For years, Bennet Omalu felt misunderstood.
“It’s not been a fun ride,” he said.
His accent, his research, his intentions — all disparaged, doubted and nit-picked.
“I’ve been bruised and battered,” he’ll tell you.
But this week, his story hits the big screen and aided by the actor Will Smith, who portrays the 47-year-old neuropathologist in “Concussion,” Hollywood has smudged away much of the ambiguity. The movie opens nationwide Friday and presents the immigrant tale of a reluctant hero whose American dream was waylaid by naysayers.
Omalu’s work — which discovered a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) suffered by many football players — changed the way the sport is played and viewed by many. He has sounded alarms and raised concerns that have left the NFL reeling and the sport as a whole scrambling to make a contact sport safer for everyone.
But neither his Nigerian lilt nor this new round of attention obscures the obstacles he faced along the way.
“He deserves the credit. He pursued it tenaciously,” said Dr. Cyril Wecht, the renowned coroner who was Omalu’s supervisor in Pittsburgh when CTE was first discovered 13 years ago.
Omalu is a potent mixture of confidence, intellect and ambition, but he insists this isn’t what he wanted: the media tours, movie screenings, celebrity mingling. All of this attention — the good and bad — was never his goal.
“I wish I was not the person that was picked,” Omalu said in a recent interview. “I was chosen by whomever, by circumstances, a convergence of factors to be the messenger. . . . If I were given the option, I would’ve chosen the option of having a wife, having my two kids, living a normal, average middle-class American family life.”
That’s part of what lured him to the United States two decades ago. To a young Omalu, America was “a place where you can be whatever you want to be.” He thought he could be happy, raise a family, practice his faith — “live a peaceful, quiet life,” he said, “and die a peaceful, quiet death.”
As a child, he dreamed of being a pilot, of flying across the globe with romance and friends waiting in every city. He was carefree but studious back then. The son of a seamstress and civil engineer, a young Omalu entered elementary school when he was just 3 years old, started medical school at 15 and became a physician at 21.
It wasn’t without complication. In his second year of medical school, Omalu said he suffered a breakdown and fell into a depression. He took two months off school, embraced his faith and decided to alter his professional course. Clinical medicine, he said, was boring and uninspiring.
“I chose to go as far as possible from clinical medicine . . . forensic pathology, where I would deal with the dead,” he said.
To this day, Omalu talks to the dead. They end up on his table, lifeless mysteries that Omalu must solve. He asks questions and makes promises. He recalls the morning Mike Webster came into the coroner’s office in 2002.
“I made a promise to Mike that I was going to get to the bottom of this,” Omalu said.
Omalu was not a football fan — he grew up more familiar with soccer — but couldn’t avoid the news reports on the recently deceased Pro Football Hall of Famer. Webster had struggled with dementia, depression and debt in his later years, dying at age 50.
Before Omalu even picked up a scalpel, the case seemed like a simple one: Webster’s former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, had announced that he died of a heart attack (which the team would later recant).
“It was highly questionable whether it was even a coroner’s case,” said Wecht, the longtime Allegheny County’s Coroner who is portrayed in “Concussion” by actor Albert Brooks. “Someone in the family contacted me, and I said, ‘Okay, fine, let’s take a look.’ ”
Omalu instantly thought it was a curious case. He wondered how a physically gifted person could suffer such a rapid, steep decline at a relatively young age.
Regardless of the body in front of him, Omalu often ended up at the same space: the brain. It’s why unlike most forensic pathologists, he decided to specialize in neuropathology and why he was always motivated to keep digging past the obvious in his search for answers.
“The brain is such an amazing organism,” he said. “It’s so beautiful under the microscope. You need to see it to believe it. It’s like a very complex orchestra.”
Even when he peeled back Webster’s scalp and cut open the skull, the exterior of the former player’s brain wasn’t particularly alarming. But when the brain was sliced, placed onto slides and studied under a microscope, Omalu saw clumps of red specks. It was a buildup of tau protein, similar to what might be found in the brain of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and for the first time, Omalu thought he’d identified a scientific link between the head trauma suffered on the football field and the brain damage still present years later.
He published his findings in July 2005 in the journal “Neurosurgery” in an article called “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.” The NFL’s committee charged with studying head trauma at the time scoffed and demanded a retraction, saying Omalu’s “description of chronic traumatic encephalopathy is completely wrong.”
The committee, led at the time by a rheumatologist, had published its own paper the previous year in the same journal, suggesting NFL players were actually “less susceptible” than the general population to brain injury because those prone to injury don’t usually last long enough in the sport to ever reach the NFL.
The disregard, disparagement and stubbornness caught Omalu off-guard. He thought his discovery would be embraced by those who govern the sport. Instead, the football world seemed quick to denounce him and his work.
“It reminded me of the corruption I was running away from in Nigeria,” he said.
Omalu responded by studying more brains and submitting more papers. The evidence grew and the truth about CTE became harder and harder to refute. Dr. Julian Bailes, the chairman of the department of neurosurgery and and co-director at the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Chicago, said there have now been about 150 reported cases of CTE. Of the players who competed before the NFL started instituting reforms in 2009, Bailes said as many as 20 to 30 percent might suffer from some form of CTE.
“But that’s just a guess,” he said.
Bailes has worked closely with Omalu and is portrayed in “Concussion” by the actor Alec Baldwin. He said Omalu’s own immigrant story made him the perfect person to pursue CTE research and stand up to detractors.
“He had already been through, I think, his share of battles and had his own intestinal fortitude. . . . He didn’t understand the game of football, didn’t really have any particular interest in it, so he was totally unbiased and open-minded to it,” Bailes said.
While much of the early media attention on concussions — not to mention much of the publicity surrounding the movie — focused on Omalu butting heads with the NFL, he said he was particularly frustrated with the antagonism he received from those in the medical community who seemed eager to second-guess his findings. While Omalu is credited with the initial discovery, other groups have helped further CTE research. Even among those who specialize in concussion research, Omalu hasn’t always been the most agreeable.
“He does have an intellectual arrogance or confidence,” said Wecht, Omalu’s former supervisor, “maybe a little too assertive at times.”
Omalu said he’s plenty accustomed to being misunderstood. In those early days, when he felt his thick accent and status as an immigrant were a hindrance, he would ask others to call families of recently deceased athletes to request their brain for research on his behalf.
(For an actor, mastering the accent was no easy task. Producers paired Smith with a dialect coach, and Omalu spent plenty of time around the actor. “He did a wonderful job,” Omalu said of Smith, “his accent, his emotional composition, his facial contortions, the way he moves his lips. In fact, Will Smith is the one who taught me about some of my traits. He told me, ‘Bennet, you know when you’re talking and you want to emphasize a point, you tilt your head about 45 degrees.’ I hadn’t thought about it, but it was true.”)
Omalu today serves as the chief medical examiner for San Joaquin County in California. He acknowledged that football organizations, including the NFL, have done a lot in recent years to address and treat concussions. Still, he doesn’t think young people should participate in tackle football, a position that puts him at odds with some of his colleagues. Bailes, for example, said the sport has never been safer and that the current science doesn’t show that a young person’s brain is any more vulnerable.
“I don’t think he has any facts or experience or research in youth football to make that statement,” said Bailes, who also serves as chairman of Pop Warner’s medical advisory committee.
Omalu hopes that “Concussion” erases any lingering doubts and both the football world and the medical community can focus on the future. He said the science surrounding CTE is still advancing and hopes someday doctors might be able to detect the disease in living people, giving them a chance to treat CTE before it’s too late.
“Someday we could discover a cure,” he said, “but today the best cure is prevention.”