January 15, 2022 11:20:15 am
He struggles through the days, and at nights, Christopher Nowinski is faced with the fear of going to sleep. Often he is jarred awake, “acting out” his dreams, chasing shadows or thinking he’s choking to death. Once he stood on his bed, jumped off and crashed through a nightstand. It all began with a kick to the head, 20 years ago.
Tailormade for pro-wrestling superstardom, the 6’5, 270 pounds, blonde, blue-eyed Harvard graduate — who had led the college football team to championships as a defensive tackle — signed with the WWE in 2001. Two years later came a series of concussions that he can partly remember. From wrestlers landing on his face, smashing his nose and kicking him so hard that he blacked out for six seconds. He continued wrestling, suffering from severe migraines. Depression made it worse.
“I developed the post-concussion syndrome, I now realise, from two consecutive concussions over six weeks plus continuing to wrestle for five more weeks after the second concussion,” Nowinski, 43, tells The Sunday Express. “And I gave myself long-term symptoms.”
While waiting a year for his head to clear so he could return to the ring, Nowinski looked into head trauma and “realised that everything I thought I understood about concussions was wrong.” Nowinski could never make a comeback and realised the lack of awareness among sportspersons, coaches, and medical professionals not just cut his career short, but also threatened the well-being of athletes of all ages.
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“And so I thought I would take a shot at trying to educate my colleagues and change the culture for more people following in my footsteps.”
Since then, he has changed the discourse around concussion and head trauma in sport.
Nowinski’s passion for academics and firsthand experience as a wrestler helped shape his crusade against concussion.
In 2007, alongside Dr. Robert Cantu, Nowinski founded the nonprofit Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), to work toward a solution to the concussion crisis in sports “through education, policy, and research.” The task is two-fold: To educate coaches, parents and athletes and to help facilitate research to pin down the long-term effects.
“It started with building a brain bank in collaboration with the Boston University, and it’s now nearly at 1,200 brains. That has allowed us to show people images of brain damage so they understand that the lives impacted by CTE or concussions can be catastrophically affected,” he says. “We now have partner brain banks in five countries and we’re building a global brain bank network, so that we can recruit the world’s top researchers to this battle and prove that this disease exists in other countries.”
In 13 years, CLF has partnered with 22 organisations like USA Rugby, USA Hockey, and WWE. Educational programs include sessions with coaches and teammates to identity concussions among players, as well as with broadcasters to better talk about concussion-related issues for the general audience. There are also programs for family members to learn how to live with and take care of a patient.
“When I was injured almost 20 years ago, it was a period in which we were not doing concussion seriously. Athletes who were not unconscious were expected to continue playing,” Nowinski says. “We accepted that boxers got punch-drunk in the 1920s. And then we created an alternate universe in which we assumed that other athletes who were repetitively hit not get CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy). And now we’ve proven that was wrong.”
Professional boxer Micky Ward, portrayed by Academy Award-winning actor Christian Bale in The Fighter, has pledged his brain to Nowinski’s research. “He’s a great guy, a sports guy, played football at Harvard, he’s a smart kid, he loves sport and he cares about people,” Ward said in a recent interview. Racing star Dale Earnhardt Jr, women’s football legend Brandi Chastain are among others.
But most supportive of Nowinski’s endeavours have been his former colleagues and employers.
“Wrestling for the WWE wasn’t exactly my dream growing up, mainly because of my mother,” Nowinski writes in his 2006 book ‘Head Games’. “She didn’t allow me to watch wrestling because she thought that just watching it could cause brain damage. Oh, the irony.”
Nowinski got hooked thanks to his college roommates.
“I thought it was the most fascinating form of entertainment. So physically and mentally challenging for the performers,” says Nowinski. “I have done some theatre and I’ve done sports, and it depicts so much fun. And so after college, I got a consulting job, the job that I was supposed to get. And I thought I would try to do something fun before I settled down and got a real job.”
During his three-year run, Nowinski shared the ring with the likes of The Undertaker and was on WWE’s first tour of India in 2002. The name came easy: Chris Harvard, cementing his status as a perennial bad guy, dripping with Ivy League arrogance, in front of a largely-blue collar audience. “Not a ton of sympathy for Harvard grads in the real world,” he laughs.
He also had garbage cans and steel chairs fold in half over his head, gaining street cred in the eyes of the fans and becoming the youngest Hardcore Champion of the promotion.
By 2007, Nowinski had retired and began his journey into brain damage research when WWE wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife, seven-year-old son, and himself. Nowinski contacted Benoit’s father to obtain permission to study the wrestler’s brain. CLF co-founder Dr. Cantu assessed that by the time the 40-year-old Benoit killed himself, he had the brain of a man aged 80 or older with “very severe” Alzheimer’s disease.
In June 2019, after former WWE performer Ashley Massaro died ten days before her 40th birthday, her lawyer announced that she wanted her brain donated to CTE research. Massaro had earlier blamed wrestling injuries for her depression.
Last September, 46-year-old former professional wrestler Daffney Unger spoke about her concerns about CTE and repeated concussions in the ring in an alarming Instagram video. “The most important thing to remember is that, CTE, and head injuries and concussions, can only really be diagnosed after you are dead,” Unger said in the video. “So, I don’t want to do anything to hurt my brain. I want to be studied,” she continued. “I want the future generations to know. Don’t do stupid s**t like me.” She was found dead the day after. USA Today reported both Massaro and Unger’s deaths were suicides.
“Daffney’s end was very tragic,” says Nowinski. “She had a very serious concussion that ended her career and there’s a well-known correlation between just having a single concussion and two or three times greater risk for suicide in your life. Especially for those with chronic symptoms which she did. And then with CTE, we are actively trying to understand how it may affect suicide risk. That research is ongoing.”
In a bid to help the research and spread awareness, several famous former wrestlers have pledged to donate their brains. Booker T, Kevin Nash, Rob Van Dam, Lance Storm, Mick Foley and Jeff Hardy, who announced his decision to Ring Rust Radio: “I’ve rung my bells so many times especially back in the day when chair shots to the head were legal. My goodness, I took so many of those.”
“A lot of my heroes and contemporaries have signed up to pledge their brains and they’ve been part of awareness efforts. It’s really heartwarming to see the support from the wrestling community.”
WWE, too, implemented a concussion protocol in 2008 and has ramped it up in recent years. According to the guidelines, if a performer shows symptoms or has suffered a concussion, they will not be cleared for a return till they pass “an ImPACT test” and are cleared clinically by a certified physician. The promotion also funds CTE research at Nowinski’s institute.
“I’m very lucky to be invited by WWE, every year since 2012, for talking to the wrestlers about concussions and CTE so that they can make more informed choices,” says Nowinski, who also serves as an advisor to other wrestling promotions such as NWA, Ring of Honor and All Elite Wrestling. “All of them now have a completely up to date awareness of risks of concussions, CTE, and have medical protocols in place to minimise threats. Wrestling has come a long way.”
The hit that cut his career short left him with life-long consequences.
“My sleep has never returned to normal. It’s called Rapid Eye Movement (REM) behaviour disorder. When you’re dreaming, your body’s supposed to be paralysed so that you don’t act out your dreams. I do,” says Nowinski. “I still take medication to help prevent headaches. It also helps with cognition. I’ve never been able to get off medication because the headaches come back.”
But he realises that the injuries also pushed him on a path.
“It’s been a very long, very difficult journey,” he says. “I am still functional and glad that I had the experiences, the injuries to really appreciate what was happening.”
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