INTERVIEW: Chris Nowinski
|As the only Harvard graduate to wrestle at the WWE, Chris Nowinski was known as "Chris Harvard." After suffering several concussions - from both wrestling and college football - he wrote a book about the effects of concussions, and helped found The Sports Legacy Institute to study them further. Here he facilitated the scientific study of former WWE wrestler Chris Benoit's brain, which led to the extraordinary discovery that Benoit's brain damage may have played a significant role in the deaths of June 2007. |
He was interviewed by fifth estate producer Morris Karp.
Watch the interview online.
Bob McKeown: Just a bit of history first. What made you take up wrestling in the first place?
Chris Nowinski: I actually wasn't allowed to watch wrestling growing up. But I did play football in high school and college and I did theatre in both. In college in my senior year we actually got cable and all my friends watched it. And I actually really enjoyed watching it.
It looked like one of the most fun jobs in the world. Everyone looked like they were having a great time doing it. And when I graduated and I was actually faced with a real job and I actually was working in a consulting firm, actually the owner of the firm brought up that maybe - what did you ever think about trying wrestling full-time? They thought I'd be good at it. And I thought it looked like a lot of fun.
So I found Killer Kowalski's wrestling school and started going to basically night wrestling school while I was working.
Bob McKeown: Was there anything - did your friends think there was something incongruous about a Harvard graduate going to Killer Kowalski's wrestling school?
Chris Nowinski: (chuckle) Yeah, I didn't really tell everybody. Some of my friends thought it was great that I was exploring that and other ones thought I was insane.
Bob McKeown: And can you describe what happened they night of your injury.
Chris Nowinski: Sure. The night of my last concussion I was working a tag team match with my partner Rodney Mac and my manager, Teddy Long against the Dudley boys. And it was a random thing where I just was going across the ring and took a boot to the chin that I thought was going to be a little further away than it was.
And it ended up basically cleaning my clock, giving me a concussion. By the time I hit the ground I actually forgot who was supposed to win the match and what we were supposed to do.
So the guys were able to kind of talk me through the end and then I went to the locker room and just lay - er not the locker room, the hallway and just laid on the floor for an hour holding my head. And I just never recovered.
I actually kept wrestling for a few weeks because I thought that that's what I was supposed to do. And it progressively got worse to the point where I couldn't even hold a conversation.
Bob McKeown: And then you turned you research skills to your acedemic skills, I guess to finding out what happened. If you can without going into too much detail, give me the thesis of your book.
Chris Nowinski: I went from doctor to doctor and couldn't get answers to why I wasn't recovering from my last concussion. So I'd been a medical consultant prior to getting into wrestling.
So I basically started going to the Harvard Library and reading everything ever published about concussions. And what I found out - what I found out is that no one had been telling any athletes that there's a lot of evidence to indicate there's long term problems that come from concussions and also that if you rest the ones you get you'll be a lot better off.
Now you know, I even found out I didn't know what a concussion was. You know, I called them dings and bell ringers when I'd black out in the ring or I'd see, you know, the sky actually go orange on me, the ceiling. And I just always thought those were normal things.
So I wrote the book Head Games to basically take that information and give it to athletes. Because it was out there in the medical literature but no one was telling the athletes how they needed to protect their brains so they wouldn't end up in a bad place.
Bob McKeown: I guess you mean revolutionized in the sense that people are now aware of it.
Chris Nowinski: People are now ---
Bob McKeown: But there's not been a great deal of formal response by the professional sports organizations has there?
Chris Nowinski: Well the NFL fought us tooth and nail for the first six months. And then they finally started changing their concussion protocol. Forcing people to have - every team had a mandatory baseline testing and you know, if you're knocked unconscious you can't go back in the same game. They were letting people do that even though people had been advising against it for 30 years in the medical literature.
You know, even advised - the referees started throwing out guys for intentional helmet to helmet hits. So after fighting us and realizing they couldn't win, they started changing things for the better, for the athletes. Some other groups have not.
Bob McKeown: How would you? What is the importance of the Chris Benoit case in this continuum.
Chris Nowinski: Well, I mean the Chris Benoit case tells us a number of different things. Two of the major ones are that chronic traumatic encephalopathy exists outside of football and outside of boxing.
We've known it existed in boxing for a long time. The cases that Dr. Malu and I and others have worked on showed it in football. To actually have one in wrestling shows that this doesn't really have to do with the sport necessarily. It has to do with the trauma being sustained.
And then the second side, you know, we'd always - there had been very few quiet conversations, especially during the third and fourth case, of what could actually happen when you have guys who suffered a decade or two decades of trauma to their brain. You know, we know they're committing suicide. In Justin ... case we know they're doing some very dangerous things.
You know, we talked about worst case scenarios and then this is it. I mean this is - the fact a guy could kill his family I think shows just why we need to pay more attention to this. Because we can't - there are guys out there basically walking the streets with - that have had lots of brain damage that we need to both help them and help their families.
Bob McKeown: This is the first time. Aside that someone has said it those terms. It really is that isn't it? This poses the notion that you not only endanger yourself but you potentially are homicidal.
Chris Nowinski: Yeah. And it's interesting in terms of the big picture. You know, it's known that Alzheimer's patients become violent, more likely to be violent than other regular people that age.
And you understand why it makes sense and actually, you know, I know one of the people on the sports ... board of directors. Her husband was a former NFL player and it took her a long time to find a home that would take him with his Alzheimer's disease because he was a big lineman and they couldn't protect - the workers couldn't protect themselves - if he became violent even though he was in his sixties.
So we kind of - I'm losing my train of thought here. In terms of - sorry, in terms of the violence.
What we have is that Alzheimer's, the Alzheimer's patients are all in their 70s and 80s and they're not very strong. But when we're talking about patients that are becoming more violent and losing control but they're somewhat in the peak of their health in their 30s and 40s, that's a very different story and much more dangerous to the people around them.
Bob McKeown: Do you find yourself doing that more often than prior to your injury, saying I've lost my train of thought.?
Chris Nowinski: Yeah, yeah, I do. I do lose my train of thought more than I think I had previously.
Bob McKeown: Anything else?
Chris Nowinski: These days? I've been basically dedicating the last few weeks or months to trying to straighten my own issues out. My headaches are getting actually worse. They actually were better in the summer and I thought I was getting over the 4 and a half years of headaches. And now they're getting worse again and it's really - I can't work a full week anymore. I'm losing entire days. It's not good. You know, it's far too much - ridiculousness to deal with at 29.