To appreciate former linebacker George Webster, you had to see him play. He didn’t tackle ball-carriers as much as he buried them … and often after sprinting across the field to hunt them down.
“George Webster,” said former coach Hank Bullough, “played like a Cobra striking his prey.”
Yeah, I’d say that about sums it up.
Webster was such an outstanding player at Michigan State that he was a consensus All-America twice, was the second player in the school’s history to have his football number retired and was named the Spartans’ all-time greatest player by the Lansing State Journal.
And he was such an outstanding player with the AFL Houston Oilers that he averaged over 10 tackles a game as a rookie, was named (along with San Diego’s Dickie Post) the AFL’s co-Rookie of the Year and was a consensus All-AFL pick in each of his first three years with the team.
In fact, Webster had such an impact on the Oilers that they held opponents to under 200 points his rookie season when they won the AFL’s Eastern Division. Moreover, he was named to the All-Time All-AFL team despite playing only three years in the league before the NFL merger.
And for good reason. He created the “roverback” position — a linebacker with a defensive back’s speed and quickness.
“He doesn’t tackle people,” one coach said of Webster then. “He explodes them.”
As I said, to have seen him was never to forget him.
Webster is in the College Football Hall of Fame, but he’s not in Canton and has never been discussed as a finalist or semifinalist … and I get it. First of all, his career as a dominant player was short, with Webster never the same after a knee injury sidelined him in his fourth season with the Oilers. He would last another year in Houston before shuttling off to Pittsburgh and New England for his last five seasons, but none of them were memorable.
Second, he was never really healthy his last six years, missing games in all but one of those seasons, including 11 of 28 in his last two years with Houston. And, third, he wasn’t an all-decade choice or a member of a championship team, two factors that can help push candidates into serious consideration for Canton.
But when he was right … when he wasn’t battling injuries … there was nothing or nobody like him. George Webster was unforgettable, a bulldozer on skates who knew where and how to find the football — a converted safety who was so fast that he once caught “Bullet” Bob Hayes from behind and so complete that he had 15 tackles in his first AFL start.
Plus, he could play almost anywhere, and where the Oilers played him was outside linebacker. Good? No, he was great, with former Houston defensive end Elvin Bethea telling KRIV-TV in Houston that Webster “one of the greatest linebackers who ever lived” and that he “was the prototype linebacker in the ’60s and ’70s. He could cover the whole field with great speed.”
Of course, anyone who saw him could tell you that. But with the passing of time, there are fewer and fewer of those eyes to serve as witnesses to the greatness that was George Webster.
No, he won’t ever reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he probably will never have his case discussed. But that shouldn’t diminish the magnificence of a football player who deserves to be remembered.