You might say Bennet Omalu entered this world fighting.
Omalu was born in the late 1960s amid one of the deadliest and most-harrowing conflicts on the African continent: the Nigerian Civil War, sometimes called the Biafran War. In that conflict, more than 1 million people, most of them members of Omalu’s Ibo ethnic group, died from disease or starvation – or were slain by government troops. The nearly three-year war attracted attention from prominent figures like Pope Paul VI and John Lennon.
To survive, Omalu and his family relocated from their ancestral village and lived as refugees under perilous conditions. Through a combination of luck, the grace of God and a relentless will to live, the Omalus – father, mother and all seven children – survived.
Subsequently, Omalu carried that familial relentlessness through a long and distinguished career as a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist. Perhaps no experience tested Omalu’s resolve better than his first encounter with a mysterious brain disease that was killing former football players.
More specifically, in 2002, Omalu began looking into the death of “Iron” Mike Webster, an erstwhile Pittsburgh Steelers center. Omalu suspected Webster died from a form of dementia caused by repeated blows to the head, and he coined a name for this brain disease: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
But his efforts to make a significant contribution to neurological research earned Omalu powerful enemies. For more than a decade, he battled the NFL, the most powerful sporting organization in the United States, over his research on athletes’ concussions. In the process, he was threatened, mocked and harassed. But his strong will prevailed.
Today, thanks to Omalu, most Americans know of CTE and of the debilitating brain injuries many athletes suffer because of repeated blows to the head.
In 2015, Omalu’s lengthy ordeal became the subject of Jeanne Marie Laskas’ book Concussion, expanded from an earlier article for GQ magazine. That same year, Hollywood legend Will Smith portrayed Omalu in a film of the same title, and Omalu’s story also was featured in the 2013 PBS Frontline documentary League of Denial.
Omalu twice has testified before Congress and served as an expert witness in hundreds of trials. He has a string of degrees from prestigious institutions like Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University and an even longer chain of medical certifications.
Along the way, Omalu has become more than just an unlikely celebrity medical doctor; he has become a terrific role model and an inspiration to all people, particularly the young. His uncompromising commitment to truth forms a study in perseverance, and he remains a paragon of hard work, high ethical standards, discipline and scholarly excellence.
More than anything else, perhaps when we most need it, he vividly reminds us of the promise of the American Dream.
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the 21st president of the 166-year-old Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics and previously served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.