True Blue: Kearny’s Webster dead at 80

Photo by Jim Hague/ Kearny native Alex Webster flashed a big smile after being inducted into the New York Giants’ Ring of Honor last December. It was Webster’s last public appearance, as the legendary Giants player and coach died Saturday at the age of 80.


By Jim Hague

He wasn’t able to walk much and needed the assistance of a golf cart to get around, but the smile and the beaming face was as young as a newborn.

And when Kearny native Alex Webster was greeted last December by a reporter from his hometown newspaper, his face lit up like a Christmas tree.

“You’re Jim Hague?” the legendary New York Giants player and coach asked, just minutes after he was inducted into the Giants’ Ring of Honor at MetLife Stadium. “I know you. You’re from The Observer. I read The Observer every week online from home in Florida. I know who you are. You’re a good writer.”

The former Kearny High great even called the next morning to see if I needed more for the story. We spoke for about 20 minutes or so and he said that he would keep in touch if I wanted to do any further articles. I told him I was more than interested and that readers from his hometown would want to know how he was doing from time to time.

Unfortunately, there won’t be the chance to do those articles, because Webster passed away Saturday morning in his home in Florida. He was 80 years old.

It’s almost too unfathomable that Webster would be gone so soon after we first got reacquainted as adults. But it wasn’t the first time I had met him.

I first met Webster when I was a star-struck 12-year-old and used to sit outside Roosevelt Stadium in my hometown of Jersey City on a daily basis, waiting for the Giants to come out to collect autographs.

In 1973, the Giants used Roosevelt Stadium as their practice facility. The old ballpark, where Jackie Robinson made his professional baseball debut, was within walking distance of my home in the Greenville section.

I went to Roosevelt Stadium every day to get a glimpse of the players as they came out after practice. I’d follow them to their cars to get autographs. Some of them, I had their autographs five and six times, because it was hard to recognize them without their uniforms on.

But that wasn’t the case with the man from Kearny nicknamed “Big Red.” You knew who he was every single day. He’d leave Roosevelt Stadium with several blue binders (probably the playbook) under his arms, wearing a blue windbreaker. He was the face of the entire team back then.

He would make cracks about me being there day after day.

“You’re here again?” Webster asked. “Don’t you have everyone’s autograph by now?”

And then I met Webster again just three months ago. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life, knowing that an all-time football great, a legend, knew who I was.

He spoke freely about his beloved hometown.

“I was back to Kearny about 6 or 7 years ago,” Webster said during that brief encounter. “I remember where I lived was a one-way street when I was growing up and now it was two ways. It’s amazing how things change. I went to the visit Kearny High School with my grandson and his friend and it was great to go back. It brought back a lot of good memories. I loved growing up in Kearny.”

There was some speculation that Webster might not be able to attend the Ring of Honor ceremony that honored him and four others, because it was reported that he was in ill health.

But Webster said that day that even though he couldn’t walk like he once could, he was going to be there to be among the Giants’ faithful no matter what. His voice was strong. His handshake was firm and hearty. His mind was alert and his heart was pumping.

“I feel pretty good these days,” Webster said. “I wasn’t going to miss this. I could go out there and play. I just can’t walk too much anymore.”

During the Ring of Honor ceremonies, Webster was escorted onto the field in a golf cart with two of his grandsons, who reside in Point Pleasant, alongside, both donning Webster’s No. 29 Giants jersey. They helped their grandfather to his feet so he could address the 80,000 or so fans in attendance.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Webster said that day. “It means the world to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been back. I’m just glad that I’m still alive to receive this honor. I’m enjoying every minute of it. I’m so grateful for the opportunity. The Mara family (the Giants’ owners) have been very good to Alex Webster over the years. They were great to me for my entire career.”

Webster earned his place in permanent Giants history with former players Carl Banks, Mark Bavaro, Dave Jennings and the late Brad Van Pelt. All legends in their own right, all legends like the guy from Kearny.

John Mara issued his condolences on Saturday after Webster’s passing.

“Alex was one of the all-time great Giants,” said Mara, the Giants President and Chief Executive Officer. “He contributed so much to our team as a player, assistant coach and head coach. He was an even better person. We shall miss him dearly.”

Webster was an All-State performer at Kearny in the late 1940s and went on to play at North Carolina State for the legendary Beattie Feathers, one of pro football’s first all-time greats.

Webster was originally drafted by the Washington Redskins in the 11th round of the 1953 NFL Draft, but elected not to sign with the Redskins. Instead, Webster signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

“Big Red” remained in the CFL for two seasons, but signed with the Giants as a free agent to start the 1955 NFL season. He remained with the Giants as a player for 10 years and finished his career with 4,638 yards and 56 touchdowns. His rushing totals were fourth all-time in Giants’ history until ironically Sunday, when Brandon Jacobs surpassed Webster on the all-time list with Webster there in attendance.

Webster earned Pro Bowl status twice with the Giants and helped the Giants win the 1956 NFL championship. Webster joined Frank Gifford in the Giants’ backfield, forming one of the best 1-2 rushing combinations in the league’s history.

Through the Giants’ public relations office, Gifford also issued a statement about the passing of his former teammate and close friend.

“Alex was a fantastic player,” said Gifford, who told Giants personnel that he had last spoken to Webster about a week ago. “He came down from Canada when we were in a lot of trouble. He turned everything around for us. He played on the other side from me. The same things I was doing at the left halfback, he was doing at the right halfback.”

Gifford said he loved being around Webster.

“He was a great guy,” Gifford said. “He was easy to get along with. Alex made you laugh all the time. He was fun and he had a great sense of humor. He was really a classy guy.”

Webster also was a key performer on the 1958 team that played the Baltimore Colts in the NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium in what was called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” It’s a game that changed the face of pro football in America and helped to catapult it to the status it now owns.

After Webster’s playing career ended in 1964, he soon became an assistant coach under Allie Sherman and in 1969, Webster replaced Sherman as the head coach.

“He inherited a team without much talent,” Gifford said. “He didn’t have anyone like himself. And he was really too good of a guy to do it. He was a guy’s guy. He was a hell of an assistant coach. But to make some of the decisions he had to make as a head coach would be very tough for Alex.”

In 1970, Webster guided the Giants to a 9-5 record, earning the NFL Coach of the Year honors.

Webster never had a chance to coach the Giants in Giants Stadium, but he was part of the team’s radio broadcasts for a brief period.

Webster won’t soon be forgotten, because after last December’s ceremony, his name will forever adorn the walls of the new MetLife Stadium as part of the team’s Ring of Honor. He also got the chance to watch the Giants win the Super Bowl one more time before he passed on.

“It’s a wonderful place,” Webster said of the Giants’ new home. “I’m feeling pretty good these days. It’s a great honor to be back and being here, hearing the fans, it gets so exciting. When I was growing up in Kearny, I could have never dreamed all of this would have happened to me. I can’t ask for more than this. I’ve truly been blessed.”

And we were all blessed to know and appreciate the good things about the most famous football player to ever come out of Kearny. Rest in peace, Big Red.

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