“He was the prototype linebacker. He could cover the whole field with great speed.”
– Elvin Bethea on George Webster
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — Over the past 20 years, the NFL has seen the position of linebacker evolve into Superman-like proportions. From Lawrence Taylor to Junior Seau, Brian Urlacher to Derrick Brooks and beyond, the position has undergone an incredible metamorphosis like none other on the field.
But even before the previously mentioned players, there were several outstanding linebackers that roamed the football landscape in relative obscurity. Just over a week ago, the game would see one of those foot soldiers pass away.
George Webster died at the age of 61 on April 19th in Houston. If you’re a football fan and you’ve never heard of him, you should have. As his former teammate Elvin Bethea said in the above quote, Webster was truly one of the game’s best.
In many ways, Webster helped change the game on both the college and professional level. A native of South Carolina, Webster along with Bubba Smith helped establish Michigan State as one of college football’s greatest defensive teams in the 1960′s.
At MSU, he played rover back, a position created by head coach Duffy Daugherty as a combination of safety and linebacker who could run with wide receivers but be strong enough to take on any running back.
Former Spartan defensive coordinator Hank Bullough talking to the Lansing State Journal said, “People remember George not only as a great athlete but just a great guy. He had feelings for everybody.”
During Webster’s time at MSU, the Spartans went 23-6-1, including the famous 10-10 tie against Notre Dame in November of 1966, and won a share of the national championship in 1965 (United Press International, National Football Foundation) and 1966 (NFF tie with Notre Dame).
Among the honors given to Webster were being named to the All-Big Ten and All-American teams in 1965 and 1966, his number 90 was the second to be retired by the university. He and Smith were one of the greatest 1-2 defensive combinations in college football history.
The two players’ paths would cross again during the 1967 college draft, the first combined draft between the NFL and the then-upstart AFL (American Football League). Smith was the first player taken, going to the Baltimore Colts while Webster was grabbed by the Houston Oilers with the fifth overall pick.
At 6-feet-5 and 220 pounds, Webster displayed exceptional speed for his position and enough muscle to put a jolt into his tackles. His immediate impact for the Oilers would be on display in an exhibition game against the Dallas Cowboys.
One play would show what Webster had to offer. Webster drifted into pass coverage as Dallas quarterback Don Meredith completed a square-out to star wide out “Bullet” Bob Hayes, the former Olympic speedster.
Hayes thought he had broken into the open field, but he was brought down from behind by Webster. The Oilers would lose the game, but the play of Webster and the defense, showed their fans that the Oilers were able to play head-to-head with the best of the NFL.
The Oilers won the Eastern Division title that season behind a defensive unit that not only held opponents under 200 points for the season, but scored eight times on their own.
In his pro debut, Webster started at left linebacker and made 15 tackles. Averaging more than 10 tackles a game, Webster was named the AFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and was first-team All-AFL.
Webster would play in three AFL All-Star Games, earning Defensive MVP honors in 1969. In 1970, he was named to the AFL’s All-Time Team (first team) by a special panel of Pro Football Hall of Fame voters.
During his 10-year career he played with the Oilers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New England Patriots. One of his former teammate, Ernie Holmes, eulogized Webster at his funeral this past Wednesday.
“George was not just a premier player in college, but he was also a premier player in the pros”, Holmes added. “He was a dynamic ballplayer and a great humanitarian”.
“His school (Michigan State) had just started a scholarship fund in his name and he was very, very proud of that”. In fact, the George Webster Scholarship Fund was established in February of 2007.
The Fund provides opportunities for two former student-athletes to return to Michigan State each year and complete their degrees. According to MSU records, the first recipients of the scholarship are Richard Newsome (football, 1997-2000) and Antonio Smith (men’s basketball, 1996-99).
At the end of his career, he would return to Houston to work with underprivileged children. Unfortunately, Webster also faced much adversity off the field. While the cause of his death was listed as heart failure, Webster had many severe ailments in recent years.
Webster dealt with throat cancer, prostate cancer and congestive heart failure. In 2002, his legs were amputated because of poor circulation. In 1989, Webster applied for benefits as totally and permanently disabled.
He was found to have lost most use of a hand, foot, knee and ankle due to football-related injuries, but did not meet the NFL’s definition of totally disabled. Football-related disability benefits are $4,000 a month; non-football disability monthly benefits are $750.
Unfortunately, Webster’s plight is similar to what many former NFL players have gone through following the end of their playing days. Speaking to KRIV-TV in Houston, his former teammate Elvin Bethea criticized the NFL’s treatment of Webster.
“The league doesn’t care about the older players,” he said. “They still don’t respect us for what we’ve done as a group. We were the foundation for this league.”
“He never complained,” Bullough said of Webster’s tough times in recent years. “He always said, ‘I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I’ve got all these friends’.”
NOTE: The Associated Press, Michigan State University, and the Detroit News all contributed to this story.