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Head Games

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Christopher Nowinski, The Drummond Publishing Group

Page 1 of 4 | Single Page

Head Games

Chapter 1

Football’s Concussion Crisis

Here’s what terrifies me. Twelve-year-old Kyle Lippo, a seventh-grade football player from Round Lake, Illinois, during a game told his coach he had a headache and asked to sit the rest of the game out. Five minutes later, the coach asked Kyle if he wanted to go back in. Kyle said no, because his headache was getting worse. Then he started crying, saying, “It hurts really bad!”

Kyle was rushed to a local medical center, where he was loaded onto an emergency helicopter and taken to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. There, on September 27, 2003, the Boy Scout, trombone player, and student council representative died from head trauma.

A few weeks later, Osten Gill, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Rushford, New York, collapsed on the team bus as it was returning from a junior varsity football game. He had complained of dizziness and nausea after being hit during the game, and had vomited on the sidelines and on the bus. Osten died at a hospital several hours later.

Then in November of 2003, 17-year-old safety Edward Gomez drilled a wide receiver coming across the middle on fourth down, forcing a dropped pass. Gomez popped up, was congratulated by his teammates, and headed to the sideline. Moments later he lost consciousness and collapsed. He died days later.

Unlucky teenagers with isolated head injuries, you might say. After all, it is true that the number of deaths in youth football and youth sports in general caused by head injuries seems low, but I soon learned that death isn’t the only worry associated with brain trauma. I played football for Harvard, and I recently attended a black-tie dinner celebrating the 100th anniversary of Harvard Stadium—the nation’s oldest football stadium. Among the famous people at the event was former Chicago Bear great Dan Jiggetts, Harvard class of 1976. Every Chicago sports fan knows Dan from his playing days and broadcasting career, and, since he and I lived within a few miles of each other while I was growing up, he had taken an interest in my career. We chatted that night, and he asked how my wrestling career was going (it was 2003, and I was working for Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment—the WWE). When I told him that I had been sidelined with post-concussion syndrome, he became very serious. He told me, “You don’t want to mess with that. The players of my generation are all worried about the links they’ve found with Alzheimer’s disease.” This was the first I’d heard of that supposed link. I lost my appetite.

The more I looked into my concussion problem, the more I realized that I had never heard of any of the true dangers posed by head injuries. Nor had the rest of the United States, it seemed. Why? Because the organization with the most money to study concussions and the biggest stage from which to spread the message at this point hasn’t shown the ability to publicize the truth about these devastating injuries. To do so might hurt not only its game, but also the youth programs that feed its league and guarantee its loyal audience. Instead of promoting the proper information on safety, it uses its bully pulpit only to protect its business interests. The organization? The National Football League.




Curiously, my study of head injuries in youth and professional sports didn’t start while I was playing football for Harvard, but while I was working for the WWE. “Holy shit, kid! You okay?” was the first thing I heard after the kick to the head that led to the end of my wrestling career. The referee, Nick Patrick, leaned in, trying to figure out if I’d survived. Moments before, Bubba Ray Dudley’s boot had met my chin with enough force to make the Hartford Civic Center explode. Or that’s what it looked like to me as I lay on my back in the middle of the ring. Something was wrong with my vision. I didn’t know where I was, what was happening around me, or why I was staring up at fuzzy-looking lights on the distant ceiling of a gigantic arena— I only knew that something was terribly wrong. I looked to the side, and saw thousands of people staring back at me. I gazed back up at Nick. I didn’t want to move. My head felt like it was in a vice.

Then, a three-hundred-pound man with a crew cut and army fatigues appeared out of the fog—ready to squash me. I braced myself for the impact. Crash! My head hurt more. Instead of rolling off of me, he hooked my leg, and the referee started counting.

“One! Two!”

Why is he counting? Oh yeah, I’m in a wrestling match. But wrestling is fake, right? I should be safe, because this stuff is scripted.

But I can’t remember the script.

“Kick out, kid!” Nick whispered to me. I jerked the militant off me before the ref reached the count of three. I felt like a panicky little kid lost in a crowd. Slowly I started to remember what was happening. I’m in a tag-team match against the Dudley Boyz, my partner Rodney Mack is in my corner with our manager Theodore Long . . . But, before this crowd of thousands of pumped-up WWE fans, I still couldn’t answer the most important question: What comes next? I know I have to do something, but what?




I was able to finish the match against the Dudleys (I lost), and I stumbled backstage, lay down on the cold cement floor, and tried to compose myself. I was coherent and aware of my surroundings, but I couldn’t get past an odd, throbbing headache. After a half-hour or so, as the headache faded, I became concerned about performing in the show the next night. The doctor the WWE had hired for the night said, “You might have a concussion. Let’s see how you feel when you get to the arena tomorrow.”

I arrived at the Pepsi Center in Albany, New York, at about 5 P.M. the next day. I felt strange, but I wasn’t in “pain.” Feeling strange didn’t meet my criteria to take the night off, so I told the doctor I felt fine, and started to get ready for my “tables match” with the Dudley Boyz. If you’ve watched wrestling, you know that for this type of match to end, somebody has to go through a table. Guess who that was going to be? That’s right, me.

This excerpt is provided as a courtesy to BrainLine by The Drummond Publishing Group. Any commercial or noncommercial duplication, including in electronic form, is strictly prohibited by the publisher and by applicable law. www.chrisnowinski.com.

See BrainLine's exclusive interview with Chris Nowinski.

Christopher NowinskiChristopher Nowinski, Chris Nowinski is a co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine and the co-founder and CEO of the Sports Legacy Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to solve the sports concussion crisis.

The contents of Brainline (the “Web Site”), such as text, graphics, images, information obtained from the Web Site’s licensors and/or consultants, and other material contained on the Web Site (collectively, the “Content”) are for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for medical, legal, or other professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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Comments [5]

just came across this and wanted to ask the author if he knew that Osten Gill died from a heart defect and not a head injury?

Feb 20th, 2013 6:26pm

I agree that football can be a highly physical sport and I feel that we should be educated as Parents, Teachers, Coaches, Players, etc on the Pros and Cons of any high level sport. Players should be evaluated top to bottom before they start playing any type of sports and as well all equipment should also be checked and double checked. I really appreciate the author mentioning my son and other families who have had to endure the loss of a child and also spreading the knowledge that we all should take a part in educating each other in hopes that no other families will have to live through this tragedy.

Mar 28th, 2012 3:00pm

The best course of action I have heard of is getting rid of the padding in football. That decreases that feeling of invulnerability and would decrease the chances that players would hit with the force to cause serious damage. Some people argue that it would make football too much like rugby, but I like to point out that that is how football was 60 years ago.

Jan 20th, 2010 2:45pm

i like your story and i sufferd a hematoma and will proble never be able to play football again. i want to help design a cuncussion helmet and help prevent them

Dec 17th, 2009 2:48pm

Many thanks to this author for so eloquently laying out the facts about football as a serious community health problem and expense, on both personal and public levels. What should we do? Channel public support for school athletic programs toward other sports and activities that do not involve obvious risk of death and disability that is inherent in football. Partial measures, like law just passed in Washington state that requires a doctor's examination after a kid is already showing signs of concussion, only make things worse by giving false security that the status quo can continue and there are ways to control the health risks. These laws benefit no one except doctors, lawyers and politicians who personally profit from allowing football injuries to continue.

Aug 11th, 2009 11:06am

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