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NFL brain injuries taking lead role in Smith film to be shot in Pittsburgh

| Monday, July 7, 2014, 11:00 p.m.
Dr. Bennet Omalu at his home in Wilkinsburg, Thursday, January 18, 2007.

Steelers center Mike Webster dominated his position like few before him, winning four Super Bowls and earning a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A big-budget movie set to film in Pittsburgh will focus on what happened at the end of his life and after and stands to renew focus on players' brain injuries.

Sony Pictures in coming weeks will begin work in the Steel City on “Game Brain,” based on a 2009 GQ article that examined how the NFL attempted to discredit then-Allegheny County forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu. Dr. Omalu discovered evidence linking football-related brain injuries to dementia while examining Webster after his 2002 death.

“We are thrilled to welcome Sony Pictures to Southwest Pennsylvania,” said Dawn Keezer, director of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Film Office.

Academy Award-nominated actor Will Smith reportedly will portray Omalu in the film. Sony representatives did not acknowledge Smith's attachment to the film, which Variety reported in early June.

While working at the county coroner's office, Omalu studied Webster's brain for weeks after his death in September 2002 and chronicled his findings in the medical journal, “Neurosurgery.”

Instead of heralding him for discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease known as CTE, the National Football League rebuked Omalu, whose findings eventually grew to include more than a dozen players, including former Steelers Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long.

An NFL spokesman said the film's makers had not contacted the league, and declined to comment. The Trib could not reach a Steelers spokesman.

Omalu did not return messages. He is chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, Calif., and a professor at UC-Davis.

The Pennsylvania Film Office told the Tribune-Review that the state awarded “Game Brain” $14.4 million in film tax credits. A portion of the money came from credits originally awarded to “Brilliance,” a Legendary Pictures science-fiction thriller that planned to film in Pittsburgh this summer with Smith as its star.

Legendary is headed by Steelers minority partner Thomas Tull. His production company recently announced it would postpone filming “Brilliance” until spring to find someone to replace Smith, who backed out of the lead role in May.

The start of the state's fiscal year on July 1 makes more money available for film tax credits. The state caps the incentive program at $60 million annually.

“We are on track to have one of our busiest film years ever,” Keezer said.

“Game Brain,” produced by Ridley Scott, Giannina Facio, David Wolthoff and Larry Shuman, will be directed by Peter Landesman, Sony said.

When news broke last month about Smith's involvement in the movie, Omalu issued a statement saying he is “humbled that my hard work and contribution to the advancement of science is being recognized.”

The GQ article by Jeanne Marie Laskas focused on the NFL's stance on Omalu's examination of Webster's brain and his subsequent reports as well as his partnership with West Virginia University neurosurgeon Julian E. Bailes, a former Steelers team doctor, and Wheeling, W.Va., personal-injury attorney Robert Fitzsimmons, who befriended and represented Webster.

Fitzsimmons joked that he hoped filmmakers pick someone good-looking to portray him.

“I told them I wanted Paul Newman,” said Fitzsimmons, 62. “I didn't even know Paul Newman was dead.”

Omalu is the story, Fitzsimmons said, and he endured a lot after publishing his findings.

“The NFL was adamant in trying to fight this and deny the science,” he said.

It was clear from his first meeting with Webster in the late 1990s that the former player had cognitive problems, Fitzsimmons said. “And from the history, I immediately thought it was football related,” he said.

CTE, definitively revealed by brain examination upon death, sometimes is found in athletes who experience repeated blows to the head. The disease is marked by problems with impulse control, headaches, slurred speech, memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia.

Many such characteristics plagued Webster during his final years of life.

Webster played 17 seasons in the NFL, from 1974 to 1990. He died on Sept. 24, 2002, at age 50.

Despite reports from doctors who determined Webster had a closed-head football injury, the NFL fought disability claims — even after Fitzsimmons said the league's pension board in 1998 ruled that Webster suffered football-related injuries that led to permanent brain damage.

A federal judge in 2005 sided with Webster's family and awarded $1.18 million in disability benefits dating to the day he retired.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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