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The Catholic who tackled the NFL

Dr Bennet Omalu with Will Smith: ‘The NFL tried to exterminate me professionally’ (Photo: AP)

“It’s not about American football, it’s a story about pursuing the truth,” says Dr Bennet Omalu. He’s speaking to me over the phone from his home in California about Concussion, the film, opening in Britain this week, that recounts his extraordinary battle with one of America’s most prestigious sporting institutions.

In 2002, this deeply devout Nigerian Catholic doctor, who has lived and worked in America since the mid-1990s, went to the National Football League (NFL) after making an unprecedented discovery. While working as a forensic pathologist in the coroner’s office of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, he was asked to carry out an autopsy on Mike Webster, a famous former player for the Pittsburgh Steelers who had been found dead at the age of 50.

Dr Omalu, who is played by Will Smith in the film, knew little about American football and hadn’t heard of Webster until the morning of the autopsy, when he caught TV talk shows discussing how the once great player had struggled with depression and a range of other personal difficulties since the end of his illustrious career. And so, when Dr Omalu was asked to examine Webster’s body, he already felt a strong bond with the man.

“While I was in medical school I suffered from severe depression so I knew what it was to suffer mental illness, not be understood by society and be dismissed, and that was where my Catholic faith came into play,” he says.

“I saw myself in Mike Webster. Rather than [seeing him as] just a dead football player I empathised with him and when I got to the autopsy room I spoke to him. I said, ‘I think something is wrong and you are a victim of this game. You have to show me the way, lead me to the light, lead me to the truth and I will do everything I can.’”

Dr Omalu, who speaks slowly and with great conviction, points out that when he describes this encounter he is “not talking about voodoo” but was simply enacting his faith. “In the Old and New Testament, when you die your body is dead but your spirit lives. When I did the autopsy there was no need for me to examine Mike’s brain, but he helped me.”

The doctor did indeed examine Webster’s brain and discovered the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In other words, Webster had suffered serious brain damage which the doctor was certain was caused by repeated blows to the head suffered during American football matches. After making this discovery – the first time brain damage had been linked to American football – Dr Omalu expected, he now admits naively, that the NFL would be supportive of his findings. In fact, he needed the strength of his faith to support him when the reaction turned out to be negative. The NFL spent close to a decade denying a link between CTE and their sport, in the process dismissing two of Dr Omalu’s academic papers on the subject.

“The NFL tried to exterminate me professionally,” he says. “It was difficult, I was bruised and battered and left in the cold, but Catholics should know our Bibles and catechism and we should be embedded in our faith. When I encountered pushback from the biggest sports league in the world which makes over $9 billion a year, I wasn’t afraid. If I was afraid I’d have been denying my faith and my God. In many verses God calls us not to be afraid. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 3 it says when you do something out of love you come out into the light.”

It can’t have been easy for Will Smith to capture Dr Omalu, who is currently chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, on screen. We might only be talking on the phone but his charisma shines through. He laughs often and proffers Bible verses, like the one from John, regularly.

In the past few years, the NFL has finally made some concessions to the link between CTE and American football, agreeing to pay close to $1bn to some players affected by the disease. Things are far from finished, though, as appeals have been lodged over the terms of that settlement and Dr Omalu continues to make his voice heard. He is currently making the case to anyone who will listen, including me, that children should not be allowed to participate in American football and other high-impact contact sports until they are old enough to give proper consent.

We end our chat by returning to Concussion and Dr Omalu gives a little sales pitch for the film. It’s no surprise to hear that faith is an important feature of the movie and he hopes fellow Christians will find much to enjoy in it. “Every Catholic, in fact every Christian, should see this film,” he says. “You will come out proud that you are a Christian.”

Concussion is released in cinemas today

This article first appeared in the February 12 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here