Dr. Bennet Omalu, who cuts open dead people for a living, has distinguished himself in the medical arts through his detailed examination of brains. It was in this practice that his life intersected with the death of Pro Football Hall of Fame center Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The result was Omalu’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in professional football players. The impact is that America’s biggest-money game has forever been changed.
You no longer can belt some defenseless player’s head into the next millennium, thanks largely to Omalu’s work. Lots of people say such a reform takes some thrill out of football, and there is truth to that, just as there is that a third of the men who play the pro game wind up with damaged brains and shortened lives of suffering.
Omalu calls himself a “corruption refugee” from his native Nigeria. A medical doctor there, he obtained a Masters in Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon. He found work as a pathologist with the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office, where he came face-to-face at the coroner’s slab with Webster, a football hero whose final years spun into well-documented madness. The Steelers great who died in 2002 at age 50 couldn’t find steady work after football. He slept in bus stations and rambled through the industrial Midwest lost, confused and broke.
Never miss a local story.
One-third of NFL players wind up with damaged brains and shortened lives of suffering.
“Most things in the sciences are serendipity – accidental discovery,” Omalu said in an interview. “It was by accident that I was working that day in Pittsburgh. I met him in death, and it’s my faith – I’m a Christian, a Catholic – that when you’re dead, the soul is alive, and your soul is around. So I talk to my patients. They are part of my endeavor. They are dead, but they are still alive in my mind. They are alive in spirit. So I spoke to Mike Webster. ‘OK, I’ve read about you. I’ve seen you. This is not fair to you. You are a victim of football.’”
His publication of “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player” in February 2005 hit the NFL the way Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters used to knock out ball carriers. In his golden years of retirement, Waters shot himself to death at age 44. Omalu examined Andre’s brain and found the same type of protein tangles present in Webster’s. Omalu and others pressed the NFL on the subject of brain damage from the collisions that bring thousands of us to our feet in complicity. The league sought to discredit Omalu, according to “League of Denial,” a book by Bay Area reporters/writers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru.
Six years ago, the NFL admitted it had a concussion problem. It has since agreed to a $765 million settlement, plus a couple hundred million for the lawyers, to get rid of a class-action lawsuit that ultimately covered about 4,500 of its former players.
Omalu has moved on from his battles with the NFL. In 2007, he took a job as part-time coroner for San Joaquin County, where his autopsy helped solve the highly publicized 2009 murder in Tracy of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu by a neighbor. He later joined the staff at UC Davis Medical Center as adjunct professor of pathology and laboratory medicine.
In December, Omalu will become even more famous. Will Smith, who has played Muhammad Ali, will portray Omalu in “Concussions,” a film scheduled for a Christmas Day release.
Omalu is limited in what he can say about the picture, but he said it shows how “if you hold on to the truth, the truth eventually prevails.”
He described Smith as a nice fellow, but one who has given him a bit of a problem with his children.
“He’s much better looking than I am, and my kids will tell you that is a fact,” Omalu said in the office of his fashionable home in the Vineyard area of south Sacramento.
His CTE research has taken him beyond football players to soldiers and coal miners. Omalu said evidence suggests that when you dig into post-traumatic stress disorder, you find a variant of CTE. Same with some of the older folks who walk around Appalachia with blank stares – it could be from decades of dynamite blasts in the mines, Omalu said. He also thinks a lifetime of head banging contributes to Alzheimer’s.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell once called Dr. Omalu’s work “irresponsible.”
Omalu no longer bangs his against the NFL, whose commissioner, Roger Goodell, once called the doctor’s work “irresponsible.” You’d think Omalu might take satisfaction in the NFL’s admission in December 2009 that it had a concussion problem. But, Omalu said, concussions are only the tip of the brain-injury iceberg; the issue, he said, is brain injuries, not concussions.
The doctor is equally unimpressed by the $765 million settlement. It only covered players who retired before 2014, and excluded the survivors of players who died before 2006, a group that includes the loved ones of Webster.
“We as a society, we as the fans, are just sitting down, casually looking the other way,” Omalu said. “We are culprits, too.”