"I wish I never met Mike Webster, because it disrupted my life."
So says Bennet Omalu about the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers center who died at age 50 in 2002. "Met" is a strange word here, because when Omalu first encountered Webster, he was examining Webster's brain, which was lying on a slab in a coroner's office.
Omalu, a Nigeria-born pathologist, had been brought in to figure out why Webster had acted so strangely in his final days. Omalu later discovered a protein in Webster's brain that's also found in the brains of dementia and Alzheimer's patients. The finding suggested a link between high-contact sports and permanent brain damage.
Omalu published the discovery of what he calls Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy (CTE) twice in the peer-reviewed journal Neurosurgery. But the National Football League (NFL) rejected his findings until American scientists backed him up—and more NFL players took their own lives.
Omalu's story, first told in GQ magazine in 2009, is on the big screen this Christmas. Concussion stars Will Smith as an optimistic immigrant yearning to be accepted by Western elites, including Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), the neurosurgeon who first believed Omalu. Omalu recently spoke with Christianity Today about the Christian faith that sustained him as he waited for that acceptance.
You first published your findings on CTE in 2005. What was the response at the time?
The NFL’s doctors made an aggressive attempt to exterminate me professionally. They sent a letter to the journal accusing me of fraud, accusing me of synthesizing information, accusing me of practicing something that was not science, insinuating that I was practicing voodoo (laughs). It was a very difficult time, and don’t get me wrong, I was fearful. But the greater my doubts, the stronger my faith.
You published a second paper, then presented your findings to the NFL Commissioner in 2007. What happened then?
I prayed that God would give me wisdom. ... I was watching to see if the NFL would invite me to hear my perspective. They did not. So I said, "Since they’re reacting this way, let my response be centered on the players. Let me create good will and compete with them. They are about their product, football. But I am about the humanity of science, the players, because we’re dealing with lives here."
And the Parable of the Lost Sheep came to mind. The shepherd had 100 sheep, and 1 went missing. What did he do? He took the 99, kept them safe to go search for the 1. Even if these findings affect only one player, that player is as important as the other many. So I made my strategy centered on the players. That was what helped me to keep moving on. It was no longer about me, it was about the players, the families, my love of the American family.
And I said, "Lord God Almighty, if this is not of your will, if I am on the wrong side, I pray you’d reveal it to me." Within one year, another football player committed suicide. I examined his brain, and he had CTE. My wife said, “Bennet, it is not a coincidence that you are getting these cases. Are you the only doctor in the world?” (laughs)
This is a story about the power of faith and trust and the common good, using whatever you have. In my instance it was knowledge and my education.
You grew up the sixth of seven children in Nigeria and began studying medicine at age 16. What initially drew you to the medical field?
I never wanted to be a physician. I wanted to be a pilot who flew commercial jets taking international routes, so that I would have a girlfriend in every major harbor. ... As laughable as it may sound, it says a lot about my personality. I’m a laid-back guy who just wants to live a simple life and and die a simple death. That is why I wish I never met Mike Webster, because it disrupted my life.
In Nigeria, the smartest kids studied medicine. I was among the top 1 percent, so naturally I went to medical school. I was not cut out for the regimented and rigid, structured life of a physician or medical student, and I suffered major depression. That was when I realized how vulnerable I was as a human, that I didn’t have control of my own mind. And that was when I began seeking spirituality.
Had you grown up in a Christian family?
Yes, in a Catholic family. My parents exposed us to God at a very young age. But as a child you just do what you are told, you pray. It was in medical school that I actually as person started independently seeking God. In medical school, struggling with major depression, I started seeking God, a power that was greater than me to help me.
And that’s why in part I empathized with Mike Webster, because he suffered pyschological ailments. Society at large empathizes more with physical ailment than with psychological ailment. In fact, when you have a psychological ailment you are blamed for your ailments. That’s probably why I empathized with Mike Webster, because I had been through it.
We haven’t talked about the NFL very much, and that’s a big part of Concussion.
The movie’s not about the NFL. It’s not even about football.
It's not about how your findings affected the professional football community?
No, it’s about how my findings touched the lives of people and made a positive impact.
Even still, has the NFL changed since you went public with your findings?
I don’t think optimally reasonable changes have been made, no.
What still needs to change?
I’m not a football expert, I’m not a policy-maker. Those are above my paygrade. But as I said in my op-ed ["Don't Let Kids Play Football," The New York Times, December 7] as an adult, if I as a physician educate you about the dangers of smoking, drinking alcohol, or playing football, and you make up your mind to play, I will be one of the first to stand by you to defend your right freedom and liberty to play.
But for a child: We’ve done it with smoking, alcohol, even with sex. We’ve done it with joining the military, we’ve done it with voting. I don’t know how harmful voting could be, but that would take us to the concept of age of consent. A child does not have the mental capacity to understand the ramifications of what he or she is doing. So it is our moral duty to protect the most vulnerable in our society, our children.
Knowing what we know now, do we continue to intentionally expose our children to the risk of brain damage? I don’t think so. The brain is the organ in the body that defines us as human beings. And this is not about banning football or ending football, no. I so much believe in great American ingenuity, we could devise safer ways, more intelligent and brain-friendly ways to continue to play this game. And not just football, but all high-contact sports, especially for children.
This year alone, in high school football, I believe it was 7 or 8 students died playing football. [Editor's Note: According to the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, at least 19 have died playing football in 2015.] This is not just about CTE. It’s about brain hemorrhages, fractures of the skull, post-concussion syndrome, post-traumatic epilepsy. It is our moral duty as a modern society to protect our children from harm.
But what would you say to parents whose kid wears a helmet and shoulder pads that protect them while they play?
The helmet industry will be the first to tell you that a helmet does not prevent your brain from bouncing around your skull. What generates energy is mass times velocity squared, right? So if you increase the mass of your head, the momentum of the impact increases. I don’t know if you’ve ever worn a football helmet—those things are heavy. So when you place a helmet on the head, it increases the mass of the head. So it increases the momentum, and therefore the player, because they don’t have any direct impact on their skin or head, they have this false sense of security to attack with their head.
I’m sure you have seen the movie. How does it feel to have your life story told by Hollywood, to be played by Will Smith?
The producers didn’t take away the faith. That is something I really like about the movie. They didn’t play down the faith journey or faith experiences. God was mentioned many times. There was even a scene of a church service.
Will Smith is an exceptional individual. He is a very empathetic, very caring person, somebody I would call a good Christian, and I was shocked by that. He epitomizes that sense of perfection I associated with America when I was a child.
You once said that you believe all current NFL players have CTE. Do you still believe that?
I believe over 90 percent who have played through a professional level have some degree of CTE. In every disease, there are very mild forms, there are moderate forms. Many players I have met are saying they are having memory problems, they are having temper tantrums they never used to have. This is my educated opinion. I’ve not done an autopsy on every retired NFL player. Other independent researchers are finding very high numbers of positive rates. So this is not a ridiculous number of percentage.
And for people who say that CTE cannot be diagnosed while you are alive: that is not true. It depends on your symptoms, it can be diagnosed with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, while you are alive, just like we diagnose Alzheimer’s. Now when you die, we examine the tissues and confirm it. But in real life, medical diagnoses are rarely 100 percent.
Everything I have said about CTE has been validated and reproduced by independent researchers, even to my own amazement.
So why weren’t believed or listened to when you first shared the findings?
When I die, that is one of the first questions I’ll ask God when I see him.
Katelyn Beaty is print managing editor of Christianity Today.