Dr. Bennet Omalu speaks at Jupiter campus Tuesday

Inspiration for movie “Concussion” spoke on work in neurology

Photo of Bennet Omalu courtesy of Bennetomalu.com.

Photo of Bennet Omalu courtesy of Bennetomalu.com.

Brendan Feeney, Sports Editor

Playing football can be like smoking cigarettes, according to Dr. Bennet Omalu.

There is no such thing as a “safe cigarette,” just like there is no such thing as a “safe blow to the head.”

Omalu — the neurologist who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and was the inspiration behind the movie “Concussion” spoke at the FAU Jupiter Campus Lifelong Learning Society on Tuesday night about his life and research of the brain condition.

“The human body has imperfections,” Omalu said. “The brain sits freely inside the skull … nothing can hold the brain down.”

“A helmet doesn’t prevent the risk of brain damage,” continued Omalu, illustrating with his hands how the brain can bounce around the skull.

Omalu — who claims the “Concussion” movie is 99 percent true — discovered CTE after performing an autopsy on NFL Hall of Famer Mike Webster, who passed away from a heart attack on Sept. 24, 2002 after suffering from depression, signs of dementia and fits of rage. Omalu remembers that September morning vividly.

After not getting home from the Pittsburgh bars until 3 a.m. on Sept. 28, 2002, Omalu — who didn’t miss a single day of work, including vacation days, from 1994 to 2012 — woke up that Saturday morning and got ready for another day of work. Prior to going in, Omalu said he made his coffee and turned on the television.

All the stations were talking about Webster, but Omalu had no idea who that was, since he wasn’t familiar with football.

So when the doctor entered the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office that Saturday morning in September, he just saw a patient. He didn’t see a hall of famer, or “Iron Mike.”

“I have done over 8,000 autopsies and I never saw a man or woman who looked different,” Omalu said. “[I] got to my office, and Mike Webster was on my examination table.

Though Webster was considered a football hero in Pittsburgh, he quickly fell out of the public’s favor as his condition deteriorated. Omalu — who openly admits to talking to his patients prior to their autopsies — remembers what he said to the Steeler great.

“Mike, if what I’m hearing about you is true, I don’t think you’re a bad person,” Omalu said. “I think you’re a victim of this game … guide me.”

“His brain looked normal,” Omalu told the audience, who he commonly referred to as his brothers and sisters. “When I opened his head and his brain looked normal, I was disappointed with myself.”

The doctor then requested to examine the brain. After he was told that he wouldn’t receive any funding, Omalu decided to pay for the tests himself.

Omalu admits he didn’t know what he was looking for, but decided to take the brain back to his apartment to “protect it.” After not looking for three months, Omalu examined the brain in his home.

“I was at home, because no one knew what this African boy was doing,” Omalu said. “I was examining the brains on my kitchen table.”

Eventually, Omalu saw changes that he had never seen before. However, growing up in Africa, Omalu didn’t think it made sense that he could discover something about America’s sport that no American doctor had.

He was told not to publish his findings, and he almost didn’t.

“Why did it take me? An African who knows nothing of football,” Omalu asked the crowd. He then paused and answered his own question: “Conformational intelligence.”

He believes that the public’s thinking process is controlled by the expectations of society. Therefore, people almost turn a blind-eye toward anything bad and take football for the good.

According to Omalu, our government would shut down, or at least regulate, anything with this much risk involved. But not football.

“[The NFL] wanted to exterminate me professionally,” Omalu said. “They were suffering from the arrogance of fame … I had to fight back … I became a voice for the voiceless.”

Though some steps have been taken to prevent CTE and other brain-related injuries, Omalu isn’t satisfied. He also isn’t sold on the new “concussion protocol,” because it doesn’t reverse any of the damage that has been done.

More cases of CTE keep surfacing, and Omalu said that despite the fact that some former players appear to look healthy, in private they are in a much worse condition than they would ever admit.

“I believe the spirits of these players are with me,” Omalu said. “We have to embrace the truth. As a society, we have to wake up.”

Brendan Feeney is the sports editor of the University Press. To contact him regarding this or other stories, he can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter.