Sto-Rox graduate Sonny Jani (right), will have a play featuring him and former Steelers player Mike Webster.
By Jamie Wiggan
A play debuting in Ambridge Sept. 2 is set to showcase on stage the last years of the late Mike Webster, whose post-game life was plagued by poor health following years of sustained head trauma during his celebrated Steelers career.
Separated from his wife and children, those years came to be defined by an unlikely friendship with a young Sto-Rox graduate and Indian emigrant who at the time made his living selling sports cards.
“The real story is the relationship of Sonny Jani and Mike Webster,” said London Cain, founder of Iron Horse Theatre, where “12:52 The Mike Webster Story” will premiere. “...To me it’s a story of grit, of determination, hard work and overcoming adversity.”
Leaving his football years in the background, the 80-minute play picks up after Webster’s NFL career and uses the challenges he faced then to convey ordinary human struggles, according to playwright Ross Howard.
“What’s on stage is how Mike is relating to himself, to Sonny, his family, the Steelers…” Howard said. “It’s a human story.”
Webster met Jani in 1992, just one year after his retirement, when murmurs he was sleeping at a bus station in Downtown Pittsburgh reached Jani through his sports card contacts.
Recognizing a business opportunity, Jani drove to meet Webster, beginning a unique friendship and partnership that would last until the former center’s premature death in 2002.
“Originally my plan was just to get an autograph,” Jani said.
Instead, Jani offered Webster regular work signing autographs in his store, and began lining up speeches and signings at unremarkable venues like bowling alleys and flea markets. The work kept Webster busy, and he was glad to have a way to earn his keep instead of relying on charity, Jani said.
Webster’s deteriorating health sometimes manifested in depression, while other times it brought pain and irritability. He had problems concentrating and would often turn up to scheduled events hours late.
To keep him on track, Jani assembled a team of informal caregivers, who reminded him to take his medication and helped him get to appointments with doctors and lawyers.
As the play depicts, lawyers and doctors came to play a major role in Webster’s 11-year retirement, with professionals from both worlds seeking to bring him relief.
Eventually Webster was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), later setting off a wave of scrutiny over the risks involved in a football career.
The game reformed as a consequence, but not in time to bring justice to Webster.
Three years after Webster’s death, Jani – as estate executive – finally won a landmark case against the NFL securing more than $1 million in pension plan payouts.
Webster’s family and estate were excluded from a separate 2014 settlement offering payouts to athletes affected by concussion whose careers lasted into 2006 or later.
Many others have however benefited from the work set in motion by Webster and his supporters, and this is what the play’s creators hope to draw attention to.
“Football has changed, and people don’t know this but a lot of it has changed because of Mike Webster,” Cains said. “He wanted compensation for everybody, so he was willing to fight. Unless everyone was able to be helped he wasn't willing to take that money.”
Though a self-described NFL fanatic, Howard said his writing was compelled primarily by the off-field themes in Webster’s life.
“Once [neurologist Randall Benson} handed over his notes, I saw that the play was mostly about a man’s struggle for purpose,” he said.
Depicting this struggle on stage in turn creates room for viewers to reflect on questions of purpose and meaning as they draw connections to their own lives, he said.
It also allows for Webster to be recast as a victor on and off the field, despite his evident struggles.
“Mike Webster may have died prematurely but I think he lived a full life.”