A 2015 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University showed that 87 out of 91 former National Football League players tested positive for a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The disease is caused by repeated blows to the head.
The most recent CTE-related death, of former New York Giants safety Tyler Sash, was reported in January. Sash was 27 years old.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, 47, the forensic neurologist/neuropathologist credited with discovering and coining the disease, made national headlines in 2002, when his autopsy of NFL Hall of Famer and former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster suggested that Webster’s cognitive and intellectual disabilities were due to repeated blows to the head during his NFL career. Despite X-rays that appeared to show a normal brain, Omalu financed his own analyses of Webster’s brain tissue and found the accumulation of a protein that affects a person in a similar way another protein accumulates in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients.
As depicted in Concussion and elsewhere, the NFL, a multibillion-dollar industry, took steps to discredit Omalu’s meticulous research. Omalu’s discovery, which gave rise to nationwide research on concussions in the NFL and, most recently, an approved $1-billion settlement between the league and more than 4,500 former players, was “a story of true faith,” he said.
A devout Catholic, born and educated in Nigeria before making his career at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, Omalu said he performs his work living in the Spirit, manifesting the love of God in his life.
Now the chief medical examiner in San Joaquin County, Calif., and the featured doctor in the 2015 film Concussion, Omalu spoke with the Register about his Catholic upbringing and the role of his faith in working as one of the nation’s most renowned medical examiners.
In general, is Concussion accurate with regards to what really happened?
Yes, it’s pretty accurate. Creative license law allows the movie and arts industry to dramatize life stories; they have some creative licenses to dramatize and tell the story. But most of it is accurate.
How did the movie come to be?
I was the one who took the idea to Hollywood about six years ago.
What role does your faith have in your work examining bodies and identifying the cause of people’s deaths?
Every day in my life that I do autopsies I’m always reminded of my own mortality. I know from dust I came, and to dust I will return. So I don’t want to become entangled and invested in the identities of our lives: I want to consciously avoid that. I try to live in the Spirit, to manifest the love of God in my life. But what Mike Webster did to me was expose me to the world. And when that happens, you intermingle with people who are invested in this world, who live in darkness, that literally have no acknowledgement of God in their lives. That’s what this discovery has done to me.
However, in the fullness of time, I think it was God’s will that my path crossed with Mike Webster’s path. I don’t think it was a mere coincidence. So I am open to the will of God, to be used as a vessel of his peace and love. Because God Almighty wouldn’t come down from heaven to help us as human beings. He uses our fellow human beings to manifest his power and love in our lives. So if God has called me to use my education and knowledge to bring his peace, love and joy to my fellow brethren, who am I to say No?
How were you able to stand up to the NFL when they fought to discredit your work?
After the Mike Webster autopsy, when the league and all the doctors were coming for me, I stood firm in my faith, knowing the God I worship is pre-eminent in all things. And the Spirit guided me to Colossians Chapter 2, Verse 9. It says, “For in him [dwells the whole fullness of the deity* bodily, and you share in this fullness in him], who is the head of every principality and power.” I was afraid, like every other human being would be. The truth guided me to a letter from St. Paul to the Ephesians 6:10: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and his mighty power.”
I was convinced, and I believed, I had not done anything wrong. All I did was touch the souls and hearts of my brothers and sisters in Christ and made a difference in the lives of my brothers and sisters. That was the battle between right, wrong and truth.
What made you decide to order extra tests on the Webster autopsy?
One person at a time, the world will be filled with the light and love of God. That’s what happened when I saw Mike Webster on the autopsy table. I saw myself in Mike Webster. And I spoke to his spirit and said, “Mike, let’s hear your story. I do not think you are a bad person.” Because I myself: I suffered severe depression in medical school. So I understood that someone could be mentally ill and people might not understand what you are going through. And people would blame you for your mental illness. So I empathize with him as a brother in one family in Christ. I sympathized with him, and I saw my image in him. And that’s why I walked the extra mile. I had no obligation to do the autopsy, but I did it. I had no obligation to examine his brain, but I did it. When the office refused to pay for the testing, I paid with my own money.
My story is a story of true faith. Without my Catholic faith there was no way I could have done anything. With faith, the impossible becomes possible.
You paid with your own money?
As I stand before you today, the amount of money I have spent on extra procedures and the amount I’ve spent traveling around the country, going to interview families, when no one else was paying attention: I’ve spent over $500,000 of my own money in 13 years.
I became a physician at 32, so I was single and making over $200,000 a year. I married late: I was 38 when I got married. So I had the expendable cash to do what I was doing.
Do you think the NFL is really making any improvements to reduce concussions?
Knowing what we know today, it is not of God to knowingly damage and destroy our brains. This is about repeated blunt-force trauma to the human head. The way God created us, he did not design us to expose our heads to such repeated blunt-force trauma. That is not of God.
It’s not just about football; it’s about any activity that will expose your brain to repeated blows to the head: like boxing, ice hockey, mixed martial arts and rugby, especially for our children. To go and intentionally destroy one of the most important gifts God has given us is not making a good account of the gift.
There is nothing the NFL can do to prevent that with its current model. So we should think of different and new ways that we can continue to play these games. … Destroying your human body goes against humanity. Anything you do that robs you of your humanity is not good. And going to bang your head repeatedly just for some excitement and gratification cannot be of God. It’s like doing drugs. How can you intentionally expose yourself to drugs that you know are damaging your body? It’s not of God.
Please tell us more about your Catholic background.
I’m a devout Catholic. I’ve been a Catholic since birth, and it was my faith that actually helped me through everything, from medical school in Nigeria to my discovery of CTE in Mike Webster. My Catholic, Christian faith is what has held me strong, to be honest.
I went to school in Nigeria. I was baptized Catholic. My father was one of the first converts to Catholicism in Idemili. So we were all born Catholics and baptized Catholics. And then I had my first holy Communion, my confirmation, my wedding. My priest, Father Carmen D’Amico at St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Pittsburgh, went back to Nigeria to officiate over my wedding when I married my wife. And I met my wife through him, like the movie shows.
How did you develop your deep faith?
It’s a combination of all things. My parents taught me that you need to be a fair and good person to live a good life; you need to treat other people with respect, like you would like to be treated. Then, as I got older, I realized how vulnerable and weak I was as a human being, especially in medical school: I went through a deep depression. I knew there had to be something stronger than me. And I began to seek what was stronger than me. And I discovered God.
Then, with this CTE experience, when the NFL and other doctors started attacking me … it challenged me further in my faith.
Can you talk about the importance of the Rosary in your prayer life?
When I want to go into deep, mediating prayer, the Rosary is my most effective prayer. Because the Rosary is not just about reciting an Our Father, it’s highly meditating prayer.
Every time I say my Rosary, I come out feeling very at peace, especially the mysteries in between. The Rosary is the sword of my faith. I’m grateful to say the Rosary, especially the last mysteries that Pope John Paul II came up with, the Luminous Mysteries: Those are the pillars of our faith as Catholics. It’s such a powerful prayer. I say it several times per month. I pick up my Rosary when I want to be especially close to God.
What do you appreciate most about Catholicism?
The first time I traveled to a different country, I was a teenager. I went to Togo, which is a French-speaking country in Africa. On Sunday morning, we went to church, and the Mass was in French. But, despite the language barrier, I could still follow Mass there. I was so impressed by the universality of the Catholic faith. I saw that we are all one as Catholics. And as I got older, I became so enamored and impressed by the fact that our world, with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of Catholics, has only one leader, the Pope. The Church’s universality, whether in Ecuador or Dubai, is incredible.
The Church may not be perfect. But it is perfect enough that I want to embrace it and support it and love it. As Catholics, we should live exemplary lives and make ourselves servants, so other Christians and non-Christians can look at us and say, “What is it that you have that I don’t have?”
Register correspondent Chris Kudialis writes from Las Vegas.