Bennet Omalu discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in former football players, sparking years of denial from the NFL and the creation of a movie about his life’s work.
Born in Nigeria in 1968, Bennet Omalu graduated from the University of Nigeria’s medical school, before continuing his training in the United States. In 2002, he discovered the presence of a degenerative disease in the brain of former pro football player Mike Webster, naming the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). His efforts to raise awareness of CTE were rebuffed by the NFL, although mounting evidence eventually forced the league to make concessions. Omalu’s work was dramatized in the 2015 film Concussion, with Will Smith portraying the Nigerian-born doctor.
Early Years and Career
Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu was born in Nnokwa, Nigeria, in September 1968, during the Nigerian Civil War. The conflict had forced his family to vacate its gated compound in the village of Enugwu-Ukwu, but they were eventually able to return there to resume a comfortable lifestyle.
The sixth of seven children of a civil engineer and a seamstress, Omalu was a shy but gifted student with a fertile imagination. He was admitted to the Federal Government College in Enugu at age 12 and dreamed of being an airline pilot. However, at age 15 he began medical school at the University of Nigeria.
After earning his degree in 1990, Omalu interned at Jos University Hospital, before being accepted to a visiting scholar program at the University of Washington in 1994. He then served his residency at Harlem Hospital Center, where he developed his interest in pathology.
In 1999, Omalu moved to Pittsburgh to train under noted pathologist Cyril Wecht at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office. He continued his education at the University of Pittsburgh, completing a fellowship in neuropathology in 2002 and a master’s in public health and epidemiology in 2004.
Discovery of CTE
While working at the coroner’s office in September 2002, Omalu examined the body of Mike Webster, a former pro football player with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster had displayed patterns of distressing behavior before his death from a heart attack at age 50, and Omalu was curious as to what clues the former player’s brain would reveal.
After careful examination of the brain, Omalu discovered clumps of tau proteins, which impair function upon accumulation. It was similar to “dementia pugilista,” a degenerative disease documented decades earlier in boxers, though it had yet to be connected to football players. After confirming his findings with top faculty members at the University of Pittsburgh, Omalu named the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and submitted a paper titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player” to the medical journal Neurosurgery.
After the paper was published in July 2005, Omalu was informed by Neurosurgery‘s editorial board that the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee was demanding a retraction. Omalu instead pressed forward with his examination of Terry Long, another former football player who had committed suicide at age 45, and discovered the same buildup of tau proteins. His follow-up paper to Neurosurgery was published in November 2006.
As the mouthpiece of the NFL, the MTBI Committee discredited Omalu’s research as “flawed” and refused to acknowledge a link between the sport and the brain damage in former players. However, Omalu gained an important supporter in Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at the West Virginia University School of Medicine and a former team physician for the Steelers. With Bailes and lawyer Bob Fitzsimmons, Omalu founded the Sports Legacy Institute (later renamed the Concussion Legacy Foundation) to continue studies of CTE.
Despite the NFL’s public evasiveness, Omalu and his supporters scored a victory when Mike Webster’s family was awarded a significant settlement in December 2006. The following June, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell convened a “concussion summit” to discuss the issue with league doctors and independent researchers, although Omalu was not invited to participate.
Continued Studies and ‘Concussion’
Omalu moved to California in the fall of 2007 to begin his new position as chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, though he continued his post-graduate education at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University and earned his MBA in 2008. That year, he also published his first book, Play Hard, Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression, and Death, and he advanced the study of CTE by branching out to athletes from other sports and war veterans.
By 2009, Omalu’s exhaustive work on the subject began to bear fruit. He was profiled in a September issue of GQ, which detailed his efforts to raise awareness of football-related brain injuries and the NFL’s refusal to cooperate. Commissioner Goodell and other NFL executives were soon called to testify before a House Judiciary Committee, sparking an overhaul of the MTBI and rule changes to enhance safety, as well as a lawsuit brought forth by thousands of former players against the NFL.
Omalu’s story eventually reached the hands of Hollywood power player Ridley Scott, who tapped Peter Landesman to write and direct a feature film, and convinced actor Will Smith to sign up for a starring role. Titled Concussion, the film generated major buzz before its Christmas Day 2015 release, with Smith earning acclaim for adopting Omalu’s distinct Nigerian accent and mannerisms for the role.
For Omalu, the release of Concussion served as the ultimate vindication for years of hard work, and provided a spotlight for other endeavors. Along with his position as chief medical examiner for San Joaquin County, he serves as president of Bennet Omalu Pathology, as well as associate clinical professor of pathology at UC Davis Medical Center.