The Bear learned integrity from Father Ted

When I first set foot on the Notre Dame campus as a freshman 61 years ago, I had already seen the beauty of the place from my high school visit, but I was now learning about the great people I would be meeting.

The first fellow students to make an impression on me were my football-playing classmates.  Why?  They were so much bigger and stronger than I had seen in high school.  We lived in a Freshman Quad back then, so we got to know our classmates quite well, seeing them in our frosh dorms (Stanford, Keenan, Farley, Breen Phillips, and Cavanaugh) and at meal times (North Dining Hall).

Six of my classmates made the biggest impression. Nick Eddy and Arunas Vasys were both track-team sprinters and 200 pound halfbacks.  Bill Wolski was another halfback with muscles on top of muscles.  Lou Gehrig-like Pete Duranko was a fullback built like the defensive lineman that Ara converted him into.  Watching The Diesel walk across the quad on his hands was quite a sight.  Mike Wadsworth was a big, handsome guy, with a marvelous voice.  He looked the part of an Ambassador that he would become.

But … the guy who made the biggest impression lived a couple floors above me in Breen Phillips — Mike “The Bear” Webster.  He was scary looking.  He didn’t talk much.  I don’t recall him smiling a lot.  He looked like a lumberjack.  He was from Vancouver, British Columbia.  I think he was listed at 6-3, 275 pounds at a time when 220 was big enough to be a good tackle.

Bear might qualify as one of the few players that Ara did not develop well.  He went on to have a great career in the Canadian Football League, forsaking a promising lumberjack future, no doubt.  After that, Bear turned to pro wrestling where he achieved champion status. 

But it is in his third career that Bear became a real champion.  He became a renowned police psychologist (talk about a reversal of stereotypes!), going to graduate school in the football off-seasons before earning his PhD in 1981.  I first learned about Bear’s new career from my own work in law enforcement.

I mentioned to Dan McGinn, Mike’s former teammate and close friend, that one of his specialties was negotiating with barricaded suspects.  Dan said, “You mean Bear is the guy who talks a criminal into coming out of a building?  Back when we hung out together, he would have kicked in the door and pulled the guy out by his throat!”  Bear taught at the British Columbia Police Academy, the Canadian Police College, Europol, and the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia.

Mike’s other specialties were in training law enforcement in crisis situations like hostage negotiations, evaluating officers for their fitness to return to duty, and evaluating individuals aspiring to become law enforcement officers.

More than a dozen years ago, The Bear faced a serious challenge.  He was called as an expert witness in a notorious use of force case in which a European man died in the custody of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).  It happened that the Mounties were Webster’s largest client.  His testimony that the RCMP had not followed best practices, cost them the case.  After that, Mike then lost three fourths of his income. 

I dropped him a line, commending him for his integrity.  He replied that he has never forgotten a line from a sermon Father Theodore Hesburgh delivered.  It was from the first Mass in Sacred Heart, in which all of us freshmen attended.  The message was, “It is a lot easier to talk your values than to live them.”  I was pleased that I could relay this story and Mike’s comments to Father Hesburgh.

Father Ted, not known as a big follower of individual football players when he was Notre Dame’s president, said to me, “Get me The Bear’s phone number.”  I thought this was amusing because Father Ted would normally have said “Dr. Webster” or “Mr. Webster” or even “Mike Webster,” but he was obviously impressed that this giant of a man had done such an honorable thing and credited it to a sermon from nearly 50 years earlier.  Both men enjoyed the phone call.

The following quotes about Mike’s wrestling career are from a lengthy September 14, 2011 article, “The Evolution of Mike Webster – Wrestling,” by Marty Goldstein.

Mike played on the 1970 Grey Cup Champion Montreal Alouettes.  He was not invited back for the following season.  Why?  According to Mike it was because he had the reputation of being a “locker room lawyer” and had initiated a player strike.  Former NWA World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion Gene Kiniski had seen Mike in a gym and felt he had potential to make a seamless career change.  According to Mike, “What he liked about me was that I was large (weighed 300 pounds) and could take bumps.”  Not many psychologists have those credentials.

Bear said that he was not afraid to let the bigger (!) guys “airplane spin me and throw me out of the ring” and “I was learning how to be a good dastardly villain.”  For some reason, Mike was not billed as “The Bear.”  “I was originally Big Mike Webster — and stayed that way in some territories. On one road trip into Washington State, I was billed as Iron Mike.”

Seems like The Bear should have stuck.  You be the judge:

When Bear sent me this photo, he included the caption:  “Be afraid.  Be VERY afraid.”  LOL.

Actually, he was a handsome and distinguished man when properly coifed and dressed. 

Mike had a description of his wrestling style, which sounded more like a PhD Psychologist than a pro grappler:  “I was one of the first likeable heels.  I was uncomfortable with the cookie cutter heel and decided that I could get even more heat with a morally relativistic approach.  With the fans in mind, my credo was, ‘Easy to follow, easy to swallow.’  Everyone loved to work with me.  I was to wrestling what B.B. King was to the blues guitar.  I was a minimalist.  I always thought of the fans first, then the business, and lastly me.”

Mike had an interesting life as football player, pro wrestler, and police psychologist … and, in the toughest moment he ever faced, not on the gridiron or in the ring, he relied on a long-ago sermon from Father Ted to guide him.

The Bear, right, in his wrestling days.