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A Poignant Docudrama about a Valiant Steeler Hall of Famer

Ernesto Mario Sanchez as Mike Webster Credit: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company
    Guys who rarely (or never) attend live theater but are often tempted to do so, might want to consider a visit to the Madison Arts Center in Pittsburgh. There, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is currently staging a docudrama about a popular Steeler Hall of Famer.
    12:52 The Mike Webster Story is a look at the final years of “Iron Mike,” as he was affectionately called, following his retirement from football in 1990. In his 17 years in the sport, he played in 245 games, 217 of which he started. All this longevity, however, took its toll as too-numerous-to-count head collisions with other players left him with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
    The play opens with Webster (Ernesto Mario Sanchez) chewing the fat with close friend, quarterback, Terry Bradshaw (Paul Guggenheimer) just after Webster’s retirement from football.

Paul Guggenheimer as Terry Bradshaw and Ernesto Mario Sanchez as Mike Webster

    In the scene, one of 15 in the show, Webster starts showing early signs of the ailment that would only grow progressively worse.
    The play quickly moves on to Webster’s home in Wisconsin where his judgment about shaky investments begin to trouble his put-upon but patiently supportive wife Pam (Kauleen Webster).
    Eventually, Webster’s growing hostility towards his wife leads to physical abuse, which ends up with him cast out of the house, near penniless and homeless. Fortunately, he’s befriended by a sports card and memorabilia shop owner from McKees Rocks, Sonny Jani (Arjun Kumar) who devises a mutually advantageous plan to market Webster’s renown by signing autographs, a scheme they expect to grow only more lucrative once Webster’s admitted into the Hall of Fame.
    As the footballer’s condition worsens, however, he needs additional financial support for both his family and medical bills and seeks help from both Steeler owner, Dan Rooney (Charles Davis “Stoney” Richards) as well as the NFL. To aid his cause, he employs a lawyer reluctant to take on the case (veteran actor Jerry Wienland as Bob Fitzsimmons).

Sanchez, Arjun Kumar as Sonny and Jerry Wienland as Bob Fitzsimmons

    Wanting to help fellow NFL players, Webster presses his case, fighting against crushing odds, which makes up the bulk of the rest of the story as well as its most engaging segment.
    Director Marcus Muzopappa, chosen, as the playbill reads, both for “his love of theater and the Pittsburgh Steelers,” chose wisely when selecting his cast. As Webster, Sanchez captures well the passionate will to press his case against the NFL in spite declining mental abilities. The tech crew of lighting designer, Madeleine Steineck, and sound designer, Ben Cain, add visual and aural touches to accent his impaired mental condition.
    As Bradshaw, Guggenheimer manages to capture both the star quarterback’s swagger and his deep sympathy and genuine caring for his fellow teammate.
    Richards as the venerable Steeler owner, is the picture image of an NFL team owner, with patrician characteristics I found reminiscent of Pittsburgh businessman and philanthropist, Henry Hillman.
    Andrew Lasswell fits the mold perfectly, at least in my mind, as longtime Steelers PR front man, Joe Gordon (the first of his kind ever to be admitted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame). And Wienand as the perspicacious, pugnacious attorney glided through a polished dramatic arc from reluctant attorney to ardent supporter of Webster’s cause.
    As Pam, Cloutier’s command of facial expressions alone were telling, but she brought even more to her character with her nuanced control of her part of the narrative.
    Besides Guggenheimer as Bradshaw, Arjun Kumar had the other massive assignment is portraying Webster’s rescuer and business partner, Sonny Jani. He played his character with a well-defined genuine quality that made him likable and personable.
    Though his roles were small, Wali Jamal came off splendidly as the autopsy doctor who diagnosed Webster’s post-mortem brain characteristics, rattling off a series complex medical terms with ease that were as much a tongue twister as a triumph of memorization. Called on to replicate the tone, accent and voice of long-time Steeler broadcaster, Myron Cope, he also fooled me until I caught a couple of non-Copian sounding words that clued me into the fact that these weren’t audio tapes of the Voice of the Steelers on replay after all.
    While Steeler fans may find the play fascinating as it reveals details of Webster's later years and recalls some of his on-field prowess, those with no interest in or knowledge of the sport should find the story line compelling if not highly informative and, yes, entertaining, despite its darker moments. Note: If you're wondering about the 12:52 in the title, it references both the time Webster died and the friendship between Bradshaw (jersey #12) and Webster  (jersey #52).
    Webster comes off as an off-the-field hero as well as a Steeler superstar and football Hall of Famer thanks to his valiant efforts to get the NFL to realize its complicity in the sport that sometimes results in serious head (and other) injuries. Thanks to his passion to bring the issue to a head, the sport added protective innovations including improved helmet design. The play produced by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company and written by Dr. Randall Benson and Ross Howard runs through June 25.
    For tickets and more information, go to


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