WHEELING – When football legend “Iron” Mike Webster came to Wheeling attorney Bob Fitzsimmons for help, it only took him a few minutes to realize he had memory losses and brain damage.
Fitzsimmons said it was in 1997 when Webster called and asked if he was willing to represent him in a lawsuit against the National Football League’s pension board for total disability benefits.
“Within 5-10 minutes, I noticed his mental lapses and memory losses,” Fitzsimmons said. “It took me 1.5 years to get his medical records together for the lawsuit.”
Fitzsimmons said it took so long because Webster could not remember doctors he had seen or even what cities he had been in.
Fitzsimmons got four local doctors to review his records and see Webster and in 1998, he filed the lawsuit against the NFL’s pension board.
On May 8, 2000, the pension board awarded total disability to Webster.
Webster died on September 24, 2002, and Fitzsimmons was called by the family to come to Pittsburgh, and he was at the hospital when Webster was pronounced dead.
“A few weeks after his passing, I received a call from a doctor that I had never met named Dr. Bennet Omalu,” Fitzsimmons said. “He asked if the family would allow him to do a brain autopsy, so we gave him permission and he published a paper in 2005 on his findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in American football players.”
Fitzsimmons said at that point, the NFL had a head trauma committee and they totally objected to the paper.
“The NFL realized it would cause problems now that everyone was going to know about it,” Fitzsimmons said.
The NFL did not publically acknowledge the link between concussions sustained in football and CTE until 2009.
Fitzsimmons, Omalu and Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon, later formed the Brain Injury Research Institute, establishing a brain and tissue bank.
Fitzsimmons said he hopes that continuing research does not kill football, but makes it safer.
“I hope it helps make the problems go away,” he said. “You have to know the risks of injury and then try to eliminate them”
The movie “Concussion” is based on Omalu’s study and will be released on Christmas Day. Fitzsimmons got to go to the premiere in Hollywood and sat with Omalu and met Will Smith, who plays Omalu in the film.
“It was a neat experience,” Fitzsimmons said. “The film is great and getting to go to the premiere in Hollywood was a different world. It’s Hollywood.”