Before he began his examination, Dr. Bennet Omalu looked the man in the face. He quietly asked the man on the table to help him discover the truth about what had really killed him.
The man was Iron Mike Webster, a legendary NFL player considered by some to be the best center to ever play football. He played for 17 years, most of them draped in the black and gold of the Pittsburg Steelers. He played in four Super Bowls and nine Pro Bowls.
And yet, instead of retiring to a comfortable life, Webster’s final years were marked by chaos. He showed signs of dementia and depression and lived out of his dilapidated truck. His body was so battered by years of abuse on the football field that he looked more like 70.
Finally, he died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 50. A heart attack might have ended Webster’s time on earth, but his life had clearly slipped away years before. Why? What would cause such a spiral for a gridiron hero?
Dr. Bennet Omalu understood little of that context. He was a Nigerian immigrant, and he would come to the United States to further his education. That is how he came to be a forensic pathologist in the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office. He had only the briefest acquaintance with American football.
To Dr. Omalu, Webster was simply another soul with a story to tell, another person who deserved to be treated with dignity and respect, another opportunity to unravel a mystery and tease out the truth. It is fitting that his surname is shortened from Onyemalukwube, which translates to “he who knows, speak.” Dr. Omalu was dedicated to studying the bodies and brains of the dead and telling their stories.
As Dr. Omalu examined Webster’s brain, he didn’t see any obvious trauma. However, he knew something must be amiss. How could it be possible that this man took blow after blow to the head for years and years, and ended up showing obvious signs of neurological disorder, and yet his brain looked healthy? Dr. Omalu gained permission to do a deeper study. He suspected Webster suffered something on the order of dementia pugilistica, a neurological condition that affected boxers. But Webster’s brain didn’t present that same signs.
After months of study, Dr. Omalu finally zeroed in on the sign he was looking for: tau proteins, clogging up the parts of the brain dedicated to mood, emotions and executive function. The evidence pointed strongly to a new type of disorder, which Dr. Omalu dubbed chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. Repeated knocks to the head, a regular feature of football, contributed to the troubled final years of Iron Mike Webster and were probably responsible for the disabling or deaths of many more.
He was ready to tell Webster’s story, and sound the alarm over what he had become sure was a larger issue.
Some lessons in moxie from Dr. Omalu’s life:
Sometimes moxie is just a little naïve. Dr. Omalu thought he would present his findings to the NFL, and they would be received with thoughtful consideration. He was wrong. The NFL was initially dismissive and hostile to his findings, suggesting that he as a neuropathologist was actually unqualified to speak to the issue. Instead, they preferred to rely on their own panel of experts on concussions, which was headed by a rheumatologist.
Dr. Omalu’s worldview was firmly entrenched in science, and he bumped up against a worldview that was not. Football in America is both a cultural touchstone and big business, and it did not take kindly to any threats from outsiders.
Nevertheless, Dr. Omalu pressed on. He was convinced he had a responsibility to speak up for players, and he needed to warn parents of the risks they were exposing their children to by allowing them to play football.
It took years, but the NFL finally acknowledged the link between concussions and lasting brain damage in 2007.
You don’t need to be somebody to do something. In an interview with PBS’ Frontline, Dr. Omalu repeatedly used one word to describe himself: nobody. He was “nobody” from nowhere, just a Nigerian immigrant who came to America to study medicine. He would have been happy to continue to be “nobody,” too. But after Mike Webster, he didn’t have the option of being nobody. He had to muster the moxie to be Webster’s voice, and the voice of other football players at every level of the game who suffered long-lasting and sometimes life-altering effects from playing.
Before CTE was identified, players who struggled after retiring were dismissed. Their struggles were chalked up to character flaws or poor decisions or some other weakness. It was only after Dr. Omalu’s identification of CTE that we began to realize it was brain damage brought on by repeated concussions that might be behind those struggles.
Dr. Omalu’s identification of CTE removed shame and replaced it with hope and help.
Once moxie, always moxie. Having won the battle to get concussion risk recognized, you would think Dr. Omalu would get a pass on other conflicts, wouldn’t you? Not so fast. Dr. Omalu recently resigned from his post as San Joaquin County’s chief medical examiner, claiming that the sheriff is interfering with investigations of those that die while in police custody. It is a serious charge, and if history is any indicator, Dr. Omalu does not make it lightly and will see it through until the end.
If you had the chance to examine him, what would you ask Dr. Omalu?