Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas*****

concussionYou don’t have to enjoy football to appreciate Concussion, the riveting new biography of Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian neurological pathologist that discovered CTE, a type of permanent brain damage caused by repetitive concussions, such as that experienced by football players. Not only the content, but the engaging voice with which it is told, make it worth everyone’s while. I was fortunate enough to read it free, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, but when it comes out Tuesday, November 24, I recommend you get a copy for yourself. It’s information everyone really ought to have, especially those that play American football, or have family members that do.

As for me, several years ago the middle school where I taught was rocked by the news that a young man we had taught had been killed on the football field while playing for the high school next door to us. DeShawn had died in a way the Seattle Times assured its readers was unheard of, a terrible tragedy with little explanation other than that of the coroner, who said he died of a traumatic brain injury. Our in-house football coach, whose frustrated students were stuck playing the “dumb”, safe version known as flag football, opined that maybe DeShawn hadn’t burped his helmet. One of DeShawn’s team members, a friend of my son’s and a frequent guest at our home, considered that DeShawn hadn’t “kept his head down like Coach said”. But the fact is, he was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. Dead at 16.

So I was interested indeed to read about the discovery made by Omalu, the pathologist that by coincidence was in charge of the autopsy of Iron Mike Webster, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But I was equally interested in Omalu’s own story, a man of great enthusiasm and character, a faithful Catholic who used “Gee!” and “Gosh!” with youthful vigor as he uncovered one discovery after another, certain, so very certain that the NFL would want his discovery announced right away so that they could modify the game and make it safer. That poor man.

Omalu left Nigeria, which some Boomers will remember as having once been Biafra, home of genocide and terrible corruption, and he could not wait to live the American dream. The USA was free and open; there were no checkpoints at any of the highways; it was the home of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Oh yes, he could shake the dust of Africa off the soles of his shoes and never look back. He had a full scholarship to the University of Washington, so although he had no idea where Seattle was, he had a ticket through the gates, and he would never live anywhere else.

Laskas uses Omalu’s own narrative in places, a wonderful thing given his buoyancy and eloquence:

Having seen this game [football] played on satellite TV on a few occasions in Africa, all I knew was the players ran into one another a whole lot and banged their heads repeatedly like guinea pigs running around…What an odd and inelegant game…If it hurts so much that you have to bubble-wrap your body, maybe you should play something different.”

But until he examined the brain of Iron Mike, the local hero who had lost his sanity following retirement, tasering himself in the hope he would be able to sleep, trying to fix his rotting teeth back into his own mouth with crazy glue, this was a side issue. His interest was in pathology, in the stories the dead had to tell.

But to Bennet, it seemed obvious enough, when the topic arose, because

“Anybody who knew anything about the anatomy of the head knew…It was a simple matter of physics. The brain floats, is suspended in a kind of thick jelly inside the skull. If you hit the head hard enough, that brain is going to move, no matter what kind of protection you put around the skull. A helmet protects the skull. A helmet can’t keep the brain from sloshing around in that skull. If you hit your head hard enough, the brain goes bashing against the walls of the skull.”

The helmet, it turns out, is more a weapon than protection for the brain.

Huh. No wonder Europe didn’t rush to join us in playing this sport.

Omalu’s story, from beginning to old age, is vividly told, and he is such a fascinating individual that you won’t want to put this story down once you’re into it. I could tell you more, but why ruin it? You really just have to read it. Order it now, or go out next week and buy a copy. You won’t be sorry!

Lou Gehrig: Pride of the Yankees, by Paul Gallico****

lougehrigThis baseball bio was written a long time ago and is now available digitally. Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for allowing me an advance glimpse in exchange for my review.

Lou Gehrig, Iron Man”, the first baseman who served alongside Babe Ruth on the Yankees’ Murderers Row in the 1920’s, was the kind of athlete you don’t read about much these days. He was born so poor that he went through New York City winters without a coat to wear to school. His parents were German immigrants who had never heard of baseball; he himself was a hard working, clean living young man who dropped out of Columbia University to play ball because his father was sick and his parents needed the money. He kept a clean mouth, was faithful to his wife, and didn’t abuse the press or his fellow athletes. The terrible disease that would be named after him killed him before he hit forty.

The biography is unusually short, just 77 pages long. Ordinarily I don’t prefer to read anything that brief, but I’ve mowed through some baseball biographies in the past year already, and I decided 77 pages was as much as I was good for on this subject. However, this was well done enough that I would have been willing to keep reading had it gone longer.

Gallico, Gehrig’s biographer, is eloquent, using what would now be considered a prosy, old-fashioned style, sentimental, and deeply affectionate. He was a legendary sportswriter himself back in the day, but quit in order to write fiction; he is also the author of The Poseidon Adventure.

Recommended to those that love baseball, or just a good biography.

Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age, by Allen Barra ***-****

mickey and willieThree stars for general interest; four stars for a niche audience. If you enjoy baseball and also like biographies, this may be a winner for you. Thank you to Crown Publishing and edelweiss for the advance reader’s copy.

As for me, I found myself wishing I had read separate biographies of each of these players before tackling one that compares the two. The first third of the book was very slow going for me, because the narrative flips from one to the other frequently, and during their growing up years I found myself becoming confused…now wait a second, which one has the horse? There was so much minutiae and I had a hard time keeping track.

That said, the story has a certain elegance. I like the fact that it breaks apart stereotypes: Willie Mays grew up in the Jim Crow south, but his family was part of the Black middle class, urban folks with a degree of sophistication. Pictures of him as a youngster show a well developed, well nourished child wearing a nice suit. Mantle, on the other hand, grew up in a very poor mining community in Oklahoma. Had baseball not permitted him to escape Commerce, Oklahoma, he would likely have had to go into the mines as well.

Mantle was diagnosed early in life with osteomyelitis, and nearly had to have his leg amputated. Though he was able to save the leg and go on to run like lightning on the field, he was booed by New York fans who were convinced he had dodged the draft. His agent and manager both spread the word that he had been declared unfit to serve because of his condition, but the fans saw the man run and, in the parlance of the time, believed his sick-leg story to be a lot of hooey.

Mays tried to avoid the draft by pointing out correctly that he had eleven dependents, but they made him serve anyway. However, he was never placed in harm’s way, and spent his tenure in the armed forces playing ball for a military team. When he returned to the professional field, he was already in shape, just as if he’d been off playing winter ball for a year or so.
This middle portion of the book is very interesting and has a photograph section that can actually be seen on an e-reader, a definite bonus. I enjoyed reading about their professional lives, and since they start far away from one another and grow gradually closer until they are together, the transitions are buttery smooth.

The end portion of the book is a let-down, although since it discusses their careers and bodies in decline, it is probably inevitable; I felt it could have done with some pruning, but those who hang onto every individual statistic will enjoy the charts and comparisons.

To me, however, trying to decide which athlete is “better” is specious. Who cares? They are both legends. They both deserve to be remembered well. There is no contest, as far as I am concerned.

Seeing how they struggled financially once they could no longer play was really a sad thing, and a good reminder of why star athletes earn every penny they make. By their late 30’s they will be deemed old men, and most of their lives will still be in front of them. Not everyone can become a coach, a manager, or an announcer. There aren’t enough of those positions, and many athletes aren’t gifted as writers, speakers, or teachers. They know what to do, but it’s muscle memory, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Barra’s research is mostly comprised of secondary sources; he has a few brief interviews, but his perpetual insistence on badgering Mays over his abstinence from the Civil Rights struggle got him cut off time after time. Mays was a reticent person, and it struck me once again that Black athletes have put up with such double standards; nobody climbs all over a Caucasian player who simply isn’t political and prefers to keep his thoughts to himself. Yet Mays hears about it all the time, and his biographer here is as bad as any of them.

I appreciated his references to what he says are the best biographies of each man individually; those are now on my to-read list. Meanwhile, I recommend this book to die-hard baseball enthusiasts who already know a little something about Mays and Mantle individually.