2015 Scientist: Bennet Omalu, MD

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Bennet Omalu, MD

Growing up in Nigeria, Bennet Omalu, MD, dreamed of becoming a pilot. His parents had other ambitions -- they wanted him to be a doctor -- so he reluctantly enrolled in medical school. He settled on forensic pathology, turning the investigation of death into a higher calling. "I realized it was a very good platform for me to seek the truth," he says.

In September 2002, when legendary Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster lay on Omalu's table at the Allegheny County coroner's office, something about the story of his death rang false. The official cause was a heart attack, but Omalu had heard about Webster's erratic behavior -- the violent outbursts and confused ramblings. Intuition led him to delve deep into Webster's brain. There, he found clumps of tau, a protein that often builds up in the brains of elderly people with Alzheimer's, but had never before been seen in a 50-year-old football player. "I searched and searched thousands of publications," Omalu says. "I did not see any report on what I was observing. I just couldn't believe it."

He named the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. And he thought the National Football League would welcome his discovery. Instead, it launched an attack to discredit his work. "It was a very lonely, painful experience," he recalls.

In time, the lineup of players with CTE grew, and the NFL had to face the issue. "The truth is like light," Omalu says. "You can cover it up for a while, but you cannot conceal light." The league has put stricter rules in place to limit head injuries, though Omalu says that won't solve the problem. "As long as your brain is exposed to repeated blows … you have a risk of brain damage," he says. "We have to educate people." He hopes Hollywood will help. This December, Will Smith will play Omalu in the film Concussion. "I think this movie will make a very big impact in spreading the word."

Omalu's research has transformed the way we look at -- and play -- football. Still, he remains humble. "I don't want to be glorified. I don't want to be placed on any pedestal. I'm just a simple man who wanted to make other people happy."

Update: A Big Year for Bennet Omalu

"Never in a million years did I expect that."

Omalu says that about many things that have happened to him since he left New York in November 2015 with a WebMD Health Hero award in hand.

He never thought he'd see a movie made about his fight to get the NFL to recognize the profound effects of CTE, but Concussion opened on Christmas Day, 2015.

This man of science -- he's currently chief medical examiner for California's San Joaquin County -- says he never saw himself at an event like the Golden Globe Awards, either. But there he was on Jan. 10, 2016, seated at a table with Smith and his wife, Jada, actress Jane Fonda, and others.

Leonardo DiCaprio was sitting behind me, Omalu says. "He turned around and said, ‘Bennet, your movie was amazing.'" Denzel Washington made it a point to shake his hand.

Another thing he never thought he'd do: Attend a State of the Union address. But two days after the Golden Globes, there he sat, just 50 feet from the president of the United States. He also met with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Californian.

"I gave her a copy of my book," he says. "She recognized me, and I tell you I was surprised. She said ‘Oh, you're the concussion doctor, right?'"

Now, he, too is a speaker, though not with a political bent. He's traveling the globe drawing on his life story -- from a childhood in war-torn Nigeria to his efforts to shed light on the long-term health effects of CTE -- to inspire corporate and civic leaders.

He's also become something of a public health crusader. He advises on lawsuits for young athletes who've had health problems stemming from concussions. His ultimate goal: To help Americans realize the dangers posed by football, despite its immense popularity.

"People say ‘Oh, football is not going anywhere.' I laugh," he says. "In fact, in another generation, maybe when I'm dead and gone, maybe my son's children, my grandchildren, when they're in their 50s and 60s will look back at our time and will wonder, 'How did these people play this game?'"

He's also working on a memoir, Truth Doesn't Have a Side. The topic isn't so much his life story but his faith journey, he says.

"My memoir will be about faith and science walking together -- the synergy that exists between faith and science. You can be the best scientist in the world and yet be a man or woman of great faith."

Which brings us to final thing he never expected: To hear an NFL official say football and CTE are linked. But in March 2016, it happened, like he knew it would.

"The truth will always prevail," he says. "It may take a long time to come, but it will always, always prevail."

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