussions on the brain. Webster was the first former NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE, a discovery that changed the way the game is played. The story was dramatized in the 2015 film “Concussion,” starring Will Smith.
Nicknamed “Iron Mike,” Webster’s death was significant. The nine-time pro bowler with four Super Bowl rings was only 50 when he passed.
Franco told fundraiser guests he’s pleased to see the play come to fruition.
“Unfortunately, you know, things happened, and there were some disruptions in life along the way, and that’s going to be all about it for this play. Mike was a true champion, a true champion. So, I’m so happy that this play has come together,” Franco said.
Cain sat in disbelief when he received a long email asking whether his small theatre company would be interested in producing the Webster play.
“I thought if it was real and legitimate, I 100 percent want to do this. Of course, I want to do it.”
Turns out, every other theater in Pittsburgh had turned down the play, he said. While producing the show is a huge undertaking, Cain doesn’t believe cost was the only factor.
“They turned it down because I think they’re afraid of the NFL, afraid of upsetting them, because it is controversial,” Cain said. “It’s a horrible thing that happened to Mike Webster, but it continues to happen and it’s not just Mike Webster. There are a lot of other players who suffered this CTE. It’s a controversial thing that happened.”
Sonny Jani, who represents the Webster family’s estate and trust, agreed that the story is intriguing, heartwarming, eye opening, and important.
“This is a totally opposite story than the ‘Concussion’ movie played. Totally opposite that no one knows about this story,” Jani said. “This is going to open many eyes and it’s going to be wonderful. There is a relationship, there is friendship, and there’s loyalty, this whole thing all in a play,” Jani said.
In reading the script, Cain and his actors felt overcome with emotion.
“My actors all cried when they were on stage. They stood, they clapped, and they were in tears,” Cain said. “It’s an amazing script. People need to know what happened.”
Marcus Taylor, who plays the role of Dr. Omalu, said he was fortunate in that Cain’s wife, Maya Andlig, approached him and asked him to meet up with her husband to talk about being a part of this movement. He’s pleased to be a part of this chapter of Webster’s life and his family.
“I truly believe a lot of the things that have come about, that have happened with his life, there are things that need to be said and need to be addressed,” Taylor said.
Cain said he decided to use the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side, where the Rooneys and the Steelers are from, because the venue is larger than the Iron Horse, which only seats 62 people. Because it’s a bigger venture, sponsors and donations are needed.
The whole cast has volunteered to do the show without pay. Half the proceeds raised will go to the Webster family and the other half toward producing the play and supporting the Iron Horse.
Another fundraiser, “Come Together” Beatles Review, is planned for Jan. 31-Feb. 1 and Feb. 7-8 at the Iron Horse. Tickets are $10 and can be reserved at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4483875.
Donations can also be made to the Go Fund Me page.