Dr. Bennet Omalu knew little about pro football, and he had never heard of Mike Webster until he met the former longtime Pittsburgh Steelers center — at a morgue.
Omalu performed Webster’s autopsy in 2002, hoping to find out what had killed him at the age of 50. The signs pointed to a heart attack, but the forensic pathologist from Nigeria also suspected a serious brain injury because, according to news reports, Webster had started acting crazy.
The doctor was right. That discovery and its aftermath are the basis for Jeanne Marie Laskas’ latest book, “Concussion.” The movie version, starring Will Smith, is scheduled for a Christmas Day release.
“Concussion” is Omalu’s life story, from a boy in Africa to a man in America with seven degrees (two medical), who talks to the dead and views himself as an advocate for them.
He’s religious, hardworking, smart, yet hardly perfect; he is also naive and depressed and views himself an outsider.
Buying his first Mercedes-Benz lifts his spirits. So does getting a wrongly convicted killer off death row with his court testimony.
And then, when he looks at slices of Webster’s brain, he finds sludge-like tangles of a protein called tau. His published report on what he calls chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is mocked by several members of the NFL’s Committee on Mild Traumatic Brain Injury — none of whom has ever performed an autopsy, Omalu notes. The committee members demand a retraction.
That marks the start of a long-running feud between the NFL and Omalu, who finds CTE in the brains of other deceased pro football players, some younger than Webster.
In this book, the NFL does not come out looking good. The organization digs in to protect itself, at first finding doctors who will deny any link between concussions and long-term brain damage.
“Concussion” is a book that anyone who plays a contact sport, or knows someone who does, ought to read in order to understand the risks of head trauma.
It jumps between details of Omalu’s life and his work on CTE. There’s no unintelligible technical medical stuff nor gross descriptions of brains, just a lot of information, interspersed with Omalu’s thoughts (set off in italics).
Based on Omalu’s findings, the author offers this paraphrased twist: CTE is not caused only by big, concussion-causing hits. Little hits, thousands of them, hits that look like nothing — that look like football — may be the real culprit.
CTE was a topic well worth tackling.
Roman Augustoviz is a Star Tribune sports copy editor.