Gene Collier: How Mike Webster memories still motivate ex-Chief Nick Lowery
by Gene Collier, Pittsburg Post-Gazette
With four weeks remaining in yet another imponderable NFL season, it’s impossible to say whether the Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens will win an AFC North race that is, as the great broadcaster Red Barber liked to say, “tighter than a new pair of shoes on a rainy day.”
Moreover, it’s impossible to know who among the conference’s top contemporary swaggerers — Kansas City, New England, Houston or those Steelers-slaying fresh princes of BelAir, the Los Angeles Chargers — will erect the greatest impediment to Pittsburgh’s perpetual Super Bowl fixation.
But there is, in all of this, one absolute certainty.
Before the playoffs begin, someone will remind the Chiefs, who have the best record in the AFC at 10-2, that they haven’t won a home playoff game in 25 years.
It may as well be Nick Lowery, who long before becoming the first pro athlete to graduate from Harvard’s JFK School of Government with that master’s in public administration, kicked the overtime field goal that beat the Steelers, 27-24, on that bone cold day in Missouri nearly a quarter century ago. It was Jan. 8, 1994.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is the biggest kick of my life,’ and just saying, ‘Trust your training, just trust your training, keep your [darn] head down,’ ” Lowery remembered one day this past week. “And I will never forget, because that was the last kick I ever had in Arrowhead Stadium in my career as a Chief. I’ve got a picture of that in my kitchen, of 80,000 people in red like a huge human wave standing up, and all my teammates running on.”
A three-time Pro Bowler and the leading scorer in Chiefs history, Lowery played for the Patriots and the Jets as well in an 18-year-career that ended in 1996, but he’s still got killer Steelers stories.
“Pro Bowl, 1982, surrealistically beautiful palm trees, beautiful Hawaiian ladies, and there’s Jack Lambert,” this one begins. “And Jack, every night at about 8:30, was going to a country music bar for a couple of beers and sometimes I’d join him, and around the second or third beer they’d challenge him to come up on stage — the band would — and he’d get up and sing pretty well.
“So we had a little bit of a friendship, and we had an amazing team, Don Shula was the coach and Earl Campbell was there and John Hannah, Steve Largent, Dan Fouts. So the game comes and it’s 13-13 late and we’re driving down the field, a game-winning field goal situation, and Lambert comes up to me on the sideline with this toothless smile and says, ‘Rookie (and I wasn’t a rookie), we make $5,000 if we lose and we make $10,000 if we win. Make this kick or I’ll rip you’re [expletive] head off.’ ”
Lowery, who grew up near Washington, D.C., and now lives in Arizona, somehow cultivated a Western Pennsylvanian understanding of the Black & Gold, either through his appreciation of the old Three Rivers crowds or ancient AFC rivalries or from the fact that he was long the next door neighbor of one-time Steelers draft choice Whizzer White. Curiously, White seemed to gain something of a grander status as a sitting justice on the Supreme Court of the United States.
“When you’re looking for heroes,” Lowery said of the late justice, “here’s a guy that led the National Football League in rushing the same year he finished first in his class at Yale Law School.”
But nothing and no one in the Steelers pantheon likely moves Lowery in his public policy role today like the story of Mike Webster, the Hall of Famer who was again so sorely missed on the Steelers’ alumni weekend this month, having been taken from us tragically in 2002 at the age of 50.
Webby and Lowery were teammates for only two years, the seasons Webster spent in Kansas City at the end of his career, 1989 and 1990, but in promoting and accelerating research into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Lowery is virtually fueled by his near mythic recollections of Iron Mike.
“Very truthfully, the most powerful, emotional weight in this comes from sitting on the bus with a guy named Mike Webster,” Lowery said. “Mike was talking about how he was looking forward to retirement and he’d purchased some apartment complexes up in Minnesota, looking forward to time with his family. We all know what happened to Mike, but he didn’t know until it was too late.
“Suffering, that word, doesn’t do it any good, doesn’t begin to describe it. It was so much worse than that, not only for him, but for his family. Cognitive impairment, headaches, vertigo, confusion, lack of insight, dementia, bad judgment, sleep issues, anxiety issues, all things my dear teammate had to endure. My motivation is, knowing what [Webster’s wife] Pam’s gone through and the family’s gone through, and the people who knew this was Iron Mike, this was true anchor of that team, the quiet leader I got to play with for two years. He didn’t talk about himself, he just got it done. You’d see him on the sideline and for us, as Chiefs, it was such an important thing to have that human being with us. His loss, what he went through, no one should have to go through.”
This is where Lowery can still get emotional about where the game is heading in terms of head trauma and what can be done about it.
“This is something that we have to do something about, and it’s not because football is a demon — football is the best damn thing; it’s the greatest blessing I’ve ever had,” he said, his voice quaking a bit. “I had to work through getting cut by eight teams 11 times before I made it. All the rich memories I’ve had would not have happened without football and learning about what I was made of. These guys that are dying, they’re some of the greatest guys you could meet in your life.”
As he watched this past week’s sweeping, solemn ceremonies honoring the passing of George H.W. Bush, Lowery almost no doubt felt the swell of pride and inspiration.
“I got to work in the Points of Light Foundation in ’89; I could look out the window and look at George H.W. tossing horseshoes,” Lowery said. “So that’s what my life came to be about and why I went to Harvard, to find out how you become efficient and successful as a leader dealing with very difficult subjects and that’s what I studied – conflict resolution, negotiation, non-profit management, etc.”
On top of the raw emotions he carries from seeing so many contemporaries suffer and die from repetitive brain trauma, Lowery brings an academic’s approach to the problem for which he can now see a potential solution “within a generation.” He can cite case studies and patent numbers and experiments and data and projections in the practiced language of scientists and has become a spokesman for Kannalife Sciences, a Doylestown, Pa., company specializing in the research and development of cannabinoid therapeutics.
Dr. Douglas Brenneman, a Kannalife neuro-pharmacologist, told “Dateline NBC” in May that the cannabis extract CBD might have the capacity, through its pain reducing qualities, to overturn the opioid epidemic. The company hopes CBD’s will one day be used to reverse the toxicity in the brain brought on by repeated concussive trauma and CTE.
“The potential is way up there,” Brenneman said in that segment. “The anecdotal evidence is something that really gets your attention.”
To Lowery and many former players like him, this is the way the NFL’s concussion problem should be attacked, in the best traditions of science and academia.
“What we need to do, just like in every difficult dilemma we’ve ever had in our country, is to learn everything we can about, do the research and work together just to say the game is bigger than us,” he said. “Who are the stewards of this game? The NFL frankly was playing games on this issue until 2010. Since then there have been rule changes. Obviously you see people not liking some of them, but these are the uneven manifestations of trying to get things better. While it’s not where it needs to be, it’s going in the right direction.
“The damn game is bigger than us and we are stewards of the game and our role is to preserve it by doing the right thing.”
Should the NFL one day actually turn the corner on this, I’m guessing it’ll be a lot more significant than Nick the Kick’s overtime dagger in Kansas City that day long ago, or even than who winds up winning the AFC North.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @genecollier