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Head to Head with Christopher Nowinski

Victoria Tilney McDonough, BrainLine

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Christopher Nowinski is not your average Harvard graduate. In 2000, newly sprung into the world of jobs and adult responsibilities, he traded the three-piece suit and briefcase for a pair of spandex shorts that sported an emphatic letter “H” across the backside.

Wrestling 101

The summer before his senior year, Chris, a defensive tackle on the Harvard football team, roomed with a couple of his teammates. Because there was only one television in the apartment, he was forced to watch what his roommates were watching: professional wrestling. “I thought I would hate it, but I fell in love with it,” says Chris. “I loved the theatre of it, and the athletic free form.” For Chris, professional wrestling was like the commedia dell’arte of sports; each match ran the gamut of emotions from funny to incredibly intense. “You never saw the same thing twice and when you looked in the eyes of the wrestlers, you could tell they absolutely loved what they did.”

Chris became the first Ivy League graduate to turn professional wrestler and headline for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).

A natural athlete, Nowsinski immediately loved the mental and physical challenges that came with wrestling. “You had to create a character and then tell a story in each match. There were good guys and bad guys, and the arc of a story with a beginning, middle, and end,” he says. “And as for the physical part, wrestling was harder than anything I had ever done; I was in the best shape of my life.”

Go Crimson

At Harvard, the 6’5” Chris, had weighed in at a staggering 300 lbs. In the ring, at a leaner 255 lbs., he would transform into his persona, Chris Harvard, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Ivy Leaguer who mocked his rivals with big words and elitist arrogance then pounded them with spectacular moves and athletic prowess. All the while, the Chris Harvard signature music played — a pugnacious, I’m-better-than-you-are version of the Harvard Fight Song.

Chris Harvard soon became a staple in the wrestling world. His signature move, the “honor roll,” a double underhook suplex (picture getting lifted and spun onto your back as you bend over to pick up a quarter) became well known as he moved through the wrestling circuit. Chris starred in the hit reality show “Tough Enough”; he become a regular on WWE’s Monday Night RAW — seen by five-million fans a week; and he performed in sold-out pay-per-view matches at 20,000-seat arenas like Madison Square Garden.

He and his “rivals” would choreograph parts of each match — discussing how the story would unfold and through what sequence of outrageous events and physical antics it would play out. Other parts were improvised. They might leap from the ropes above, slamming down onto each other, or get hit over the head with a chair. The more drama between the wresters, the more manic adrenaline would rush through the crowd. Although many of the moves are pre-planned, they are not without pain. “These moves cause pain, they just aren’t as bad as they look,” Chris explains. “It’s a pain you can handle, if you’re so inclined. The key to making it hurt less is to hit a flat surface. And with something like a chair or a table, you try to move your body in the direction the object is moving once it’s made contact, rather than resisting it.”

No pain, no gain

Like athletes in most other contact sports, wrestlers don’t complain. They don’t sit out, miss a match, or admit an injury. Rather they get back on the field or in the ring and give the crowd the show it came to see. That is the culture in professional sports, and also, increasingly, in youth sports. This, unfortunately, comes at a great cost.

Chris only remembers having six concussions: two in football, four in wrestling. He imagines there were probably more. Any symptoms he’d had were bearable enough that he could cope with them — or deny them — while still playing or performing. Then he was hit again in June 2003. He was in a tag-team match with the Dudleyz. He got a bit too close to a kick and took it hard on the chin. By the time he hit the ground, he had forgotten where he was or what he was doing. But he kept on; the two Dudleyz feeding him the moves. He stayed in the ring for three more minutes. Then he performed the next night, and the next; he didn’t want to let down his teammates and fans.

Soon his headaches got worse, he couldn’t sleep, and his mental fog thickened. It got so bad that he could barely remember anything from minute to minute; his short-term memory seemed to have evaporated. He was tired and depressed, and even after time off from wrestling, he wasn’t getting any better.

Puzzling for answers

Chris went to see many doctors, missing countless appointments until he learned to write things down. Finally, he met Dr. Robert Cantu, chief of Neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts, and co-director of the Neurological Sports Center at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Dr. Cantu basically turned a light on for me,” says Chris. “I learned that no one was talking about the long-term problems that result from a concussion, or repeat concussions.” In an effort to find out what was going on inside his head, Chris started researching the cumulative effect of concussions.

In the past few years, Chris has talked to hundreds of athletes of all ages — both active and retired, their families, and countless medical experts. His work has culminated in a book, Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis, as well as the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), a not-for-profit he founded with Dr. Cantu, dedicated to studying the effects of concussions and other sports-related brain injuries. The organization is working to maximize the safety and vitality of all athletes who participate in contact and collision sports worldwide.

BrainLIne, 2008. To comment or to share your story, contact Victoria Tilney McDonough at vmcdonough@weta.org.


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.


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