'Brain Chaser' Tackles Effects of NFL Hits
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
PITTSBURGH -- Bennet Omalu knows why his phone calls often bring silence on the other end. He introduces himself as a forensic pathologist, which means he is trained to examine dead people. He explains that he's also a neuropathologist, which means he is trained to examine dead people's brains. He says all this through a thick accent that is the result of a childhood spent in Nigeria.
Then there is the matter of what he is seeking in those calls: the brains of recently deceased professional football players.
Coming over the phone in slightly broken English, with a complicated explanation of a medical phenomena that most coroners have never heard of or believe to be true, the request to have the brain pulled from the freshly deceased player's head and shipped here to be studied might as well come from Mars.
"They insult me," Omalu said. "They say, 'What do you think you are doing?' " Then they say no.
Omalu, 37, a man who knew nothing about football and was a soccer goalie in his homeland, believes he has proven that repeated concussions in football lead to early-onset dementia, very similar to the boxing ailment known as "punch-drunk syndrome," possibly leading to dementia and depression.
Omalu has been able to examine four brains -- those of former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen Mike Webster and Terry Long and former Denver Broncos running back Damien Nash. Webster, Long and Waters all showed signs of severe punch-drunk syndrome, and Long and Waters committed suicide. Nash, who died Feb. 24 after collapsing following a charity basketball game, did not. But he was just 24 and barely had played in the NFL.
And while the link between Webster, Long and Waters, who all suffered emotionally and intellectually in their post-football lives, has encouraged some researchers, others question the validity of Omalu's work, suggesting his research is sloppy and the evidence is insufficient. Either way, he needs more brains.
That is not easy to accomplish.
"Just call me a brain chaser. That's what I do," Omalu said with a laugh.
He is a smallish man with a wide face and a big smile who favors pinstriped suits and chats without the detached air of many doctors. He came to the United States in 1994 to do his residency at the University of Washington. He was drawn to pathology because he never really liked any other field of medicine. He found it all too boring. Along the way, he discovered he loved to study the brain.
Five years ago, while working at the Allegheny County medical examiner's office, he came to work and discovered Webster's body on the slab. The former Steelers center caused a stir in the coroner's office mainly because he was one of the most beloved Pittsburgh players of the 1970s and '80s. But Webster had fallen on hard times after football; he seemed scattered and irritable, eventually lost all of his money and distanced himself from his family.
Watching coverage of Webster's death (the cause was not released), Omalu was shocked that the people who talked about him on television mocked his intelligence. Omalu wondered if perhaps Webster suffered from dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome. When he arrived at work and discovered he would be doing the autopsy on Webster, he pulled out the brain and found it to look unblemished. Still, he wanted a further look.