The Doctor Who Inspired The Movie Concussion

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I love watching football, especially the Green Bay Packers.  So when I talked to someone who many had said “hated football,” I was unsure how the conversation would go.  What I found was this amazing man that not only surprised me, but humbled me at the same time.  Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 award-nominated film Concussion, may not understand one of our country’s biggest athletic obsessions, but he understands what it is to be an American better than anyone I know.  Omalu’s new book released August 8, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side, chronicles his journey from a war-torn Nigerian childhood to his quest to become an American citizen and live the American dream.

(Courtesy of Harper Collins)

He describes America as  a “country that (is) closest to what God wants us to be as sons and daughters, a place where you can be whatever you want, a place where you can be yourself.”  Omalu told me over and over during our interview, “America is not like any other country on the face of the earth.  It is a great society because it encourages you to be yourself.”  Even Will Smith said, “[Omalu’s] story could only happen in America.”

In 2002, Omalu was working in the coroner’s office in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania when he encountered NFL Hall of Fame player Mike Webster.  Webster passed away at the age of 50, after years of depression, mood swings and bad financial decisions.  The former football star had lived the last months of his once-amazing life in his truck and on drugs.  Dr. Omalu was curious as to why a man so revered in our society could end up living such a sad existence and end up on the coroner’s table at such an early age.  He felt a kinship with Webster because the football star suffered from deep depression, just as Omalu had often struggled with.  The young doctor wanted answers for Mike Webster and for himself.

Dr. Omalu in his lab.
Dr. Omalu in his lab. (Courtesy of UC Davis)

His discovery, which he would later call CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), thrust Dr. Bennet Omalu into the national spotlight where he was literally put under a microscope. His troubling findings were put under the most extreme peer review, his qualifications, research and even his character were questioned. Omalu faced the severest of criticism not only from the NFL, but from the general public as well.  Dr. Omalu had opened what some would call the ‘biggest can of worms in the history of football.’   Not one to back down from the truth, Dr. Omalu kept pushing for the recognition of the dangers of contact sports, including rugby, ice hockey, wrestling and mixed martial arts.  He did so not for attention or to make a name for himself, but because he truly cares about the cognitive and intellectual health of our nation’s children.

A compassionate man of faith, Dr. Omalu continues to spread the word about CTE and the longterm damage repeated head traumas can cause.  Even though Dr. Omalu has faced racial and societal prejudices to get his message out, it has not changed the way he feels about this country.  Although his journey hasn’t been easy and he has struggled against seemingly insurmountable odds, his passion for his discovery and his love for America has never wavered.  Even when he had to decide to risk everything–his job, his new home, his relationships–Dr. Omalu pressed on to bring CTE to the attention of parents everywhere. I found out that Bennet Omalu doesn’t “hate football,” he just doesn’t think anyone under the age of 18 should play.  He thinks college and professional football can still be enjoyed, but only if the players are properly informed of the risks, so they can make their own decision about whether or not to play. Still, Dr. Omalu’s message clashes horribly with the Friday Night Lights culture of small towns and cities across our great nation.  How will it all play out?  I do not know, but I have the feeling that with Dr. Omalu’s new book, Truth Doesn’t Have A Side, the dialogue will continue and hopefully, his message will reach parents who have children at risk.

(Courtesy Dr. B. Omalu)

Some are still wondering, years after CTE has come to light, who is this upstart doctor from Nigeria?  Will Smith said it best in the forward he wrote for Truth Doesn’t Have A Side.  “If you want to understand Dr. Bennet Omalu, don’t look at the acronyms that come after his name or read the papers he’s authored; listen to his laugh.  It’s the laugh of someone who possesses the freedom that can only come when you know that you are doing exactly what you were destined to do.”  What a wonderful thing for any of us to find–our place; the place we were meant to be.

Will Smith, Dr. Bennet Omalu and Director Peter Landesman on the set of the movie Concussion.
Will Smith, Dr. Bennet Omalu and Director Peter Landesman on the set of the movie Concussion. (Courtesy of Dr. B. Omalu)

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