Chris Nowinski wrote the 2006 book Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis and founded the non-profit Sports Legacy Institute, whose mission is to “advance the study, treatment and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups.”
National Public Radio featuered Chris Nowinski in a powerful interview yesterday that provides an in-depth recounting of how we’ve learned about the devasting impact of multiple concussions, which can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain disorder marked by the degeneration of brain tissue and a range of behavioral problems, including memory loss, impulse control, depression, and suicide.
Nowinski took on this topic because of his own experiences:
Nowinski knows [the impact of concussions] first-hand. After playing football at Harvard, he became a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment. His over-the-top personality and penchant for referencing his Ivy pedigree made him a superstar in the ring. In 2002, he was named the “Newcomer of the Year” by RAW Magazine and became the youngest male Hardcore Champion in WWE history.
But Nowicki’s wrestling career was cut short in 2003, after he suffered at least six concussions.
“[After one] I remember looking up at the ceiling and I had no idea where I was,” Nowinski tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies. “I had no idea what we were doing and I couldn’t remember what was supposed to happen next. It’s scary to be with 5,000 fans and become completely distracted.”
Nowinski started reading everything he could about head injuries. He soon realized concussions were a far bigger crisis than anyone realized. In 2006, his book Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis, helped put the concussion issue on the NFL’s radar, after he profiled several players who exhibited symptoms of neurological damage after their playing careers ended.
The interview is compelling because it is at once a detective story (involving the brains of deceased football players), a recounting of the impact of CTE (as Nowinski puts it, on memory, cognition, emotion, and mood), a portrayal of how society deals with neurological disorders (and the NFL going from denying and downplaying to now starting to address the problem), and his own personal story.
Nowinski is so articulate in explaining all these complexities that it’s just great listening. I’ve embedded the interview below.