When Concussion hits big screens across the country on Christmas Day, it's sure to spark discussion. The film is based on a true story and stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist and former medical examiner who first discovered a deadly brain injury in professional football players. It tells the story of the doctor's efforts to bring attention to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive hits to the head (like those received while playing football), and of the National Football League's efforts to suppress and discredit the Omalu's findings.
It's one of the year's most anticipated films — and Valley moviegoers have a chance to see it four days early.
On Monday, December 21, the Nick Lowery Youth Foundation, named for and founded by former professional football player Nick Lowery, will host a pre-release screening of Concussion at iPic and Tanzy Restaurant at the Scottsdale Quarter. Several former players including Jim McMahon and Derek Kennard will attend the event, which includes a cocktail reception before the screening and a discussion afterward.
Lowery, who lives in the Valley and played for the New England Patriots, the Kansas City Chiefs, and New York Jets during his career as a kicker, says hosting the screening is about broadening the conversation about concussions in football. His organization works primarily with youths in sports, and talking about the issue, Lowery says, in one way to ensure the next generation can continue playing safely.
"[Concussions are] a reality we have to confront with courage,” Lowery says. “Let's move forward in this era and stop pretending there's not an elephant in the room.”
Lowery was never diagnosed with a concussion during his 14-season career, and is not a part of the lawsuit thousands of former players filed against the league for failing to address the concussion issue sooner. He did, however, cross paths with two men who's names have been at the forefront of the concussion drama: Mike Webster and Junior Seau.
Lowery and Webster both played for the Chiefs in 1989 and '90, the final two years of the latter's illustrious career. Lowery says he remembers having several conversations with Webster about his plans after he finished playing. Of course, as many will know, after retirement Webster would struggle with amnesia, dementia, and depression, eventually spiraling out of control, divorcing his wife, and living out of his truck, before dying at the age of 50.
"Here’s this elder statesman of the game talking about his family and his life and all these plans," Lowery remembers. "And [a few] years later he's divorced and his wife has left him . . . it’s just a real tragedy."
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It was during Webster's autopsy that Omalu, then a medical examiner in Pittsburgh, would discover signs of permanent brain damage — and in a move that would change the course of football forever, diagnose the player postmortem with CTE. The disease had never been seen in football players until that day in 2002 and has since been found in the brains of dozens of other players. The list includes of confirmed cases of CTE in former professional football players includes Junior Seau, who Lowery played with during the 1991 Pro-Bowl.
Since Omalu's initial discovery, the NFL has been slow to make changes to protect players against concussions. For the first seven years after Omalu's diagnoses, the league rejected mounting evidence that football could, in fact, cause permanent brain damage — including evidence from studies commissioned by the league itself. In 2011, the league created the Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant Program, which puts independent neurologists on the sidelines of every game, but some feel it's still too little, too late.
As for Omalu, the doctor recently penned an op-ed for the Philadelphia Post-Gazette in which he argues children should not be allowed to play high-impact sports including football, hockey, and boxing. These sports, he writes, carry the risk of permanent brain damage — risks to which children under the age of 18 aren't old enough to consent.
The Stronger, Safer Sports screening of Concussion starts at 5 p.m. on Monday, December 21. For more information about the event, visit the Nick Lowery Foundation website.