While we may have wondered about some of Frank Gifford’s behavior when tabloid magazines splashed news of entrapment infidelity in 1997, today we add a little sympathy to any puritanical scorn we might have felt. This week, Gifford’s family revealed that they have donated his brain to science and the findings indicated that the former football player had CTE. Will Smith’s new movie, “Concussion” is about the man who first discovered and diagnosed CTE in football players.
Gifford, husband of TV host Kathie Lee Gifford, had played for the National Football League for 12 years (New York Giants). He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. The movie “Concussion” begins with Mike Webster (David Morse) at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech in 1997 where he states it is “the greatest thing to have the opportunity to work with people with a common goal, a single purpose” who are willing to make sacrifices.
For the American football illiterate like myself, Webster played first for the Pittsburgh Steelers (1974-1988) and then for the Kansas City Chiefs (1989-1990). When he retired, he had played for four Super Bowl winning teams. Before his death, according to the movie, he sold those rings and was living in a truck, getting high on Super Glue. Upon his death in 2002, his corpse landed by chance on the table of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh.
Will Smith is no longer the glib prince of Bel Air who’s better with being cool than being at school. He becomes an intellectual prince of Nigeria. Although he’s eventually accused of pulling a scam, Omalu is a man with an awe-inspiring list of eight advanced degrees and certifications.
Omalu knows nothing about football, which in this movie seems almost sacrilegious in Pittsburgh, home of the Steelers. Like the “NCIS” medical examiner Ducky, Omalu speaks to the dead, asking “Please help me find out how this happened to you.” When he meets the physical mess that once was Webster, he’s puzzled as to why the city’s favorite son should turn to self-mutilation and be diagnosed with premature Alzheimer’s at 50. “I can tell something is wrong, but I need some help to tell the world what happened to you,” he explains.
The CT scans show nothing and so he orders extensive expensive tests on Webster’s brain. When the city squawks, he pays for them himself (eventually to the tune of $40,000). Omalu suspects Webster has something similar to the already recognized condition of dementia pugilistica, a disease that is seen in professional and amateur boxers. With his studies of Webster, Omalu publishes his findings in the journal “Neurosurgery” with his boss, chief medical examiner, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht (Albert Brooks), and an esteemed colleague at the University of Pittsburgh, the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Steven T. DeKosky, in 2005. And the victims of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) begin to pile up (Omalu DeKosky and Wecht authored a follow-up study in 2006).
Omalu’s position is supported by former NFL doctor, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin). Bailes provides strategic knowledge and inside information about the NFL. Yet Bailes is more realistic. Omalu idealistically believes that the NFL will embrace his studies. Bailes knows otherwise.
Men like Dr. Elliot Pellman (Paul Reiser), the New York Jets doctor and chairman of the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, begin a smear campaign. In academia, such a thing would be laughable: Pellman’s actual specialty is arthritis and joint pain, not neurology. Yet in the court of the public opinion, one where football is nearly a religion, Pellman prevails.
Omalu becomes a target and, now married, to a Kenyan national, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), he must think of the safety of his family. They are both threatened and harassed, leading them to leave Pittsburgh for Lodi, California. Prema helps Omalu keep his faith until his final vindication. She reminds him that Omalu’s full last name Onyemalukwubew means “if you know, come forth and speak.” Omalu did speak up, at great personal and financial cost.
Peter Landesman’s script was based on Jeanne Marie Laskas “Game Brain” article which the real Omalu felt was the first article that humanized him. “That article was a game-changer. Suddenly, people started opening their hearts and minds to me.”
For those who have never been to Pittsburgh, Landesman, who also directs, attempts to give a feeling of place. While football may be important to some people, in the city of Pittsburgh, football is placed on a pedestal.
Listening to an actual video of the real Omalu speaking in recent years, Will Smith might overplay his Nigerian accent, but he does give Omalu a sense of dignity and innocence. One can feel the indignation and hurt surprise when the business of football attempts to crush him. Smith has said that he loves football and his son plays football, but he wasn’t aware of the dangers. Neither were Mike Webster nor Emmy Award-winning sports caster Frank Gifford who died in August of this year. Imagine the anguish of families whose football-playing husbands, brothers and sons had undiagnosed CTE. They will wonder what behaviors were a result of CTE, a disease that can only be diagnosed when one is dead.
“Concussion” will help open a serious dialogue about the dangers of football concussion that needed to begin a long time ago. “Concussion” was an AFI FEST gala movie event and opens on Christmas Day.