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'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.

LUIS SANTANA | Times

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 cjohnston@tampabay.com 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]
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