A noted neurologist, Alzheimer’s disease researcher and former vice president and dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Steven DeKosky '68 was portrayed in the 2015 film Concussion. His discovery with Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) that Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall of Fame lineman Mike Webster sustained significant brain damage has led to significant changes in the NFL’s rules on player safety. As interim executive director of the McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida, he still works to make the game safer.
By Alexander Diegel
Q: How did it feel to be portrayed on the big screen?
A: I’ve received [a lot of] ribbing, because I’m about 6'2", and Eddie Marsan [who plays DeKosky in Concussion] is a relatively short fellow. I was hoping for Tom Selleck. It’s a weird thing to see yourself [depicted] on camera.
Q: As a football and sports fan who knows what blows to the head can do to the brain, do you undergo an internal struggle when watching high-impact sports?
A: I do. But there are a lot of people who play football and are cognitively fine in their 70s. We don’t know how frequently it emerges in people or why [in] some but not others. We are studying it now. I learned to box when I was at Bucknell. When they call it the Sweet Science, I agree with that. As much as I appreciate the beauty of boxing, I don’t like it, and I won’t watch it. I would not object if boxing were outlawed, because the singular purpose of it is to hurt the head — to score a knockout.
Q: As the film illustrated, your research showed that the neurofibrillary tangles in Webster’s and other football players’ brains looked like dementia pugilistica, a cognitive disorder that had already been accepted as a risk for boxers. Was the revolutionary aspect of the research the fact the impairment was now seen directly in football players?
A: You got it. When we looked at the slides, we figured it was dementia pugilistica. The reason it was justifiable for Bennet to pick a new name was that dementia pugilistica implies [a fighter] from the name. But this wasn’t just happening in boxers. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is more of the generic name. You could [call it] CTE due to boxing, therefore dementia pugilistica; CTE dementia footballistica didn’t have the right ring.
Q: Late in a big game this winter the Steelers’ star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, took himself out due to the fear that he’d sustained a concussion. It was later revealed he had one. Do you think that was a big step for the NFL — to see a big name like that, one synonymous with toughness — take himself out of a game for his own safety?
A: If he took himself out for safety, I admire him even more. When I was his age I felt I was absolutely invulnerable. If he took himself out because he was concerned about his safety or he recognized that something was wrong and his passes were not doing well, or both, I think that’s a huge step.
Q: You now work at the University of Florida, a football powerhouse. Are you helping the university make the game safer?
A: There’s a concussion group that comprises a team of physicians, physical therapists, rehabilitation specialists [and] a couple of neurologists. So we’re getting more involved with the team. I was very impressed with the seriousness with which they took the head-injury work, and Coach Mac [Jim McElwain] and the University Athletic Association were willing to support it. This is how the college ranks can help and pass that information on down to high-school and junior-high-school coaches.