If you haven’t seen this terrific piece by Jeanne Marie Laskas on concussions and the lasting effects of playing football, you should, it is outstanding:
On a foggy, steel gray Saturday in September 2002, Bennet Omalu arrived at the Allegheny County coroner’s office and got his assignment for the day: Perform an autopsy on the body of Mike Webster, a professional football player. Omalu did not, unlike most 34-year-old men living in a place like Pittsburgh, have an appreciation for American football. He was born in the jungles of Biafra during a Nigerian air raid, and certain aspects of American life puzzled him. From what he could tell, football was rather a pointless game, a lot of big fat guys bashing into each other. In fact, had he not been watching the news that morning, he may not have suspected anything unusual at all about the body on the slab.
The coverage that week had been bracing and disturbing and exciting. Dead at 50. Mike Webster! Nine-time Pro Bowler. Hall of Famer. “Iron Mike,” legendary Steelers center for fifteen seasons. His life after football had been mysterious and tragic, and on the news they were going on and on about it. What had happened to him? How does a guy go from four Super Bowl rings to…pissing in his own oven and squirting Super Glue on his rotting teeth? Mike Webster bought himself a Taser gun, used that on himself to treat his back pain, would zap himself into unconsciousness just to get some sleep. Mike Webster lost all his money, or maybe gave it away. He forgot. A lot of lawsuits. Mike Webster forgot how to eat, too. Soon Mike Webster was homeless, living in a truck, one of its windows replaced with a garbage bag and tape.
It bothered Omalu to hear this kind of chatter—especially about a dead guy. But Omalu had always fancied himself an advocate for the dead. That’s how he viewed his job: a calling. A forensic pathologist was charged with defending and speaking for the departed—a translator for those still here. A corpse held a story, told in tissue, patterns of trauma, and secrets in cells.