When four-time Super Bowl champion “Iron Mike” Webster, a former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, retired from his beloved football team in the 1990s, nobody could have guessed that his death would be the center of a medical breakthrough so many years later.
Investigative journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas shared details about her New York Times bestselling book “Concussion” to a sizable crowd in DPAC on Wednesday, Feb. 15.
“This is a story I wrote, and like most good stories, it’s about a relationship. In this case, it’s a story about two men,” Laskas said.
The two men were Webster and the doctor who ended up doing his autopsy – Dr. Bennet Omalu, the main subject of Laskas’ book.
Although Omalu was easily able to confirm that Webster died because he had suffered a heart attack, he was interested in understanding Webster’s sudden mental deterioration after he retired at the age of 38, she said.
Not only did he start to lose his memory at a rapid rate and become uncharacteristically violent, but Webster also eventually lost all understanding of his financial status and started living out of his truck, she explained.
“He would pull his teeth out and put them back in with superglue,” Laskas said. “He was sadly demented.”
Omalu, a studious and determined man at heart, made it his mission to understand the former athlete’s perplexing condition, guided by a deep sense of spirituality which was instilled in him while he was growing up in Nigeria, Laskas said.
“In his widely spiritual sense of himself, Bennet talked to the dead,” Laskas said. “He talked to Mike Webster. He talked to his spirit and said, ‘Mike, I’m gonna figure this out. We are going to do this together.’”
Upon inspecting Webster’s brain, Omalu saw nothing out of the ordinary, Laskas said.
Frustrated, Omalu packed up Webster’s brain and brought it home with him for further testing.
After performing a series of extensive self-funded experiments for around six months, Omalu eventually had a breakthrough.
Omalu found an abundant amount of tau protein in Webster’s brain, a condition boxers develop after sustaining repeated blows to the head over an extended amount of time, Laskas said.
After Omalu published his work in a medical journal, he learned there was already an age-old debate going on between scientists and the NFL, she said.
“In 1997, The American Academy of Neurology – all independent scientists – came out with guidelines for football players, for professional football players at every level, for what to do when you get a concussion and the NFL said ‘no,’” Laskas said. “That doesn’t apply to professional football players.”
Laskas explained how the NFL refused to take into account any data collected by scientists who weren’t on their payroll. She said they had developed their own publication that provided data which showed there were no adverse effects associated with playing football.
“When Bennet walks into the door with this study – now he’s a weirdo in their mind, he doesn’t fit into any group – and says, ‘Hey guys, look what I found, scientific proof!’ He was not well-received,” she said.
Laskas said the NFL demanded a retraction of Omalu’s paper.
Omalu fought for his work, as he had made a promise to Webster and was determined to live by his family’s name Omalu, which translates to “If you know, come forth and speak,” Laskas said.
Omalu “came into this subject completely with no agenda,” she said. “It wasn’t a fight for, ‘Oh I don’t like the NFL.’ He hardly knew who they were. It was a fight for truth in his mind, and for light, and for God and for justice. It was really a pure fight.”
Laskas said as the NFL was demanding the paper’s retraction, football players who were displaying the same symptoms as Webster were suffering from the same condition.
“Terry Long – he was a Steelers guard who played right next to Mike Webster. In 2005, at 45 years old, he ends up drinking antifreeze to kill himself,” Laskas said.
When Omalu obtained Long’s brain, he found tau protein, just like he had in Webster’s, Laskas said.
In 2009, when Laskas began investigating the topic, she said she had only found Omalu “by chance,” since many of those she interviewed never brought him up.
When she mentioned him in conversation, since he was the man who wrote the study that started it all, many said he was no longer trying to prove his work.
“When I found him in Lodi, California working out of his garage, I said, ‘Dr. Omalu, I heard you weren’t in it anymore.’ He said, ‘Bennet Omalu is in it. Bennet Omalu is in it.’”
So she told his story in her widely read GQ article, “Game Brain,” which she expanded into her book “Concussion” a few years later.
Laskas’ story prompted a larger conversation about football and the adverse effects the game could have on its players’ health.
Laskas said wives of NFL athletes began reaching out to her to discuss how their husbands had been experiencing symptoms similar to Webster’s and his peers’.
In the following years, after a series of congressional hearings and as more cases like Webster’s began to make headlines, the NFL had no choice but to confront the problem, Laskas said.
“Right now, they have 29 medical officials at every game in the stands,” she said. “Teams of physicians, spotters, and they’re charged with enforcing the NFL’s concussion protocol, which is you remove a player who might have suffered a concussion – end of story.”
Even with these measures, football players are still being driven to insanity, Laskas said.
A former St. Louis safety, Benny Perrin, had shot himself in the head only a week ago at the age of 57.
Laskas said since the NFL is such a major form of entertainment for so many Americans, little substantive change has happened.
Americans don’t want to give up their favorite sport, something she is guilty of too, she said.
“We’ve heard this news,” she said. “There was a Hollywood movie about this news. There’s been more media than you could ever ask for. … We know this, and we’ve been outraged, and our response is more football.”
Laskas ended her talk by posing a question to the audience.
“What do we do as a society, as a culture, with the stuff we don’t want to believe in?” Laskas asked. “Do we call this fake news? Do we call this alternative facts? Do we call this fake science?”
For her, she often seeks clarity by taking note of the value of Omalu’s “pure fight.”
“I really think of his story and his journey – his pure search for answers that weren’t clouded by political agenda or corporate agenda,” she said. “He wanted to know why a guy went crazy and he searched.”