The Magazine May 2013 - Page 11

Mind Control

Inside the autopsy room of the San Diego County medical examiner's office, Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, carefully sliced Junior Seau's brain with a long knife. It was late morning on May 3, 2012; Seau's autopsy, which began just after 9, was nearly over. Omalu wore dark blue scrubs, rubber gloves and a clear plastic face mask as he went about his work in the cool, windowless room, picking up half of Seau's brain and placing it in a small tub filled with formaldehyde and water.

Omalu, 44, was the first researcher to identify brain damage in a former NFL player. When he published his results, in July 2005, the NFL attacked him and insisted he was wrong. His research has since been vindicated many times over, with each new discovery of the crippling neurodegenerative disease in a dead football player. Omalu arrived at Seau's autopsy with a special "brain briefcase" he carries on such occasions. His intention was to fly Seau's brain back to San Francisco that night and share it with a Nobel Prize-winning researcher who also coveted the valuable specimen.

Just then, the medical examiner's chaplain, Joe Davis, walked into the room.

"Houston, we have a problem," Davis said.

Seau's son Tyler had just called, Davis told Omalu and Craig Nelson, the deputy medical examiner.