Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

'Concussion' doctor tells story behind research on NFL brain injuries

Dr. Bennet Omalu’s work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the basis of the upcoming movie Concussion with Will Smith.


Dr. Bennet Omalu’s work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the basis of the upcoming movie Concussion with Will Smith.

TAMPA — Mike Webster's brain sat in Dr. Bennet Omalu's refrigerator for months — right next to a loaf of bread.

Omalu, a medical examiner who had been tasked in 2002 with conducting an autopsy of Webster, a Pittsburgh Steelers center, knew almost immediately there was something wrong with the 50-year-old former football player's brain. It led to Omalu's own crusade to expose the effects of repetitive brain injuries that are all too common in the NFL.

"I took that brain home because I wanted my intellectual independence," Omalu told a crowd of several hundred Thursday night at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts. "The NFL owns Pittsburgh. So I took it home for a reason."

His research uncovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the basis of the upcoming movie Concussion with Will Smith. It details how, because of repeated blows to the head, football is an inherently dangerous sport — not exactly the type of movie the league wants to champion.

Omalu did not discuss reports that the makers of the film actually pulled its punches on the NFL. Instead, he focused on his discovery and how Hollywood, not the NFL, gave Omalu a platform to spread the word about CTE.

"The humanity of science required me to speak out," Omalu nearly shouted, his voice cracking.

Omalu, who grew up in Nigeria, didn't have much experience with football. He remembers seeing the players on television, with all their pads, and thinking they looked like extraterrestrials.

"A recreational activity shouldn't be harmful," Omalu said. "It's meant to give us joy and fun. As a child I wondered, 'Why would they be wearing a helmet?' "

He entered medical school at age 15, but had a mental breakdown in his second year that lead to severe depression. He says that struggle helped him connect with Webster.

"That is what enabled me to empathize with Mike Webster, because I know what it is like to suffer some psychological disease," he said. "I saw myself in Mike Webster, and every other retired NFL player."

He thought, naively, the NFL would embrace his discovery. He was wrong.

The NFL doctors sent a letter accusing Omalu of fraud and contending that his paper should be retracted. They implied he was a voodoo doctor. Some claimed that, by showing the inherent harm in football, he was attacking the American way of life.

"They wanted to sow the seeds of xenophobia," Omalu said. "'This guy should not be trusted. He's not one of us.'"

But with the help of other journals, doctors, media and Hollywood, Omalu's findings gained traction, including inspiring a class-action lawsuit on behalf of former players against the NFL.

As he continues to pursue his research, Omalu said there are things that can be done now to make football safer, such as establishing an age of consent to play football, as is required for smoking, drinking, driving and sex.

"If we make up our minds to play, wait until you are an adult," he said. "There are other options you can play."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

'Concussion' doctor tells story behind research on NFL brain injuries 12/03/15 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2015 10:15pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. What to watch this week: 'Still Star-Crossed' on ABC, 'House of Cards' Season 5



    Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey in House of Cards Season 5.
  2. Trump hails the fallen and their families at Arlington


    ARLINGTON, Va. — President Donald Trump expressed his nation's "boundless and undying" gratitude Monday to Americans who have fallen in battle and to the families they left behind, hailing as heroes the hundreds of thousands buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

    President Donald Trump participates in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, May 29, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. [Photo by Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images]
  3. Tiger Woods arrested in Florida on DUI charge, released

    Public Safety

    Tiger Woods was arrested early Monday on a DUI charge in Jupiter, Florida, and spent nearly four hours in a county jail before he was released.

    Tiger Woods has been arrested on a DUI charge in Florida.
  4. Review: The Underwoods bring the political terror in 'House of Cards' Season 5


    The ruthless Frank and Claire Underwood are back, continuing their own form of terror inside and outside of the White House.

    Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards Season 5 on Netflix.
  5. French president attacks Russian media outlets; Putin says Moscow didn't try to influence French election


    VERSAILLES, France — UPDATE, 11:57 A.M.: French President Emmanuel Macron has made an extraordinary attack on two Russian media outlets, saying they acted as "propaganda" organs during France's election campaign.

    French President Emmanuel Macron, right, speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Galerie des Batailles (Gallery of Battles) at the Versailles Palace as they arrive for a joint press conference following their meeting in Versailles, near Paris, France, Monday. [Stephane de Sakutin/Pool Photo via AP]