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Meet Bennet Omalu, the man Will Smith portrays in 'Concussion'

The pathologist who helped expose CTE in the NFL talks about meeting the superstar who played him on film and about the immigrant experience.

Will Smith isn’t the one who steals the show at the press conference for “Concussion,” the actor’s new football-themed drama. It’s Bennet Omalu, the man he played. Omalu is a pathologist from Nigeria who, while stationed in a Pittsburgh hospital, unearthed findings that many former NFL players were succumbing to CTE, a brain disease that causes dementia, even violence in its victims. The NFL was predictably reluctant to accept his research and battled him hard, almost destroying his career, and only came around in 2009.

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Despite the hardships in the past, Omalu is a force of life. Smith sits there, quietly in awe, as Omalu rattles off long speeches, which sometimes sound like inspirational political chatter, interspersed with deafening childlike giggles. Here is some of what he said:

On seeing “Concussion” for the first time
Omalu watched it with his wife, Prema (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and was initially starstruck. “I just saw Will Smith playing me,” Omalu recalls. “But as the movie went on, five to 10 minutes later, I don’t know what happened to me, but it was like a transformation. I totally lost myself in the moment. I became oblivious to my environment. I was now embedded in what I was seeing on the screen. That’s a testament to the job he did. It made me yet again proud to be part of the American family. An immigrant hungers to be part of the story called America. This is what is to be American.”

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On meeting Will Smith
Omalu says he was terrified to meet him, even as the director, Peter Landesman, was assuring him the superstar was just a normal human being. Smith watched him perform an autopsy, then they all went for lunch. Smith asked to ride in the car with Omalu, to Omalu’s shock. “I looked to see if my car wasn’t too dirty,” he remembers. He found someone who was very humble. “He was asking me very personal questions. And I was answering them with perfect sincerity. He captured me in my natural state. When we got to the restaurant we stayed in the car for 30 minutes. He stole my heart away from me, to be honest.”

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What he learned from Smith
“He told me two things,” Omalu remembers. “He said, ‘Whatever happens, don’t stop what you’re doing. This is who you are. This is what you’re best at.” The other thing Smith told him was to remain humble. “What could be more American than that? This is a story of one American family. We are one love. We are one hope. We are one spirit. We are bound together by the bond of peace. This is what this movie is about.”

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What the movie says (or doesn't) about football

“When you look at it, it’s not about football. It’s not anti-football,” Omalu claims. “In fact I think the movie is for football. Football is part of the American experience. I walked out of the movie feeling very proud I was an American. The movie simply summarizes what it is to be American. Will Smith has said it is only in America that you could have a Will Smith. And it is only in American you could have a Bennet Omalu. It’s a fact. If I had not come to this country I wouldn’t have had this opportunity. I wouldn’t have even had the education to play my little part, just like everyone else who is American and contributes their little parts. Together the impossible becomes the possible. That’s why America is the land of dreams.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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