“There are times I wish I never looked at Mike Webster’s brain. It has dragged me into worldly affairs I do not want to be associated with – human meanness, wickedness and selfishness. People trying to cover up, to control how information is released. I started this not knowing I was walking into a minefield. That is my only regret.”
These are the words of Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu, a Nigerian physician, forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who first discover and publish a link between American football and the brain damage – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), in former players.
Omalu’s work has changed a sport, and helped provoke a billion-dollar lawsuit and inspired a Hollywood film, Concussion (in which Will Smith played the role of Omelu) that was nominated for a Golden Globe.
But Omalu who knew little about American football attracted many enemies. American Football club owners and fans love their game very much that they saw Omalu as a threat to the game. They rejected his findings and questioned his right as a Nigerian to link their beloved American football to a brain trauma.
“I really wish I wasn’t brought into this…Lead a quiet life, enjoy my life, die a simple death. But now I have no choice. My life has been impacted in the most negative way. People are reacting very emotionally to me. They don’t like me. Call me all types of names but I am simply speaking to the truth,”
The Discovery of CTE
Omalu first discovered the CTE when examining the body of Mike Webster, a former pro football player with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers while working at the coroner’s office in September 2002.
Webster had displayed patterns of distressing behavior before his death from a heart attack at age 50, and Omalu was curious as to what clues the former player’s brain would reveal.
After careful examination of the brain, Omalu discovered clumps of tau proteins, which impair function upon accumulation. It was similar to “dementia pugilista,” a degenerative disease documented decades earlier in boxers, though it had yet to be connected to football players.
After confirming his findings with top faculty members at the University of Pittsburgh, Omalu named the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and submitted a paper titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player” to the Medical journal Neurosurgery.
Omalu’s discovery was discredited by the mouthpiece of the National Football League (NFL) and the Mild Traumatic Brian Injury (MTBI) Committee discredited Omalu’s research as “flawed” and refused to acknowledge a link between the sport and the brain damage in former players.
However, Omalu gained an important supporter in Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at the West Virginia University School of Medicine and a former team physician for the Steelers. With Bailes and lawyer Bob Fitzsimmons, Omalu founded the Sports Legacy Institute (later renamed the Concussion Legacy Foundation) to continue studies of CTE.
Omalu pressed forward with his examination of Terry Long, another former football player who had committed suicide at age 45, and discovered the same buildup of tau proteins. His follow-up paper to Neurosurgery was published in November 2006.
Despite the NFL’s public evasiveness, Omalu and his supporters scored a victory when Mike Webster’s family was awarded a significant settlement in December 2006.
Omalu’s Nigerian and Academic Background
Omalu was born in Nigeria during the civil war of 1968 in Idemili South, a small town in eastern part of Nigeria. The sixth of seven children of a civil engineer and a seamstress, Omalu was admitted to the Federal Government College in Enugu at age 12 and at age 15 he began medical school at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).
After earning his first of 10 degrees or board certifications in 1990, Omalu interned at University of Jos Teaching Hospital (UJTH), before being accepted to a visiting scholar program at the University of Washington in 1994 at the age of 25. He then served his residency at Harlem Hospital Center, where he developed his interest in pathology.
In 1999, Omalu moved to Pittsburgh to train under noted pathologist Cyril Wecht at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office. Omalu holds eight advanced degrees and board certifications, later receiving fellowships in pathology and neuropathology through the University of Pittsburgh in 2000 and 2002 respectively, a Master of Public Health (MPH) in epidemiology in 2004 from University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in 2008.
Movie and Book
Will Smith was one NFL fan who allowed Omalu’s findings to challenge his thinking and, in preparing to play Omalu in the 2015 film Concussion, he watched him perform four autopsies and saw first-hand how he would play music and talk to the deceased person.
Will Smith said, “I was inspired by Bennet’s courage and faith…He combines that into one gorgeous human being. I was ecstatic to find that depth of character. I love that guy.”
Omalu released his book, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side on the 9th of this month with the forward written by Will Smith.
Omalu is currently chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California and is a professor in the UC Davis Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
Omalu who only became an US citizen in February 2015 is married to Prema Mutiso, originally from Kenya. They live in Lodi, California and have two children, Ashly and Mark.