Lessons from the Shadow Side of Football: Building the Religious Counterculture

Dr. Bennet Omalu was uninterested in football. The game had always seemed bizarre to him. Growing up in Nigeria, in his own words, “I thought these were people dressed like extraterrestrials, you know, like they were going to Mars or something … headgears and shoulder pads. And I wondered why, as a child, why did they have to dress that way?” He figured they must get hit in the head a lot if they had to wear those ridiculous helmets. But back then, no one gave it much thought.

{title}Seeing Shadows{/title} by Jeff Gomez

{title}Seeing Shadows{/title} by Jeff Gomez. Credit: Jeff Gomez {link url="http://jeff-gomez.com"}jeff-gomez.com{/link}.

In their book League of Denial: the NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for Truth, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru describe a Saturday morning in 2002 when Omalu pulled into the parking lot at a Pittsburg coroner’s office to do a routine autopsy. He was annoyed to be stuck working the weekend shift and apparently had been out clubbing the night before. As he arrived, he found the parking lot packed with news trucks, reporters, and cameras. He had to fight his way through to get inside the building.

“What’s going on?” he asked inside.

“That’s Mike Webster on the table,” they said.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

Bennet Omalu was probably the only person in all of Pittsburgh at that time who did not know who Mike Webster was. Mike Webster was the legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, considered by some to be the best center in NFL history. Five years prior he had been inducted into the Hall of Fame. He was fifty years old and he had just died of a heart attack. Everybody knew all of that—except for the man who was about to perform his autopsy. And it was this man who, from his singular vantage point outside of the culture of football, was able to change the course of history. His story illustrates the power of a countercultural vision to uproot even our most entrenched institutions.

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