Former Pro Wrestler Now Devotes Himself To Concussion Research And Education

Oct 18, 2012

Chris Nowinski’s background is a little different than most professional wrestlers. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in sociology. He fought under the moniker “Chris Harvard” in the WWE in the early 2000’s, but repeated concussions forced him into retirement.

This experience led Nowinski to write the book Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis. He then co-founded Sports Legacy Institute in 2007 with the same doctor who treated his post-concussion syndrome. Together, they research the impacts that repeated head injuries have on athletes’ brains.

The Sports Legacy Institute partners with the Boston University School of Medicine to work on researching a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that athletes get after too many blows to the head. Nowinski says CTE has been found in athletes as young at 17 years old.

“We’re working there to find a treatment for it because there’s a lot of athletes that we can no longer prevent this damage, we can only hope to fix it,” Nowinski said.

CTE is only found in people who have had trauma. Nowinski said CTE causes a transmission of brain cell destruction that continues even after an individual no longer gets hit in the head.

“It’s kind of like a rotten brain. And it takes decades to progress to dementia, if it ever does,” Nowinski said. “But that is the end stage of the disease.”

CTE cannot be diagnosed, so the Sports Legacy Institute has a bank of 130 brains from former athletes.

Nowinski says it is unknown if young athletes are at greater risk for developing CTE if they participate in contact sports at an early age. But he says that young kids run into each other with similar force as college athletes.

“There is really no age at which repetitive brain trauma is safe,” Nowinski says.

Chris Nowinski spoke at St. Francis Medical Center’s coaches clinic in Cape Girardeau on Thursday, October 18.