Dr. Bennet Omalu was on the run on a recent Friday, first calling off a scheduled interview at The Sacramento Bee, then calling it back on. He’d been needed at work, and it had played havoc with his day.
Work is in San Joaquin County, where Omalu, a forensic pathologist played by Will Smith in the new movie “Concussion,” serves as chief medical examiner.
San Joaquin County residents did not stop needing autopsies just because Omalu, 47, has a big Hollywood movie to promote.
He had agreed to work some days in December, a month otherwise devoted, Omalu said with a big grin, to pursuing his “one minute of fame” by doing publicity for the movie, which opens Friday.
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Publicity that, in essence, furthers Omalu’s work as a neuropathologist. “Concussion” tracks Omalu’s identification, while working in the Allegheny County (Pa.) Coroner’s Office, of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease linked to repeated trauma to the head, in the brain of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall of Fame center Mike Webster. This discovery presented a threat to the sanctity of “America’s Game” and the multibillion-dollar industry it represents.
Webster had lost his money and his mind before his death in 2002 at age 50. Prone to violent outbursts, he suffered from dementia, slept in bus stations and Taser-ed himself to get to sleep before he landed on Omalu’s autopsy table one Saturday.
Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant, knew little about the National Football League but enough about brain damage to know something traumatic might have happened to a guy who’d fallen so far and fast after a legendary NFL career. Acting on instinct, he ordered that Webster’s brain be saved for study.
His paper on Webster, the first NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE, was published in 2005. Since then, football leagues from professional to peewee have instituted concussion protocols and cracked down on crushing hits. Foundations devoted to studying CTE – and its links to mental illness, substance abuse and violent behavior – have sprung up.
The NFL’s glacial response regarding what many see as an epidemic – and related stories, like San Francisco 49er Chris Borland’s announcement this year that he was retiring at age 24 out of fear of brain injury – received heavy coverage from sports media. But the topic of CTE could reach a tipping point in mainstream awareness through what Omalu calls the “Will Smith effect,” a.k.a., a Sony film starring one of Hollywood’s biggest names being released on Christmas Day.
“Hollywood is a very powerful agent of change,” Omalu said. “Will Smith took (my) story from the depths of the valleys of Central California to the mountaintop of the American psyche.”
Omalu sees his participation in the film’s development and production over the past few years as an extension of his brain research, which also found evidence of CTE in the brains of Webster’s former teammate Terry Long, longtime Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters (Long and Waters both committed suicide in their 40s) and others.
“The movie was a public service, and I thought the movie itself to have more value than any brain I was examining,” Omalu said. “(Making) a movie’s no joke. It is like building a corporation. The set director, the costume director, everybody needs some advice. Everybody has a question. I can wake up in the morning and have 120 emails from different people associated with it. To respond to each, by the time you know it, it is 5 p.m.”
Omalu saw the “Will Smith effect” close up when the actor visited Omalu’s autopsy room to watch him at work. Afterward, they had lunch at Lodi’s Wine & Roses resort, where Smith drew a “raucous crowd” of fellow diners, Omalu said. “The owner of the restaurant kept everyone away so we could finish eating. (But) when we were finished and ready to pay, everyone went to hug him and kiss him.”
He can see the time spent with Smith in the actor’s Golden Globe-nominated performance. Smith captured his mannerisms and passion, Omalu said.
“There is a scene where I argue with a doctor about whether or not to ‘fix’ (save for further testing) the brain,” Omalu said. “That was me in my 30s. I used to get very violently agitated when I was younger.”
In meeting (former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster) in death ... I saw myself in him, and I spoke to him and said to him that I was going to find the truth, and that he should help me.
Dr. Bennet Omalu
Though medical examiners rarely inspire Smith-level mania, Omalu’s own presence is considerable. His overall ebullience shows in his tendency toward grand statements, like the valley/mountaintop comment and in how he beams when discussing spiritual matters. A devout Catholic, Omalu has referred to those deceased NFL players whose brains led to his CTE discovery as “angels.”
“He is one of the most charismatic, spiritually pure and missionized people I’ve ever met,” said “Concussion” director and screenwriter Peter Landesman, a onetime freelance writer who wrote investigative pieces for The New York Times Magazine and other national publications. “I used to be a journalist – I have met a lot of interesting people. He is remarkable.”
Omalu’s falsetto-high laughter contrasts with a sternness that settles on his face when he speaks about his treatment in Pittsburgh, where doctors from the Steelers and the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee downplayed or rejected his research on Webster and Long.
The pushback was part of the reason he moved to Lodi, in 2007 with his wife, Prema. (The couple, who have two children, later moved to south Sacramento; Omalu is an associate clinical professor at UC Davis.)
His research always has been “about the truth,” Omalu said firmly, echoing the most prominent line in the trailer for “Concussion,” in which a Nigerian-accented Smith-as-Omalu demands his detractors “tell the truth!”
His Pittsburgh experiences so emotionally traumatized him – even raising his blood pressure – that he “detached” himself from news surrounding CTE. He declines to comment on Borland, or on the recent announcement from the family of Frank Gifford that the late NFL player turned sportscaster showed signs of CTE. (The disease can only be diagnosed post-mortem).
Omalu’s too adamant about other aspects of the topic to be convincingly detached. His initial interest in Webster’s case came partly from feeling the dead man’s pain. Empathy like that cannot be turned off.
“I suffered major depression in medical school,” Omalu said. “I did not want to go to medical school. My parents made me go. In meeting (Webster) in death ... I saw myself in him, and I spoke to him and said to him that I was going to find the truth, and that he should help me.”
Omalu is dressed impeccably, in a steel-blue suit, for his interview with The Bee. And always. He wore suits to work at the Pittsburgh morgue, partly to combat lingering depression – perhaps the outside would lift the inside? – and partly because, Omalu said, people seemed more comfortable in the presence of a young, professional black man when that man wore a suit.
The pathologist also is the subject of a new book, “Concussion,” in which author Jeanne Marie Laskas, who wrote a 2009 GQ article on which the movie is partly based, goes further into Omalu’s life. Laskas follows Omalu, and his often idiosyncratic thought process, from his childhood in Nigeria to his tutelage under flamboyant former Allegheny County chief medical examiner and true-crime author Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks in the film) to the present day.
Both movie and book lay out the details of CTE in a manner that’s thorough yet easy for lay people to digest. Omalu, who visited the “Concussion” set last year in Pittsburgh, helped with nomenclature, Landesman said. “Bennet is very smart, but he also has a very good filter that cleans up very complicated jargon.”
Landesman said Omalu’s story appealed to him as a movie subject because of its “David vs. Goliath whistleblower ” nature. “When you are making a movie about a real life-and-death issue, you want to respect an audience’s desire not to go to the movie theater to get information, but to have an emotional experience,” he said. “And the journey of Bennet Omalu through this issue is nothing if not emotional.”
In the film, NFL representatives come off as dismissive, defensive and even – it’s implied – threatening. An FBI investigation of Wecht (in real life, charges the pathologist misused public resources for his private business eventually were dropped) is presented as part of a shakedown of Wecht’s mentee Omalu, after Omalu’s CTE findings are made public.
“Every scene in the film happened,” Omalu said, while also acknowledging some degree of “dramatization.”
In much the way NFL and Steelers doctors questioned his research 10 years ago, Scottish neuropathologist William Stewart recently told The Associated Press that Omalu exaggerated his role in discovering and naming CTE, which Stewart said was not a new term.
In the book “Concussion,” which goes into the history of research into brain trauma, Omalu says he chose chronic traumatic encephalopathy from among the many terms that had been used previously, partly because he liked its snappy acronym. Omalu denied to The AP Stewart’s claims.
The hubbub is “a petty academic argument that splits hairs,” filmmaker Landesman said. “CTE was around conceptually in different pieces, but no one synthesized it, and ... no one connected it to football” before Omalu.
The NFL’s response to the brain-trauma question is a complex, ongoing story, with new headlines cropping up often, like Tuesday’s about the league withholding $16 million in funds that supposedly had been earmarked for a CTE study.
Omalu, when asked about how the NFL has handled brain injury research, attempts a sanguine approach.
“If the NFL decides to cross the line on joining the side of the truth, I will most gladly advise them as my brothers and sisters,” he said. “Because we are sons and daughters of the same God.”
He’s not satisfied with the potential $1 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought against the NFL on behalf of former players. Omalu helped initiate the lawsuit several years ago; it was settled earlier this year.
“The final document still does not recognize CTE, and that is why some players are appealing it,” Omalu said.
Omalu suggests high-impact sports be treated like other potentially dangerous behavior, such as smoking or drinking alcohol. He urges there be a legal age of consent.
“There is nothing like a safe blow to the head,” he said. “Why would we continue to intentionally expose our children to the harmful effects of high-impact contact sports?”
Bee staff writer Sammy Caiola contributed to this story.