Review: Determination and Pain Propel Mike Webster’s Post-Steelers Story


There’s a moment when the face of Ernesto Mario Sanchez, the actor portraying Steelers legend Mike Webster, is bathed in a soft red glow. By his expression, it is clear his internal light is fading. 

Throughout 12:52 The Mike Webster Story, we witness Sanchez morph from coherent to irrational, engaged to unreachable, as “Iron Mike” fights a losing battle with the darkness that will take his life — but not before Webster notches one more triumph to add to his four Super Bowl Championships in Pittsburgh: 

Through his own suffering, he has become the earliest symbol of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that has made victims of football players during their long careers of bone-rattling collisions. In 2015 – 13 years after Webster’s death at age 50, and years of struggle to gain his full pension and health-insurance coverage – the National Football League lost a series of lawsuits from former players and their families who were diagnosed with brain diseases, and paid $1 billion in restitution. 

Paul Guggenheimer, left, as Terry Bradshaw and Ernesto Mario Webster as Mike Webster in Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s 12:52 The Mike Webster Story. (Courtesy of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company)

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of the drama, by the renowned neuroscientist Dr. Randall Benson and award-winning British playwright Ross Howard, serves not just as engaging, emotionally charged storytelling, but also as a reawakening to the unseen dangers inherent in playing football – even for a Hall of Famer such as Iron Mike.

This production had a week’s worth of free previews at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Arts Education Center, Downtown, before moving to Playwrights’ Hill District home, where it opened on Friday, June 16.

The tight-knit, adept cast, several playing Pittsburgh sports legends, engender the hard-hitting drama, anguish and humor of a real life worthy of the spotlight, as much for what he did on the field as for his post-career trauma. Directed by Marcus Muzopappa on a stark set, the play’s shifts in time and location move along apace during its two hours, including intermission.

The true story of the suffering of a beloved sports figure might seem too heavy to bear, if not for fine-tuned, naturalistic performances by Sanchez as Webster; Arjun Kumar as his business partner and caretaker, McKees Rocks resident Sonny Jani, and Kauleen Cloutier, whose agony is palpable as Webster’s wife, Pam.

Jani was in attendance and stayed for an impromptu talkback with the cast on opening night. The play 12:52 – denoting time of death – is Jani’ story almost as much as it is Webster’s. 

Arjum Kumar as Mike Webster’s business partner, Sonny Jani of McKees Rocks, in 12:52 The Mike Webster Story. (Courtesy of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company)

It was Jani who found the nine-time Pro Bowler living at the Greyhound bus station, mentally and physically a mess, and formed one-half of Team Webster – a partnership that was to be a moneymaker through sports memorabilia shows. By this time, Webster’s fingers were so mangled, as illustrated by Sanchez in an empathetic performance, that the Steeler often used Super Glue to keep them in position to sign autographs. Sanchez, transformed from roles with Stage 62, Little Lake Theatre and Pittsburgh Musical Theater, among others, inhabits a well-known figure whose body and mind are failing, often through subtle or sudden changes in expression and movement.

Webster, indebted yet unbowed, continued to decline, causing Jani no end of headaches – both financially and through late-night calls for help. In one instance, when he fails to show up for a booking, and Kumar’s Jani is desperately trying to figure out why, Webster finally confides, “I was lost,” with the inherent meaning so much more than just getting from point A to B.

Kumar gives a relatable, honest performance as Jani struggles to both help Webster and himself make ends meet. It was Jani who eventually helped the Steeler engage the West Virginia attorney and voice of reason Bob Fitzsimmons (Jerry Weinand), who helped them challenge the NFL’s blind eye to CTE. 

Paul Guggenheimer, the former host of WESA’s Essential Pittsburgh, as Terry Bradshaw contributes a breath of fresh air, as a sort of class clown and doting friend to his center and good friend.

One particularly successful scene, through the use of rotating spotlights, has Guggenheimer’s Bradshaw inducting his pal Webster into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, interspersed with Wali Jamal’s Dr. Bennet Omalu discussing the effects of CTE. 

Charles David “Stoney” Richards is a charming Dan Rooney, trying to do the right thing as Sanchez’s Webster rejects all of his offers. The Steelers’ Hall of Fame PR guru Joe Gordon (Andrew Lasswell) becomes a go-between who Webster trusts in dealing with his former team.

While his mind and body betray him, Webster continually turns down potential windfalls from anyone connected to the NFL, believing that anything he takes will diminish his claims that playing football has brought him to a painful end.

You may think you learned a lot about CTE in the movie Concussion, in which Dr. Omalu struggles for recognition of the consequences of multiple concussions over time. That movie follows Webster’s death, the point at which the play opens, but just as a point of reference.

Jamal, also is heard as the voice of Myron Cope, delivers a spot-on accent as Dr. Omalu, reciting a slew of medical evidence regarding CTE, before he disappears for long swaths of time. The play mostly covers Webster’s post-playing years leading up to the lineman’s death.

12:52 does not shy from Webster’s mood swings, including brutality toward his wife – played out in a wrenching scene by Cloutier and Sanchez. 

He winds up disdainful of the symbols of the Steelers’ Super Bowl victories and constantly has to be talked out of selling his championship rings.

During the talkback on Friday, the audience learned that the rings flashed on stage were props, but the box holding them was the real deal. In fact, we were told, most of the scenes in the script have been verified by those who were there, including Pam Webster.

The cast of 12:52 The Mike Webster Story, with Sonny Jani (in Webster’s No. 52 jersey) and director Marcus Muzopappa (second from right), sat for an impromptu post-show talkback at Madison Arts Center on June 16. (Image: Sharon Eberson)

It may be hard to be reminded of how far Mike Webster fell, from the All-Pro who bared his Popeye arms, no matter the conditions, to keep opponents from grabbing his sleeves, to destitute and dependent on others for food and shelter. But at the same time, it is also a reminder that he did his best to protect and improve the lives of the players who came after him.

Certain safety precautions, such as updated concussion protocols as recent as 2022, are now in place, but ongoing research on CTE reveals that it is prevalent among pro and college football players.

12:52 The Mike Webster Story may be just the jolt needed to remind us that Iron Mike’s mission is still in progress, and why he may be seen as a hero on two fronts, during and after his stellar career as a Pittsburgh Steeler.


At Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee St., Hill District, through June 25. Tickets are $30, $27 for seniors/students, and $35 for all at the door. https://www.pghplaywrights.org/webster-tickets/

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