Aug 2, 2014; Canton, OH, USA; Dermontti Dawson looks on at the TimkenSteel Grand Parade on Cleveland Avenue in advance of the 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
When it comes to talking about the greatest players who manned the position of center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, perhaps the fewest names at any position come to mind. There have been some great centers for the Steelers, but the list is short. In fact, since 1964, there have been only four men who have been long-time starters for the Black and Gold at center.
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The streak began with Ray Mansfield who gave way to Mike Webster, who then handed the reigns over to Dermontti Dawson until he retired. When Dawson stopped wearing a Pittsburgh jersey, Jeff Hartings took over for a bit until the next great center came along in Maurkice Pouncey. Over those years since Mansfield took over the position, there have been other players who filled in and started a few games here and there, but nobody achieved the greatness of those four men excluding Hartings, although the former Lion had a fine career while with Pittsburgh.
Of those four centers, both Webster and Dawson are now members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The position of center is vital on offense for it is the responsibility of that man to ensure his line is in proper position at the snap of the ball and the center must also be 100% accurate in snapping the ball to the quarterback. He also must possess football smarts to know how plays will develop so the center can be thought of as an offensive captain of sorts similar to a catcher in baseball. For those reasons, it takes a very special player to excel at the position of Center. Mansfield, Webster, Dawson, and Pouncey established themselves with those capabilities. In the order that they played, profiles of the four great centers follow.
Ray Mansfield: At the age of 55, Ray Mansfield had been far removed from his football career with the Pittsburgh Steelers but was still in love with hiking. While doing just that in the Grand Canyon, Mansfield suffered a massive heart attacked and passed on. Originally drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1963 as a second round draft selection, Mansfield switched teams in the state of Pennsylvania after his rookie season but began his career in the ‘Burgh as a defensive tackle before switching sides of the ball and becoming the Steelers’ starting center in 1966. He would own that spot until 1976 when he decided to retire.
Before Mansfield call it quits, on Sunday, December 19, 1976, while blowing out the Baltimore Colts in the divisional playoff round 40-14, regular kick Roy Gerela suffered an injury. In stepped Ray Mansfield who kicked that game’s final extra point and made good on it. The following week against the Raiders in Oakland for the AFC championship, Pittsburgh lost but Mansfield again kicked the extra point on the Steelers’ only score. Mansfield was immensely popular with Steelers fans and was commonly known as “The Ranger.”
Mike Webster: Probably the greatest center to ever play for Pittsburgh, “Iron Mike” Webster was just that…an iron man. Tough as nails, strong, and gritty, Webby as he was also called, is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame but may also be known better for his troubles that followed him once he retired from football. What is now well known as “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” or CTE but is more commonly known as a diagnosis resulting from concussions is said to be the neurodegenerative disease that was attributed to Webster’s death in 2002 at the young age of 50. Prior to that, Webster had suffered from amnesia, dementia, depression, acute bone and muscle pain. His condition rendered him homeless at one point and he was living out of a truck and train stations. His story was tragic and touched many.
As the starting center for the Steelers from 1977 until he left the team via free agency in 1988, Webster compiled the longest career as a Steelers player in the team’s history. With 15 seasons wearing Black and Gold, it was difficult for many to see him suiting up as a Kansas City Chief from 1989 to 1990. Along with his many achievements, Mike Webster might very easily be the greatest center in the history of pro football.
Aside from having his jersey number retired in Pittsburgh (52) and being in the Hall of Fame, Webster was named to the Pro Bowl nine times; was a nine-time All-Pro; a member of the four Super Bowl winning teams in Pittsburgh in the 1970s; was named to Pittsburgh’s Pro Football Hall of Fame post-posthumously in 2011; is a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team; the 1980s All-Decade Team; the 1970s All-Decade Team; and is a member of Pittsburgh’s own 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
In addition to those honors, Webster was also ranked 75th best football player of all-time by The Sporting News in 1999 was well as being elected into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007 where he played collegiately. Having graduated from Rhinelander High School in Wisconsin, that school has named their stadium Mike Webster Stadium.
Because of his untimely death, Mike Webster’s estate filed a lawsuit against the NFL in 2005 and ruled in his favor indicating Iron Mike was in fact disabled at the time of his retirement and that the league should pay $1.18 in disability benefits to his estate. After interest and fees were tacked on, the total reached $1.60 million.
The NFL appealed but lost and on December 13, 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia ruled that the original rule applied and the league’s retirement plan be forced to pay benefits reserved for players that suffered disabilities that began when they were still active in the league. Regardless of the legal actions and issues, Mike Webster will forever be remembered simply as “Iron Mike” and immortalized as a great player and very well liked.
Dermontti Dawson: Where Mike Webster left off, Dermontti Dawson picked up. Only Dawson was a different kind of animal at center. Instead of brute strength and being a wall at the position, Dawson used a combination of speed, agility, power, and grace to become the most dominant center of his era. Holding his starting role from 1989 to 2000, Dawson retired in 2000 and was eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005. But it took until 2012 for him to finally be inducted. It was an honor well deserved.
Like Mike Webster before him, Dawson has had his jersey number 63 retired. Dawson was a seven-time Pro Bowler; six-time All-Pro; in the Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame (2011); named to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team; played in Super Bowl XXX, a Pittsburgh loss to Dallas; and has been named to the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team.
Dermontti Dawson earned two nicknames, one for on the field and the other for his non-playing demeanor. When battling defenders, he became known as “dirt.” That’s for his attempts at trying to plow opposing players into the ground. But when not suiting up, may called him “Ned Flanders” from the TV show The Simpsons because Dawson was always so cheerful.
This writer has met the man, and you would be hard pressed to find a pro player more personable. Said Bill Cowher who coached Dawson, “To me he was the best athlete to ever play that position. He was very powerful and explosive, just a rare combination of quickness, explosion, and he was a very dependable player. This guy hardly ever missed a game. He redefined the position.”
On a side note, there have been two major blowouts in the long history of games between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns had beaten Pittsburgh 51-0 during Dawson’s career when he was the starter but the Black and Gold returned the favor years later with a 43-0 shellacking. Dawson was also the starting center becoming the only player to be a part of both of those games for Pittsburgh. The 51-0 blowout was Dawson’s first career start and Pittsburgh worst lost in history.
“To me he was the best athlete to ever play that position” Bill Cowher on Dermontti Dawson
Incredibly, out of 184 games played for the Steelers, Dermontti Dawson started in 181 of those. From 1989 to 1998, Dawson started in every single game of each of those seasons. In 1999 and 200 Roger Duffy had to step in due to injuries and other reasons which led to Dawson hanging up the cleats. Always the nice guy, Dermontti Dawson will be remembered for just that aside from his amazing talent on the field.
Maurkice Pouncey: Today’s great center is Maurkice Pouncey. A first round draft pick in 2010 with the 18th pick overall, Pouncey immediately won the starting center position and was in front of Ben Roethlisberger for all 16 games. Pouncey was also named to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. To no surprise, at the end of that campaign, he was named Steelers Rookie of the Year. Heading into the post-season his first year, Pouncey injured an ankle in the conference championship and could not play in the subsequent Super Bowl, a loss to the Green Bay Packers. In 2011, Pouncey was limited to just 11 games and returned for 15 starts in 2012. Despite not starting all 16 games in either season, he still made the Pro Bowl.
The injury bug bit Pouncey again in 2013 as he tore his right ACL and MCL in the season opening game and was out for the remainder of that campaign. He returned last year and turned in another Pro Bowl season, his fourth in five seasons. Pouncey is joined by his brother Mike in the NFL, his twin brother drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 2011.
Pouncey has been named First-Team All-Pro twice; was ranked 49th among the NFL’s top players of 2012; was a member of the University of Florida’s National Championship team in 2009; named to All-SEC First-Team in 2009; and was a consensus All-American in 2009. Pouncey also won the Rimington Trophy in 2009 awarded to the best offensive lineman in the country.
Now for the other players who manned the center position.
Jeff Hartings: When Kevin Colbert became the Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager in 2000 after years in Detroit, he brought over a member of his Lions team that played center but in Pittsburgh he would move to guard. The player was Jeff Hartings.
Hartings would become a force on the Steelers o-line and play for Pittsburgh from 2001 until he retired following the 2006 season. Along with way, he was a member of the Super Bowl XL championship team, named to the Pro Bowl twice, and was an All-Pro in 2001 and 2004. In college at Penn State, Hartings was named First-Team All-American in 1994 and 1995.
Frank Sinkovitz: Most if not all fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers probably have never heard of Frank Sinkovitz. The former Steelers center played his entire six seasons in Black and Gold and would be 92 years old this year if he had survived an early death at the age of 66 in 1989. Sinkovitz was curiously born in Steelton, Pennsylvania and the Duke product would have a more successful career as a National Football League umpire which he did for 26 long seasons. He worked as an official in Super Bowl XV.
Chukky Okobi: A very likable player who did not achieve the success of some of the other centers mentioned is also one of the more curious men who snapped balls to Steelers’ quarterbacks. Chukky Okobi was a backup for most of this short Steelers career but took over at center when Jeff Hartings was injured 2006.
When Hartings retired following his injury, Okobi was named starting center for the following season but lost the job to Sean Mahan. Following the 2007 season, Okobi was released by the Steelers after six seasons and signed by the Arizona Cardinals where he lasted just one season. One more season in Houston and after a season-ending knee injury his career was done.
Okobi’s post-football career became very interesting. He jumped into the songwriting and hip hop game and has appeared in television commercials for ESPN, Campbell’s Chunky Soup, and the Pennsylvania lottery. He is the owner of a bed and breakfast facility in Pittsburgh that specializes in weddings, The Mansion at Maple Heights. He sang the rap song “Buctown!” which was written in regards to the season the Pittsburgh Pirates completed in 2011. Okobi’s birth name is Chukwunweze Sonume Okobi. The ex-Steeler was born in the ‘Burgh and is the son of two doctors. His siblings are also high achievers with one brother an established doctor as well and another who owns an MBA.
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