Webster’s career lasted from 1974 to 1990, ending just before the advent of free agency and the massive increase in N.F.L. salaries it sparked. After Webster retired, his declining health, escalating medical bills, long slide into dementia and years of wandering the country took a toll on Garrett Webster, his three siblings and their mother, Pam.
She exhausted her savings long ago. She lives off credit cards, Social Security and an annuity. Unable to afford a home, she has spent the past five years staying with friends and family. Careful not to overstay her welcome, she traveled during one six-week stretch to Pittsburgh, the West Coast, Minnesota, Wisconsin and then back to Pittsburgh, where she stays with Garrett.
Through it all, she and her four children have continued a fight to receive a multimillion-dollar award from the N.F.L.’s concussion settlement with retired players.
As a part of the settlement, the N.F.L. agreed to make compensation payments that will stretch into the millions to retired players with severe cognitive and neurological problems. On paper, at least, the Websters should receive nearly $3 million based on his age at the time of the diagnosis, 50, and the number of years he played in the N.F.L., 17. The criteria are an attempt to gauge how long players were exposed to head trauma and how directly that exposure could be linked to health problems: Younger players are paid more on the presumption that football, not old age, caused their problems.
To the Websters’ dismay, they found out after the settlement agreement was announced that Iron Mike, as he was known in Pittsburgh, was not automatically part of it. That’s because the deal excludes players who died before Jan. 1, 2006.
The N.F.L. pushed for a cutoff date to prevent a stream of families from filing claims for long-deceased fathers and husbands. The plaintiffs’ lawyers ultimately agreed on 2006, which allowed more families to file claims, but was far enough back that it excluded the families of players who died before then from bringing wrongful-death and other suits against the league.
The Websters and other families in their position still have a glimmer of hope. The federal judge in the case, Anita B. Brody, left open a legal window for families of players who died before 2006 that their lawyers hope to exploit. Jason Luckasevic, the lawyer for the Websters, needs to show that the family still has the right to file a legal case against the league under their state’s statute of limitations.
Christopher Seeger, a co-lead counsel for the retired players who sued the league, declined to be interviewed on the phone. In an email, he explained that some players objected to the 2006 cutoff date, but without a settlement that at least captured players dating to 2006, many more would face the same stringent limitations as the Websters.
The 2006 cutoff date “is the result of hard-fought negotiations between the parties,” he wrote in court filings in 2015. “Had the plaintiffs not secured this provision, claimants on behalf of all deceased class members would have had to show that their claims were timely.”
The exclusion applies to players who died from all diseases covered by the settlement, including A.L.S. and Parkinson’s disease. But it is a particularly crushing blow to the Websters and to the families of two other former Steelers, Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, who also died before 2006 and received the same posthumous diagnosis Mike Webster did. They spent many years listening to league officials question any connection between playing football and a degenerative brain condition, before 2016, when the N.F.L. grudgingly acknowledged a link between football and the disease.
“If you asked the 20,000 retirees who are part of the class, they would say Mike Webster should be paid first,” Mr. Luckasevic said.
The league and the administrator for the settlement say that despite early hiccups and the need to weed out fraudulent claims, the process is operating as intended. More than $150 million has been awarded and many hundreds of other claims are being evaluated.
“We are pleased the concussion settlement is proceeding as the parties and the court intended,” Brian McCarthy, an N.F.L. spokesman, said.
Jo-Ann M. Verrier, who was appointed by the judge to help resolve complicated cases, said there were about 40 claims filed by the families of players who died before 2006 that have the potential to set legal precedent. That means she must make sure to create a process to evaluate them fairly. Once that process is completed, the other special master, Wendell Pritchett, will begin to rule on the claims, which will be reviewed on a first-come-first-served basis.
“We want to create a process where we can decide on these issues once and for all,” Ms. Verrier said.
Garrett Webster, though, is losing his patience.
“It’s insane that we haven’t been paid…