Dr. Bennet Omalu of “Concussion” Fame
Dr. Bennet Omalu has a resume 10 yards long. He holds eight advanced degrees and board certifications, having received fellowships in pathology and neuropathology from the University of Pittsburgh; 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.
Today, Dr. Omalu is Chief Medical Examiner of San Joaquin County, California and is a professor in the UC Davis Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. With all these medical credentials, it is challenging to forecast how the first paragraph of his obituary will read, as people say about accomplished figures. He has been a neuropathologist of major stature and a best-selling author.
But, in his own way, Dr. Bennet Omalu has become a sports legend of sorts, too. This is his story, shared with readers of Innovative Health Magazine.
Dr. Omalu was born in 1968 in Nigeria during the worst days of the Nigeria-Biafra bloodletting, horrible fratricide that attracted the world’s attention – and, largely, inaction. Until he was 2 years old, he was malnourished, as was his mother; his father was wounded in the civil war.
He was named “Bennet” after the beneficent Father Benoit, and Dr. Omalu (whose surname is shortened from the Nigerian Onyemalukwube, meaning “he who knows, speaks”) remains a Roman Catholic. Faith is a major component of his life. As a child, he was “weak and often depressed,” he said, but spurred by a growing inner resolve, he embraced education. He earned a spot in medical school at 15, and became a practicing physician by age 21.
“During those years, I realized that everyone is unique,” Dr. Omalu told Innovative Health Magazine. “We are all parts of society. And therefore we must be ourselves.” That individualism and his unique determination led him to admire America from across the big ocean, and his dream to emigrate came true in 1994. He attended the University of Washington in Seattle and secured a position as a Forensic Pathologist in Pittsburgh.
While there, Dr. Omalu heard about the death of Mike Webster, a Pittsburgh legend, the Pro Football Hall of Fame center for the Steelers. A spectacular 17-year career wound down with the retired hero exhibiting symptoms of dementia. “I thought, this sounded much like dementia pugislistica,” – an affliction that ended the careers, and followed the retirements, of many boxers.
When he first had the inklings that Mike Webster died of what Dr. Omalu would “brand” as CTE, he said he sought out reports on brain injuries and photos of brains in various stages of forensic pathology. “My office, my rooms at home, my kitchen table, were full of folders and boxes,” he said.
At one time, almost everybody knew somebody, or, certainly, read about someone, who was – in the light-hearted parlance of the day – “punch drunk.” Or “shell-shocked.” “Had the yips.” Such unfeeling terms sometimes bordered on ridicule, or were used humorously, because most people thought that folks were paying for risks taken in sports or the military. At the extreme end of those behavioral spectrums were epilepsy and what used to be called “senility.”
When I was a boy, I got to know Jack Dempsey, the legendary Heavyweight Champ who reigned between 1919 and 1926. He would attend cartoonists’ events – where I usually saw him, but also operated a restaurant (with its famous cheesecake) on Times Square. Jack was social and friendly, but when he spoke slowly or turned awkwardly or gazed into middle-distance, you could tell it was more than age or arthritis. Jack, the “Manassa Mauler,” had taken many punches before the controversial “long count” in which he lost to Gene Tunney in his last fight.
Detroit’s beloved Joe Louis was “punchy” in his last years; and everyone saw Muhammad Ali’s relative incoherence and halting actions before he died. Parkinson’s Disease was that culprit, to the public, but another haunting similarity to the afflictions brought on by repeated blows to the head.
When Dr. Omalu considered these well-known situations, reviewed the volumes of medical literature he acquired, and began to study the symptoms of Mike Webster… he began to connect the dots. He managed to order an examination of the late football player’s brain. He was so concerned, and convinced of the implications of possible breakthroughs, that he financed his own work, on his own time.
The first diagnosis was disappointing – at least to the conclusion Dr. Omalu strongly anticipated. Webster’s brain appeared to be healthy, no apparent distress.
At this point, the resolve, faith and determination of Bennet Omalu changed the arc of an otherwise normal tale of medical research. It mightily changed several fields of forensic pathology, neurotrauma afflictions and brain injuries; sports medicine would be revolutionized; the multi-billion dollar colossus of organized sports and the powerful media would be turned on their heads. And the life of Dr. Bennet Omalu would never be the same.
The work he began would save many people’s lives, but he endured opposition, prejudice, vilification and persecution himself, along the way.
Examining Webster’s brain further, employing staining techniques, Dr. Omalu isolated accumulations of “Tau” Protein. Abundance of such substances were similar to other proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease – and the symptoms of impeded motion, dulled moods and other functions proved consistent with the studies of other boxing and football veterans.
Dr. Omalu and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Pathology published their findings in 2005. Also a student of American business and marketing, Dr. Omalu appreciated the value of giving the affliction he defined a name – more, an acronym. Hence, a hitherto generic term was formalized and termed “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy” – CTE.
In his abstract, Dr. Omalu – perhaps naively – thought the world of organized sports would rejoice at his findings. He wrote of “…the first documented case of long-term neurodegenerative changes in a retired professional NFL player consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).”
And he advocated: “This case draws attention to a disease that remains inadequately studied in the cohort of professional football players, with unknown true prevalence rates.”
Needless to say, the reaction of local teams, the National Football League, other organized sports, sports “entertainment” (network and cable television), manufacturers and licensing agencies – many powerful and well-funded lobbies and interest groups – reacted with a fury against the doctor from Pittsburgh. His work was challenged; his methods denigrated; his motives were criticized. The attacks were personal and vicious. Much was at $take, after all.
In bizarre fashion, the growing debate proceeded in two directions. An NFL committee chair dismissed Dr. Omalu, claiming that brain damage largely was confined to a few boxers and “Steeplechase jockeys.” At the same time, Dr. Omalu and colleagues were discovering new things about brain damage in military vets and others with PTSD.
He was not exactly alone. Athletes and especially retired players from several sports, in their virtual dotage, spoke up and identified themselves… and their common neurological problems. Sadly, so did a large number of widows and children of athletes who died of manifestations of dementia.
More horrific, people also realized how many former players had committed suicide. To lend another personal note to this story, I lived in San Diego with the popular and personable Junior Seau, NFL favorite who ran his own restaurant in town, committed suicide. A familiar story: no warnings, an incomprehensible act… and forensic evidence of a brain damaged by years of concussive blows.
Dr. Omalu made a decision to crusade, not just for the truth, but for reforms. In his conversation with Innovative Health Magazine, he did not accuse the NFL of criminal behavior… but many observers thought the League was at best unethical in trotting out experts and engaging in massive public relations campaigns to discredit Dr. Omalu’s work and recommendations.
Well-meaning people – and “halfway-house” efforts to appear sympathetic by the sports industry – might assume that helmets with more padding, or high-tech body armor for players, would ameliorate or eliminate the threats of football-related brain injury and neurological damage.
“Not so,” Dr. Omalu told Innovative Health Magazine. “Helmets do not help! They actually exacerbate the problems! [The earnest, almost evangelistic Dr. Omalu seems to end sentence of a conversation with an exclamation point!] “You can have brain injuries even without sustaining concussions,” and he noted that injury often results from more than actual blows to the head. Sudden stops and violent movements can have deleterious effects too.
“Prevention is the only cure!” Dr. Omalu has concluded.
That is a bitter prescription for a nation whose secular religion has become organized sports – having evolved in football, hockey, racing, maybe someday chess, to “the rougher the better.” Like the Romans’ “bread and circuses,” physical clashes and injured players became a part of the game.
Has Dr. Omalu won the fight? That game is far from over; and probably won’t be over till it’s over, to quote Yogi Berra. Some athletes have retired early. More than a few pro football players have forbidden their own children from playing scholastic football. The National Football League, and other officiating agencies in scholastic and professional levels, have yielded to logic (and lawsuits: a gargantuan settlement currently is being negotiated to compensate neurologically impaired former players and surviving families) by rules changes.
If helmets won’t help, penalties might. An intentional head-butt now results in a full-game ejection for offending players.
But the sports establishment is playing for overtime. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children under 12 not be permitted to play tackle football. But that was in 1957, with no stricter recommendations since then.
Yet the “cognitive dissonance,” as Dr. Omalu calls the dichotomy of irresistible evidence unmatched by meaningful changes, is yielding. His own efforts are untiring, and his skills as a doctor are matched, it must be said, by his talent as a publicist for his crusade. His ardent delivery style is matched by a gift for framing the arguments.
Allowing children to play these games? “Child abuse!”
Fans who are forgiving of their favorite sports? “We are zombies programmed by those around us!”
How dangerous, really, are dings to the head? “Traumatic brain injury STEALS INTELLIGENCE FROM YOU!!!”
But Dr. Omalu can be as persuasive with figures as with slogans. “The brain,” he said, “is 3 percent of our body weight, but uses 30 percent of our blood supply. It thrives on oxygen and glucose. It has the smallest cells in the body… but when those cells are lost, they don’t exactly regenerate!”
He has also engaged in a contact sport of another variety – the culture wars. Since violent contact sports are ingrained in the American psyche, Dr. Omalu has expanded the playing field of his game. He wrote a book, Play Hard, Die Young, that attracted attention and made cogent arguments.
An interview by Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ grew into a book – his life story and battle tales, Concussion.
That book became a best-seller, and was made into a box-office smash by the same name. Released in 2015, it starred Will Smith (who won Best Actor from the Hollywood Film Awards for his portrayal of Bennet Omalu). Smith, who flawlessly captured Omalu’s lilting Nigerian accent, has become an unabashed admirer of the doctor.
Last September, Dr. Omalu was the featured speaker at the Brain Injury Association of Michigan annual conference held at the Lansing Center. His message, slowly being heeded in American society and well-known to his audience of more than a thousand, revealed additional aspects of this remarkable man. He spoke, of course, of his own story and of recent advances in what has become his specialty field.
But that was only a third of his speech… and roughly a third of what constitutes Dr. Bennet Omalu.
The passionate Dr. Omalu spoke with almost hyperventilating fervor of his love for America. With probably more passion than he exhibited on his first day in the United States – if that is possible – he extolled the American Dream, he detailed his love affair with his adopted land (having finally gained citizenship in 2015), he encouraged others to appreciate liberty and seize opportunity. All this, remember, despite years of iconic segments of the American Establishment doing its best to marginalize and crush him. He truly is a motivational speaker in the best sense of that tired phrase.
The third part of Bennet Omalu’s triad is faith, as mentioned above. He laces his speeches, but also his conversations and interviews, with references to generic faith for those fighting the battles of life… but also personal faith in God, which he frequently mentions with the ease and comfort of a routine lab report.
“If anyone doubts the power of faith – even to a scientist – look at my own life!” he expostulates. He quotes Ephesians Chapter 4 – “Put away, as concerning your former manner of life, the ‘old man’ which is corrupt… and be made new in the attitudes of your minds!” Ever the optimist, he enthusiastically shares with the interviewer that he never could have survived the trials of the persecution that came his way, without faith and prayer.
And indeed, he happily shares that his next book will be about Faith.
The diminutive and ebullient Nigerian – excuse me, American – will prove to be a pivotal figure in American sports and related lifestyles; largely by indirection, the doctor will say. “Apres moi, la deluge,” said King Louis the 15th of France: “After me, the flood;” and many, many things are changing and will be different as Dr. Omalu’s studies have effect through years to come.
But off the playing fields of America, so to speak, the real reforms, the beneficiaries, of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s work and selfless crusade, will be the uncountable victims of brain injuries, neurotrauma, spinal-cord damage, paralysis, forms of dementia, and suicides… and their families and communities as well.
A final score that, ultimately, will have everyone cheering.
If you or a loved one has CTE
Consult professional care
Seek university hospitals
Enlist family support