When I first learned about the movie Concussion, I was so intrigued. Anything that involves football catches my attention. I love football; it is my favorite sport. I had to see the movie opening day. I sat anxiously awaiting for the story to unfold. Of course I knew it was about concussions, football, and Dr. Bennet Omalu the physician/scientist who was played by Will Smith. That was my knowledge of the movie prior to seeing it.
As the movie begins Mike Webster is giving his Pro Football Hall of Fame speech. I think back to when I went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I get giddy like a kid listening to his speech. The reason I love football so much, is that I equate it with life. The passion, the hard work, and the nostalgic of the game are what fascinate me.
I did not know who Mike Webster was, so I had to do some research. I also researched the other players and scientists in the film. Football history excites me, which is why I tape NFL Football Life every week. Mike Webster known as Iron Mike was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997. He was drafted in 1974. He started in the final game of the 1975 season as a center; Webster began a string of 150 consecutive starts that lasted until 1986. Webster played more seasons (15) and more games (220) than any other player in Pittsburgh history.Webster played for the Steelers during four of their six Super Bowl Championships. Webster was an all-pro choice seven times, played in nine Pro Bowls, the first five as a starter. Needless to say that he was an icon.
Concussion goes from the scene of one of the greatest moment of Mike Webster’s football career to a scene where he is homeless. He is not only homeless he is living in a truck. One of his former teammates who was an offensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk, comes to visit him in the truck. Justin tells him that he understands. That he is having similar symptoms. Justin states that he gets mad, and is scared he is going to hurt his wife.
Mike Webster later died of a heart attack at the age of only 50 in 2002. Prior to his death he goes to see Dr. Julian Bailes. Webster is desperate, asking for help.He does not understand what is going on in his mind. He feels like he is losing his mind. His doctor gives him some medicine to calm him down. Dr. Julian Bailes who is a neurosurgeon who was a former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steeler is in awe because prior to this incident he had run a battery of tests. Everything was negative, and Dr. Bailes could not understand.
Dr. Bennet Omalu happens to be the coroner on call when Mike Webster died. Dr. Omalu found a joy to his job. He was meticulous in his autopsies. He often spoke to his decreased patients. Each person he believed had a story that needed to be told. He loved the science. He sought to get the answers literally at any cost. He knew despite all the negative tests, a normal brain on appearance that there was more to Mike Webster’s story. He sends off a battery of tests that he paid for himself. Another pathologist in his lab often told him to hurry up. He told him not to do an autopsy on the legend Mike Webster. Dr. Omalu had to know the answer to why this man was dead at such a young age. Through his intense research and analysis he discovered he had a brain condition caused by repeated trauma to his brain. The trauma caused plagues to form that basically choked the health brain tissue. This would cause his headaches, forgetfulness, could cause fits of rage, confession, depression, Alzheimer’s like symptoms. He presented his work to a Dr. Steven DeKosky a prominent neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh. After reviewing the information, Dr. Omalu told Dr. Steven Dekosky that the tissue was from Mike Webster’s brain. Through Dr. Omalu research he came across a condition called dementia pugilistica “punch-drunk” which was initially found only in those with a history of boxing. He named the condition that he found in the football players CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). It had the appearance of dementia pugilistica. In 2005 Omalu, along with colleagues in the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh,published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery in a paper which he titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.”
Dr. Omalu was happy. He had answered a question, solved a problem. He assumed that the NFL (National Football League) would appreciate his information. He assumed that this information could be used to help the game become safer. To prevent or to warn players so there would be no more Mike Webster’s. Unfortunately it was quite the contrary. The NFL had done studies on their own, and concluded that the game was safe, that concussions did not cause long-term problems. Dr. Omalu work was a contradiction to this and the NFL did not like it.
Dr. Julian Bailes who no longer worked with the NFL and was a good friend of Mike Webster reaches out to Dr. Omalu. They talked and Dr. Bailes believed Dr. Omalu’s work. The battle ensues. Dr. Bailes goal was to help Dr. Omalu. The NFL would not be receptive to listening to a physician who was not even from America. One that claims its favorite sport causes damage that could ultimately lead to death. Terry Long another NFL football player, former Pittsburgh Steeler offensive lineman commits suicide by drinking antifreeze in 2005. He had previously attempted suicide in 1991. Dr. Omalu does his autopsy and discovered that he also has CTE.
Another NFL player Andre Waters committed suicide with gunshot to his head in 2006. Andre Waters was regarded as one of the NFL’s hardest-hitting defenders. He was a safety. His tackle of Los Angeles Ram quarterback Jim Everett in 1998 led to a rule prohibiting defensive players from hitting quarterbacks below the waist while they are still in the pocket; for a while, it was unofficially termed the “Andre Waters Rule” His brain tissue was sent to Dr. Omalu and he was found to have CTE. He had the brain of an 85 year old.
Justin Strzelczyk, Mike Webster’s friend who visited him when he was living in his truck died in a car crash in 2004. The one who told him he had similar problems,died in a car crash. He hit a tank trunk while driving 90 miles per hour against the flow of traffic to evade capture by the police. He was 36 years old. He mother consented to let Dr. Omalu study his brain after his death, and he was found to have CTE in 2007.
Dr. Bailes sest up a meeting with Dr. Joseph Maroon a neurosurgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, one of the team doctors for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dr. Omalu discovered during his review of the medical records of Steelers players that had CTE that Dr. Maroon was physician of record. Dr. Omalu and Dr. Maroon have a heated discussion. He tells of his findings which Dr. Maroon had publicly refuted. Dr. Omalu does not back down. He repeated states just tell the truth. Dr. Macron understood that NFL football was a business. The goal was to return the player to the field by any means necessary. Football was and is a business. He challenged Dr. Omalu because he was not American and knew nothing about how great and almighty football was and still is today. Dr. Omalu boss Dr. Cyril Wecht told him that he was taken on the NFL, and to beware that the NFL owns Sunday the day that use to be own by God and the church. I thought that was a powerful statement.
The Commissioner at the time of Mike Webster’s death was was Paul Tagliabue, but Roger Goodell took over in 2006. Roger Goodell made a public relations move and claimed to be open to hearing Dr. Omalu’s research. Right before the meeting, Dr. Omalu was not allowed to speak. They did allow Dr. Bailes to speak, one of their own. It was all a public relations move. They were not ready to listen. The NFL just wanted to state that they had heard his findings. Dr. Omalu anxiously waited in hallway. After the meeting Dave Duerson walks out of the meeting, and confronts Dr. Omalu. He tells him to go back to African. Duerson was a safety in the NFL who played for the Chicago Bears, the New York Giants, and the Phoenix Cardinals.He earned significant honors during his career, including selection to four consecutive Pro Bowls for NFL. Ironically Duerson while adamantly against Dr. Omalu’s research, ended up committed suicide via a gunshot wound to his chest. He left a suicide note that he wanted his brain to be studied for CTE. After his death the NFL was forced to listen. They did listen.
Further information of NFL and CTE
In 2012, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and drove to stadium and killed himself in front of the general manager and his head coach It it was confirmed that he suffered from CTE in 2014.
An autopsy conducted in 2010 on the brain of Owen Thomas, a 21-year-old junior lineman at the University of Pennsylvania who committed suicide, showed early stages of CTE, making him the second youngest person to be diagnosed with the condition.
In October 2010, 17-year-old Nathan Stiles died hours after his high school homecoming football game, where he took a hit that would be the final straw in a series of subconcussive and concussive blows to the head, making him the youngest reported CTE case to date.
In 2012, retired NFL player Junior Seau committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest. In, 2013, the brain pathology report was revealed and Seau had CTE.
The NFL has taken measures to help prevent CTE. As of July 2011, the NFL has changed its return-to-play rules. The number of contact practices has been reduced. Today players get fined for helmet to helmet hits intentional and unintentional.
In 2012, some four thousand former NFL players “joined civil lawsuits against the League, seeking damages over the League’s failure to protect players from concussions, according to Judy Battista of the [New York] Times”
On April 22, 2015 a final settlement was reached between players and the NFL in the case, but NFL never admitted to having prior knowledge on the dangers of concussions. Terms include payments to be made by the NFL for $75 million for “baseline medical exams” for retired players, $10 million dollars for research and education, as well an uncapped amount for retirees “who can demonstrate that they suffer from one of several brain conditions covered by the agreement”, with total payments expected to exceed $1 billion dollars over 65 years.
Bernie Kosar, who sustained several concussions during his twelve-year NFL career and has shown symptoms of CTE, has submitted himself to an experimental treatment program led by Rick Sponaugle of Florida that has alleviated many of his symptoms. The program, involves increasing blood flow to damaged portions of the brain. He has spoken out in public about his successes with the treatment in the hopes that others who suffer from the disease can find relief and avoid the fates of Duerson and Seau, both of whom were personal friends of his.
I loved the movie, but the impact from concussions is concerning. It was if the scientist was in contrast to the football fanatic in me. I fell in love with football when I was doing a sports medicine fellowship in Philadelphia. Part of my training was covering football games. I stood on the sidelines and looked out for injuries. I had to pay attention to make sure we monitored all the players. Also if I didn’t pay attention I would risk being injured myself. Remember Sean Payton New Orleans Saint’s head coach injury on the sideline a few years ago. It was as I was watching every snap, run, touchdown that I learned the game. I used to ask the athletic trainer questions when I was unsure of what was going on. I then only knew the basics. I fell in love with the game, and it only grows more and more. One of the scenes in the movie that I vividly remember was when Dr. Bailes was talking to Dr. Omalu about speaking with the NFL. He talked about his passion for the game. The spark in his eyes as he talked about his love of game, I could relate to. It literally hurt him, the fact that the game he loved could be potentially dangerous. That the multiple hits could cause damage that could potentially result in death. I feel the same way. While I see the science, I love the game. I think there needs to be more research into making the game safer, but I will never stop watching football. If I had a son and he wanted to play football, I would let him.