AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
For football fans, it's an exciting time of year - college bowl games in full swing, the NFL heading for the playoffs. All eyes are on the field. And this year, many will be on movie screens, too. The new film "Concussion" brings a broader awareness to the issue of head trauma in football, even for those who play the game. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: I have tickets for "Concussion" at 7:45.
My movie date, in Grapevine, Texas, actually was with three people - Donovan Lee, a sophomore running back at the University of Colorado, his mom Angela and his younger brother, Dymond Lee, a high school senior quarterback and wide receiver whose career has been a veritable highlight reel.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here on fourth down - huge play, Kai to the end zone. The pass is caught for the touchdown by Dymond Lee.
GOLDMAN: Nineteen-year-old Lee goes to Chaminade College Prep in Los Angeles. On this night in Texas, where he was visiting his mom for the holidays, Lee sat in a theater getting another kind of education. "Concussion" is the story of Nigerian-born pathologist, Bennet Omalu. He was the first person to publish research on the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a disease linked to football head trauma. In this scene from the movie, a character warns Omalu his research puts the future of the game in peril.
(SOUNDBITE FROM THE FILM "CONCUSSION")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Do you understand the impact of what you are doing? If just 10 percent of the mothers in America decide that football is too dangerous for their sons to play, that is it. It is the end of football.
GOLDMAN: Did you know about Bennet Omalu before tonight?
DYMOND LEE: Not at all. I had no idea any of that was happening.
GOLDMAN: We are now back at their mother's apartment after the film. For all three, not just Dymond, the story of Omalu and CTE was a revelation, even though they are football lifers. The boys have played tackle since they were 6 and 7 years old. And Angela has been there every step of the way, driving to and from practices and games, cheering and watching - kind of.
ANGELA LEE: When they were younger, I watched them. But high school on up into college, I have a hard time. And I was sharing with my son that I look across the field as though I'm looking at the field just so that, you know, I'm there, I can hear it.
A. LEE: I don't mind hearing it...
DONOVAN LEE: (Unintelligible).
A. LEE: ...But looking at it is a different monster for me.
GOLDMAN: Still, she never said no to football because she says the boys love it so much. But she worries, quietly. "Concussion," she says, made her reflect on her sons playing football and what could possibly happen. The film includes the story of Mike Webster. He was the Hall-of-Fame NFL player who died at 50, racked by dementia and self-destructive behavior. Omalu first found CTE in Webster's brain. Dymond Lee says he actually developed a headache watching Webster's agony.
LEE: Imagine living through that every day and not being able to just take a moment to breathe, not being able to just take a pill every day and it goes away, not being able to just live life and understand who he even was.
GOLDMAN: I asked Dymond Lee if he thought that could be him someday. Yes, he says. He thinks he's had concussions, although none has been diagnosed. And football for Lee is about to get more demanding. He signed with UCLA to play quarterback.
LEE: Speed is faster and the people are bigger. So, I mean, that impact is going to have a lot more g-force, as they were saying in the movie. So, I mean, having to protect myself is definitely a thought that's on my mind, but it's something that I can't play with.
GOLDMAN: On the other hand, Dymond and his brother think the story of Webster and the other players who suffer in the movie is more past tense than present and future. The Lees are playing football in an era of much greater awareness about head injury. Dymond's high school practices had less contact, as mandated now by California law. And he says there's more talk today about players personal responsibility.
LEE: We're the makers of our destinies, so we have to take the right steps to prevent injuring ourselves. And we've done a lot more in the training room with our trainers and stuff, just going over concussion protocol. Whenever we get hit and we look a little dazed, the trainer will come over and make sure we take the right steps in order to get back in the game or to pull us out if we need to.
GOLDMAN: Reduced contact and proper tackling techniques are an important part of Donovan Lee's college training as well, although he acknowledges the contradiction endures when it comes to safety in football.
LEE: I mean, I've always been taught to like, you don't come off the field unless you have to be dragged off the field.
GOLDMAN: The NFL gets blasted in the movie for its alleged cover-up of a concussion crisis. The league has been under fire for several years. Aware of the hypersensitivity to concussions, it has responded with reforms and rule changes. Both Dymond and Donovan Lee believe the game will continue to evolve even while they play. And while they do, Angela will keep going to games. She'll be the one in the stands not watching her boys. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.