Interview: Dr Bennet Omalu, who is played by Will Smith in Concussion, talks about faith, science, the future of football, and why he wanted to become an American

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Dr Bennet Omalu may have been born and raised in Nigeria, but today he’s a proud American. It’s a point he makes repeatedly during a phone interview to promote Concussion, the Will Smith-starring film (opening Friday) that dramatizes the role Omalu played in exposing the damage that football does to its players’ brains.

“As I stepped out of the theatre, I was proud I was American, to be honest with you,” he says. “Because that story — my story — can only happen in America.”

The story — or at least the part of it that is covered by the film — begins when Omalu is asked to perform an autopsy on Mike Webster, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who suffered from dementia before his death at the age of 50 in 2002. (Webster is played in the film by David Morse.)

Omalu’s examination of Webster’s brain led him to conclude that Webster had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition caused by repeated shocks to his brain — and Omalu soon discovered that many other football players were suffering from this condition, too.

(Some scientists have suggested that Omalu exaggerated his own role in discovering CTE, but no one disputes that he played a crucial role in linking it to football.)

Omalu says the United States has a “societal framework” that encourages non-conformity, and he says this allowed him to expose some inconvenient truths about America’s favorite sport — and, more generally, he says it has allowed people like him to become whatever and whoever they want to be.

“For crying out loud,” he says, “when I came to this country, I had only 250 dollars in my pocket. I was eager to embrace the promise of the future, of my future, in America, a country [where] I believed I could be whatever I wanted to be. I could express myself and live my life to be its fullest, to make my own mark because this is my own stage, there can never be another me.”

Omalu admits that there have been challenges to deal with, too, like racism and prejudice — and the film dramatizes some of these issues, as officials who don’t want to hear about Omalu’s discoveries begin to apply pressure that could cost Omalu his job and, thus, his immigration visa. (Omalu did not become a citizen of the U.S. until earlier this year.)

But, says Omalu, “I always reminded myself: Look, what binds us together is far greater than what separates us. The greater American family is one body, one spirit, one love, one hope, one joy. So that was what kept me going, my faith. My faith in the truth, in the truth of science! And the truth of my own faith, because my faith teaches me that God is truth, God is love, and science seeks the truth.

“And the American experience, the American experiment, is founded upon the truth,” he adds. “That is what this movie about.”

The confluence of faith and science is another big theme for Omalu, whose approach to the autopsies he performs is motivated in part by his belief that the spirits of the dead are still with us, and still watching what we do.

“When I listen to people talk, they make it seem like science is diametrically opposed to spirituality,” says Omalu. “This movie proves them wrong.”

Does Omalu actually talk to the bodies he examines out loud, the way the version of him played by Smith does in the film? “Sometimes I do talk to them verbally, but that is less often,” he says. “Most times, [I talk to them] in my heart.

“In the Judeo-Christian faith — and in fact many other faiths out there, including Muslims — when you die, it is not the end of your life,” he adds. “I don’t even use that word, ‘death’. I see it as a transition, when your physical body dies, and the spirit, your soul, leaves.

“They say God is the God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Joseph, he is not a God of the dead, he is a God of the living,” Omalu adds, paraphrasing something Jesus says in the gospels. “So I talk to the man [whose autopsy Omalu is performing].”

Omalu even says the spirits of his “patients” may be subtly guiding him.

“There was no reason for me to do the Mike Webster autopsy,” he says. “There was no reason for me to examine his brain. We knew why he died, his brain looked normal in the autopsy.”

He imagines someone asking him: “‘What made you save his brain and examine it and spend your own money when the office said they are not going to pay for it, because there was no need, no justification?’ And I paid for it. What made me look? I don’t know.”

Omalu laughs. “Now, could it be Mike Webster’s spirit leading and guiding me? Possibly, why not?”

In any case, Omalu insists that he was “just a vessel, a vessel of God’s peace to others. I used my knowledge, my education, like my father always told me, to make a difference in the lives of other people. And what could be more American than that?”

The film invokes religious themes on a few occasions in ways that seem to pit religious faith against football. One character says the NFL owns a day of the week, adding: “The same day the church used to own, now it’s theirs.” Another character says the NFL acts as though it is immune from “acts of God.” And the Omalu character himself, noting that human brains lack the shock absorbers that are built into the skulls of woodpeckers and other animals, declares, “God did not intend for us to play football.”

But the real Omalu does not believe the film is “anti-football,” per se. “It’s far from that,” he says. “It’s not anti-anything. But it’s pro-American.”

Omalu says the film’s primary objective is to inform people about the risks inherent to high-contact sports such as football, “so that when you make a decision to play or not to play, you are making an enlightened and educated decision.

“That is what the movie is about. The movie is about instigating that collective discourse. We are evolving as a modern society, and as we evolve, we become more intelligent, and we begin to do things more intelligently, and gradually give up less intelligent ways.

“There is nothing that could be better than an enlightened people,” he adds. “That is what this movie is about. And when I discovered CTE, that was my objective, to enhance the lives of others, to enhance football. So I cannot be anti-football if my objective is to enhance football, to enhance our lives, to enhance the lives of those who love football. In fact, you could even say that this movie is about saving football!”

And how do we save football without ending it altogether? “Good American ingenuity,” he replies. “Americans are very brilliant and creative people. And not just American ingenuity, there is individual ingenuity. Because of immigration, there are very smart people who come from all parts of the world who come to live in America, and they bring with them their brilliance.

“Remember,” he adds, “the way we play football today was not the way it has always been played. It is not the way it was played 70 years ago, or 50 years ago. Humanity is very dynamic. Things change. So this is not abandoning football, this is giving football a platform and an opportunity to evolve as part of who we are.”

— The photo at the top of this post shows Dr Bennet Omalu (centre) with Concussion star Will Smith (left) and writer-director Peter Landesman (right).

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