Saturday, December 26, 2015 - Updated: 2:00 am
From an early age growing up in Nigeria, Bennet Omalu learned that belief in God helps you cope with all kinds of difficulties in life. When he moved to Pittsburgh in the late 1990s and discovered a brain disease that affects athletes, and football players in particular, he relied heavily on his Catholic faith to deal with the controversy and firestorm that erupted.
His story is the subject of the new movie “Concussion,” which was filmed in Pittsburgh last year and was set to open in theaters Dec. 25.
Trained as a forensic pathologist and working in the Allegheny County coroner’s office, Dr. Omalu found the brain disease — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — after doing an autopsy on legendary Steelers center Mike Webster. The Hall of Fame football player died at age 50 after years of bizarre behavior.
Omalu’s hypothesis — that CTE is caused by repeated concussions suffered by players — was not accepted by the National Football League and initially discredited by some in the medical community. It was a traumatic time for Omalu, an African immigrant who had experienced more than his share of racial discrimination in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“When I was in Pittsburgh I was in my early 30s, I was a new immigrant who had been in the United States for about six years,” he said by telephone from his home in Lodi, California. “I’ll be very sincere with you: southwestern Pennsylvania is not the most race-friendly part of America.”
Searching for a Catholic parish that felt like home, Omalu recalled a city parish where a white family refused to shake his hand during the sign of peace.
He eventually learned about a multicultural parish in Pittsburgh’s Hill District that attracts African immigrants. So the lonely, black professional “outsider” with about eight academic degrees and certifications began attending Mass at St. Benedict the Moor, where Father Carmen D’Amico was the pastor.
Omalu was pleased with the parish’s welcoming atmosphere and familiar liturgies. Shortly afterward, he called Father D’Amico and told him, “I think this is my home parish. This is where I belong.”
He became involved in the parish choir and noticed that the church sound system had problems. He paid to improve the sound system and managed the soundboard, which meant that he had to attend all of the Masses, funerals and weddings.
He recorded the Masses and edited them down for airing on WAMO-AM radio. He also prepared cassette tapes that were sent to shut-ins and those who were hospitalized and wanted to hear Father D’Amico’s homilies. In addition, Omalu served about five years as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion for the sick and elderly.
“So that’s how I got to know him. He was very much an active part of the parish,” said Father D’Amico, who is now the pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish in Meadow Lands, Washington County. “But the thing about Bennet is that you would never know that he has all these degrees. The man was absolutely brilliant, but he would never flaunt that.
“When I think back, where did this man find the time to be this involved in the church and do all of this work?” he said. “That’s what’s remarkable about him. What he can do and how much he can read.”
It was Father D’Amico who encouraged Omalu to talk with a young single woman from Kenya named Prema, who was a St. Benedict parishioner.
“He saw Prema and would ask me about her and I said, ‘Why don’t you go over and meet her and talk to her? She’s very nice,’” Father D’Amico said.
Their first date was at a restaurant in Station Square on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Father D’Amico presided at their wedding in Nigeria a few years later, and he baptized their two children.
It was during that time, Omalu said, that the “CTE quagmire” engulfed his world. There was tremendous pressure on him to ignore what he had discovered. But his father, who died May 5, 2014, at age 93, always encouraged him to use his intellect and education to make a difference in people’s lives.
“As God would have it,” Omalu said, “I had such a good pastor pastoring me then, Father Carmen. Such a good priest. Many times we would have coffee meetings at Starbucks and talk, and he kept emphasizing, ‘Bennet, embrace the truth. You may not see the benefits, but with time God will vindicate you as long as you make the light your focus, the light of God.”
Speaking with Omalu, it is readily apparent that the Catholic faith is at the center of his life. He said many people have told him that they admire how he expresses and lives his faith in a natural, easy-going way.
In his conversation with the Pittsburgh Catholic, he talked about being a faithful reader of Scripture. He said the Holy Spirit helped him see that studying the Bible is more important than reading his textbooks.
“Every Christian will attest to it: sometimes you pray, you’re suffering, you’re having an experience in your life. You open your Bible, the Spirit guides you, sends you to a specific verse in the Bible that will give you strength,” Omalu said. “So it was during this time I was reading my Bible and came across the letter of Paul to the Philippians, Chapter 4, verse 13, that says, ‘I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.’”
He also quoted Ephesians 4:4 (“We are one body â »”), Matthew 5:13-16 (“You are the salt of the earth â »”) and the Gospel of John, 3:20-21 (“For everyone who does wicked things hates the light â »”) for their positive effects on his life.
“I got involved in this football subject by serendipity. I was not looking for it. What was guiding me was just the truth,” Omalu said.
Father D’Amico said Omalu believes that his work in forensics — he has done more than 8,000 autopsies and is currently the chief medical examiner in San Joaquin County, California — is a way to acknowledge the dignity of every person, who lives on after death.
“When I came across CTE, everything was going on. I did not see this to be about myself. No. I saw those football players as members of that one family, that one love under one God,” Omalu said.
“I was willing to sacrifice myself as long as I brought light to the lives of those players. That is why I spent my own money (on tests of players’ brains). I did not have much of it, but I spent it,” he said.
Father D’Amico said, “His faith is part of everything that he does. He’s just a gem. He really is.”
Omalu spoke glowingly about his contact with the movie industry and actor Will Smith, who portrays him in the film.
“Concussion” is “a movie about America, a movie about our way of life, a movie about integrity, about the truth, about our faith,” he said.
Smith spent several days with Omalu to understand his character’s life and passions. The actor is “a phenomenon” and “an extremely humble individual,” he said.
“It’s not just a movie. It’s a story of who we are as Americans,” Omalu said. “Only in America could a foreigner like me come and be embraced and accepted as part of the American family, and be given the platform to express myself.
“In fact, I could say that the bad experiences I’ve had with the NFL have been overwhelmingly compensated for by the good experiences I’ve had with Hollywood. I’ve been blessed by each and every person I’ve encountered in the talent of Hollywood.
“When you surrender all to God in faith, God will guide you, and God will lead you to good people, to people who share his Spirit.”