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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The riveting, unlikely story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist who first identified CTE in professional football players, a discovery that challenges the existence of America’s favorite sport and puts Omalu in the crosshairs of football’s most powerful corporation: the NFL
Jeanne Marie Laskas first met the young forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu in 2009, while reporting a story for GQ that would go on to inspire the movie Concussion. Omalu told her about a day in September 2002, when, in a dingy morgue in downtown Pittsburgh, he picked up a scalpel and made a discovery that would rattle America in ways he’d never intended. Omalu was new to America, chasing the dream, a deeply spiritual man escaping the wounds of civil war in Nigeria. The body on the slab in front of him belonged to a fifty-year-old named Mike Webster, aka “Iron Mike,” a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the greatest ever to play the game. After retiring in 1990, Webster had suffered a dizzyingly steep decline. Toward the end of his life, he was living out of his van, tasering himself to relieve his chronic pain, and fixing his rotting teeth with Super Glue. How did this happen?, Omalu asked himself. How did a young man like Mike Webster end up like this? The search for answers would change Omalu’s life forever and put him in the crosshairs of one of the most powerful corporations in America: the National Football League. What Omalu discovered in Webster’s brain—proof that Iron Mike’s mental deterioration was no accident but a disease caused by blows to the head that could affect everyone playing the game—was the one truth the NFL wanted to ignore.
Taut, gripping, and gorgeously told, Concussion is the stirring story of one unlikely man’s decision to stand up to a multibillion-dollar colossus, and to tell the world the truth.
Praise for Concussion
“A gripping medical mystery and a dazzling portrait of the young scientist no one wanted to listen to . . . a fabulous, essential read.”—Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
“The story of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s battle against the NFL is classic David and Goliath stuff, and Jeanne Marie Laskas—one of my favorite writers on earth—makes it as exciting as any great courtroom or gridiron drama. A riveting, powerful human tale—and a master class on how to tell a story.”—Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit
“Bennet Omalu forced football to reckon with head trauma. The NFL doesn’t want you to hear his story, but Jeanne Marie Laskas makes it unforgettable. This book is gripping, eye-opening, and full of heart.”—Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.17(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.62(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The prosecutor approaches the witness box. He’s all in gray, beautifully tailored, sleek as a dolphin, cuff links, a half Windsor knot. One thing Bennet appreciates about the American legal system is that the attorneys always dress impeccably like this. The same cannot be said, by the way, about scientists. Half of why he couldn’t survive academia was because of the sartorial slobbery. Shirttails hanging out, moccasins, saggy-ass jeans. It was too much.
“Good morning, Doctor.”
“Good morning, sir.”
“Doctor, would you please state your name for the members of the jury?”
“My name is Bennet Omalu, B-E-N-N-E-T, Omalu, O-M-A-L-U.”
Already the jurors are exchanging glances. What did he say? His accent is thick. He needs to enunciate or something.
“Dr. Omalu, I’m going to ask you to speak into the microphone so all the members of the jury will be able to hear you. If you’ll wait for just a moment, I’ll give you a bottle of water.”
He waits for the water. The whites of his eyes pop like flashbulbs. His face is round, a perfect circle, like a smiley-face button on a teenager’s backpack. It might make him appear calmer than he is. Does he appear calm? Thank you, thank you. He tries to appear calm. He is almost never calm. He is a man who thinks in double exclamation points. Excitable!! Everyone tells him he looks much younger than his thirty-nine years. Maybe because he’s short, he’ll say. He’s short because they didn’t have much of anything to feed him during the war, he’ll joke. It’s not a joke, actually. His sisters think it’s funny. Anyway, he likes it when people say he looks young. Also he likes to talk about himself. I’m a Christian. I’m a humble man. I surrender to God’s mercy and love. There’s an inwardness about him, but also a happy-go-lucky veneer of innocence.
He twists the cap off the bottle of water, sips.
Honestly, right now he wouldn’t mind a cigarette. He hasn’t smoked in years, hasn’t even thought about it, but right now a cigarette might be a terrific help. Cigarettes and kola nuts were how he survived the stress of med school. The green nuts, he broke them with his thumbs, plucked the fleshy lobes, and chewed them like taffy. There is no quicker kick of caffeine than the one a man gets from kola nuts. His father and everyone in the village in Nigeria, they thought the nuts were holy. His father in his tall red hat, three feathers standing high as if touching the spirit world, saying the Ibo blessing: “Ihe dï mma onye n’achö, ö ga-afü ya.” Whatever good he is looking for, he will see it. The men washing fingers, peanut butter dip, prayers, elders in robes.
Bennet doesn’t miss any of that business. Honestly, none of it. He never wanted anything to do with those tedious old-world village rituals. He would be a man of his time. In America. Everything back home in Nigeria was about busting loose from the pettiness, the corruption, the wicked tendencies of man.
Now he’s in America, in 2008, stuck in a boiling hot courtroom in Pittsburgh, and it feels like everything is once again about busting loose from the pettiness, the corruption, and the wicked tendencies of man. The irony is not lost on him. Thank you, God. I’m grateful you got me to America. I am truly grateful. But the irony is not lost on me.
“Dr. Omalu,” the lawyer says, “would you tell the members of the jury, please, how you are currently employed?”
“I’m the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County in the central wine valley region of California,” he says, turning then to the court reporter with that super-straight posture, typing madly. “S-A-N J-O-A-Q-U-I-N,” he says.
“How long have you been the chief medical examiner in San Joaquin?”
“My official appointment started September 1, 2007.”
“Can you tell us, please, where San Joaquin County is located, give us a sense of where it is on the map?”
“It’s about one hour east of San Francisco and about forty-five minutes south of Sacramento, which is the capital of the state of California. It’s located in the central wine valley. In San Joaquin. We produce the Zinfandel. Zinfandel red wine . . . Zinfandel grapes. You find wine in San Joaquin—”
Oh my God, shut up about the wine! What are you, the Chamber of Commerce? That was so stupid. He’s nervous. He’s so angry. He does not want to be here. He looks down, taps his feet together, reaches down to yank at one sock, then the other, wipes a speck of dust off his shiny new shoe.
He got these shoes for the trial. Black cap-toe oxfords, shiny as tar. He wanted them wider. He told the guy, he said, wider? The guy said no, they’ll stretch. But they’re not stretching. Tight, like a band across the cuneiform bones, the cuboid bone, the navicular bone. Everything feels so tight, oh my gosh! His collar. The span of pin-striped wool across his back. Everything should not feel so tight. He’s testified in court hundreds of times; he’s gotten guys off death row, for God’s sake. A courtroom is not unfamiliar territory—and this courtroom specifically, in Pittsburgh, this is the one he knows best. This is where he used to live. This is where he made his mark. He needs to just calm himself down and remember he is here because he has to be, not because he wants to be. Bennet, you are just a child of God doing your imperfect best in an imperfect world.
“Dr. Omalu,” the prosecutor says, “how long have you been living in the United States, sir, either as a student or working as a professional?”
“I came to the United States in October 1994.”
“Are you married, sir?”
“Do you have any children?”
“I have a five-month-old daughter.”
“Is that your only child?”
“In what country were you born, Doctor?”
“I was born in Nigeria, West Africa.”
The prosecutor glances at his notes, as if planning to move on past the introductions. He has fat eyebrows. A turnip nose. The heat in the courtroom is cranked way too high, an old boiler system, so the windows are cracked and you can hear the February wind whistle.
The prosecutor is not done with the introductions. “Can you outline very briefly for the members of the jury,” he says, “what your educational background was prior to coming to the United States?”
“I attended medical school in Nigeria,” Bennet says. He explains how it works there, six years, then a clinical internship, then mandated paramilitary service—three years doctoring in a rural village in the mountains. “I was the only physician,” he says, leaning into the microphone. “My primary responsibility was to stop people from dying.”
He reaches inside his collar, pulls where it pinches. He toggles his tie. This is a full Windsor knot. Many American presidents throughout history wore a full Windsor knot. Bennet thinks Barack Obama should at least try it. But instead Obama goes for the relaxed four-in-hand knot, a much less commanding statement. Bennet keeps all his ties already tied, loosened, in his closet, ready for action. That is the secret to always having a perfect, presidential full Windsor knot.
“Dr. Omalu, correct me if I’m wrong, you’re board certified in four separate areas of pathology, is that correct?”
“Those are anatomic, clinical, forensic, and neuropathology.”
Dutifully, he explains how all that happened, coming to America, the research scholarship, the second medical degree at Columbia University.
Two medical degrees?
“Yes, sir.” He chose forensic pathology as his specialty. “A specialist in death, why and how death occurs.”
Becoming an expert in death would seem to be a counterintuitive move for a physician, a person committed to saving lives. He would need an entire afternoon to explain to the jury how he ended up doing autopsies for a living; none of this had been in his plan for his life. None of this.
“Just to round out the academic picture here,” the prosecutor says, “you are also currently finishing up one other degree?”
Two more, actually, for a total of seven. “I have a master’s in public health in epidemiology. I did that at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m also completing in May, thankfully, May of this year, a master’s in business administration at Carnegie Mellon University, which I’m happy about completing. That is it.”
“You are not going to get any more degrees?”
“No. My father said, Bennet, you should retire as a professional student when you turn forty, and I’m turning forty this year.”
Heh. A little levity. He looks over at the jury—two rows of blank faces. Do they even understand him? He knows people sometimes have a hard time.
There is one person in the courtroom who understands him. The defendant, his former boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht. He’s over there at the table, a ghost in Bennet’s peripheral vision. Bennet hasn’t even been able to look at Wecht. That is so juvenile. Come on, Bennet, just look at him.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Obscurity 3
Chapter 2 Running 17
Chapter 3 Spiral 39
Chapter 4 America 52
Chapter 5 Fancy 68
Chapter 6 The Morgue 86
Chapter 7 Discovery 107
Chapter 8 Belonging 130
Chapter 9 Attack 149
Chapter 10 Scramble 171
Chapter 11 Oddball 187
Chapter 12 Comfort Zone 204
Chapter 13 Word 228
Chapter 14 Daddy 247
Author's Note 271
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Best book I have read in years!
This book was unbelievable. I couldn't believe some of the things that I read in this book. There were things I learned that I found interesting, the most interesting was reading about all the scientific research that Dr. Omalu did in discovering CTE. One of the most important things that I found in the book, is how the NFL hired a team of doctors to form a committee. The committee would become the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee (MTBI). These doctors, hired by the NFL, had never seen or performed an autopsy of the brain, something Dr. Omalu specialized in. When Dr. Omalu discovered CTE in the brain of Mike Webster, he had the scientific research and evidence to back up his discovery. He wrote a scientific paper, had it published in a 2005 issue of Neurosurgery, the MTBI committee wanted the paper retracted. This is no different than the NFL wanting a recent a recent story published by The New York Times retracted, the Times article found many flaws in the NFL's concussion research. Here's the thing, science and cold hard evidence never lie, yet it appears that the NFL refuses to listen to science. They didn't want to listen to or believe Dr. Omalu. As a fan, I have lost trust in the NFL, especially when it comes to the safety of the players. Another important thing that I learned, is the NFL is nothing but a money hungry machine. I also wouldn't be surprised if there were more lawsuits against the NFL. Until the NFL stops ignoring evidence and science and starts listening, I will not believe anything the NFL says. This book and Dr. Omalu's research are important pieces in understanding the science of concussions.
Dr. Bennett Omalu comes to the United States from Nigeria to get his medical degree. While here he works in the Allegheny County, PA coroner's office where he does the autopsy on Steeler great Mike Webster. He receives permission to study Webster's brain where he discovers deposits that should not be there. He investigates more and finds the first documented case of CTE. He then autopsies 2 more Steeler players and discovers the same thing. His research puts him at odds with the NFL. They work to have him not taken seriously. I found this book fascinating. I have never been much of a football fan but this book disturbed me greatly. I liked Dr. Omalu and his research. The NFL puts its business first and for money it makes what if gave the former players is so much less than they deserve. Good ideas are given in the book as to what to do for the players of the past. I was upset that nothing was done for those currently or in the future who will play the game. This is serious and needs to be taught to the parents and children who want to play as well as the coaches. It's fascinating research.
I wish I could see the movie.I heard Will Smith is in it.
I would like to thank Random House Publishing & NetGalley for giving me a copy of this e-ARC to read in exchange for an honest review. Though I received this e-book for free that in no way impacts my review. I wasn't sure what I'd make of this story since I'm not really a big football fan (gasp!), but to my pleasant surprise I quite enjoyed it. Not only did Laskas infuse the story with a sense of urgency, she managed to show the big picture of the NFL's continued cover-up while still keeping the story grounded through Dr. Omalu's life. Initially I was a bit confused by the many details of Dr. Omalu's life, how it seemed to be a biography of his life rather than of his work, but luckily his life was more than interesting enough to keep my attention. And having that background was extremely useful when the story did begin moving into the territory of concussions and the NFL's disavowal of the damage they were causing the players. Laskas could have gone for traditional gambits to hook the reader into some major courtroom battle, or or glorified methods of getting this story across. Instead, much like her subject Dr. Bennet Omalu, she keeps to the daily, personal aspects of this compelling story. There is more than enough real drama happening that there is never a need to create something that isn't there. By sticking to the personal stories and accounts of those involved Laskas has done an excellent job of bringing this unlikely whistle-blower, and in my eyes a hero, to the forefront, giving him the recognition he deserves. Staying so deep within individuals' stories made this book fly by, and gave me a real sense of the horrors that players and their families, as well as others who cared about them, endured with no understanding of what was happening to their husbands, fathers, sons, brothers. Having to watch your 40 year old husband, the father of your kids, go down a road you can't walk with them, or bring them back from, is a hell that no one deserves. A hell that is finally being explained in mass media, though Dr. Omalu identified the truth of this danger years ago. This book is one I'd recommend every parent read before allowing their child to play football at any age.
I'm not a football fan but found this book absolutely fascinating. I had no idea that all this was going on, and it started with just one person. Ms. Laskas has done a remarkable job of tracing the challenges in bucking the NFL.
I didn’t know what to expect from this book. After all, how often does a book and a movie come out at the same time. Maybe a Star Wars movie and a novelization of the film, but that isn’t the usual timeframe. Now I understand. The movie is based on an article that Ms. Laskas wrote for GQ magazine. The article was titled “Game Brain”. It was published in 2009. Here is a link to the article on GQ.com, Game Brain. Ms. Laskas expanded that article, and made it into the story of the man, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered that there was something seriously wrong with the brain of a star NFL football player, Mike Webster. This book, Concussion, is more than just a summary of evidence of the brain damage that occurs to professional football players. It is the story of one mans struggle to be heard, when one of the most powerful organizations in the United States, the NFL, wanted to bury what he had found. Ms. Laskas puts Dr. Omalu’s discoveries into perspective. She tells the story of his life, starting in Nigeria, coming to America, and then what happened to him once the NFL wanted to discredit him. She fills the story with direct quotes from Dr. Omalu. But she tells the story behind the quotes. She lets you see the struggles, and feel the pain, and the excitement that his discoveries bring to his life. He feels that he has heard “Iron Mike” talk to him, and needs to tell the world what he said. We all need to listen to this story. This is an important story that crosses the boundaries of American Professional Football. After reading this book, I wonder if athletes in other sports are suffering from the same sorts of brain damages. Do soccer players do damage when they use their heads to knock the ball into a net. What about rugby and hockey players? Then there are the obvious sports of boxing, wrestling, and MMA fighters. Are these people losing their brain functions? Do they have trouble remembering? Do they have personality changes? Is this what they signed up for? Is sport that important? I give Concussion 5 Stars out of 5, and Two Big Thumbs Up! If you know anyone who plays football, soccer, hockey or any other sport that may cause head trauma, you need to read this book. If you don’t, well read it anyway. I received a Digital Review Copy from the publisher.