Hersey grad tackles brain trauma research

  • Chris Nowinski, an Arlington Heights native, former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, is now president of the Sports Legacy Institute, which has an office at the Boston University Medical Center in Boston.

    Chris Nowinski, an Arlington Heights native, former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler, is now president of the Sports Legacy Institute, which has an office at the Boston University Medical Center in Boston. Associated Press

  • Former NFL football player Kyle Turley, right, and Chris Nowinski, president of the Sports Legacy Institute, left, appear during a House Judiciary Committee hearing entitled "Legal Issues Relating to Football Head Injuries, Part II" in Detroit on Jan. 4, 2010.

    Former NFL football player Kyle Turley, right, and Chris Nowinski, president of the Sports Legacy Institute, left, appear during a House Judiciary Committee hearing entitled "Legal Issues Relating to Football Head Injuries, Part II" in Detroit on Jan. 4, 2010. Associated Press

  • Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute appears during a House Judiciary Committee hearing entitled in Detroit last year.

    Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute appears during a House Judiciary Committee hearing entitled in Detroit last year. Associated Press

  • Former NFL football player Kyle Turley speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on "Football Head Injuries" as Chris Nowinski, left, listens. Nowinski, who played football and basketball at Hersey High School, quit pro wrestling after suffering several concussions and now heads up the Sports Legacy Institute.

    Former NFL football player Kyle Turley speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on "Football Head Injuries" as Chris Nowinski, left, listens. Nowinski, who played football and basketball at Hersey High School, quit pro wrestling after suffering several concussions and now heads up the Sports Legacy Institute. Associated Press

  • Chris Nowinski's Sports Legacy Institute now has 74 brains in its research bank. A former defensive tackle at Harvard, he recommend athletes not play football until high school.

    Chris Nowinski's Sports Legacy Institute now has 74 brains in its research bank. A former defensive tackle at Harvard, he recommend athletes not play football until high school. Associated Press

  • Chris Nowinski played football and basketball at Hersey High School before graduating in 1996 and heading to Harvard to play football.

    Chris Nowinski played football and basketball at Hersey High School before graduating in 1996 and heading to Harvard to play football. File photo

  • Hersey High School and Harvard college grad Chris Nowinski was known as Chris Harvard when he wrestled in the WWE. After developing complications from a concussion, he ended his pro wrestling career.

    Hersey High School and Harvard college grad Chris Nowinski was known as Chris Harvard when he wrestled in the WWE. After developing complications from a concussion, he ended his pro wrestling career. Photo courtesy World Wrestling Entertainment/2003

  • Known as Chris Harvard after playing college football at Harvard, Chris Nowinski climbed the ranks of WWE before a concussion ended his pro wrestling career. The former Hersey grad is president of the Sports Legacy Institute.

    Known as Chris Harvard after playing college football at Harvard, Chris Nowinski climbed the ranks of WWE before a concussion ended his pro wrestling career. The former Hersey grad is president of the Sports Legacy Institute. Photo courtesy World Wrestling Entertainment/2002

 
 
Updated 5/16/2011 6:29 PM

When Chris Nowinski flies in from Boston to conduct speaking engagements in the suburbs, he always stays at his boyhood home in Arlington Heights.

He always tries to get together with Hersey High School classmate Michael White, with whom he started on the Huskies' basketball team that went downstate in 1995.

 

The 32-year-old Nowinski always tries to eat Lou Malnati's pizza on his visits. He always sleeps in his childhood bedroom, which looks amazingly similar to the way it did in 1996 when he left home to attend Harvard.

"Exactly the same," the 6-foot-5 Nowinski said with a slight chuckle. "Same single bed that's slightly tilted."

In essence, Nowinski's ritual finds him doing everything possible to turn back the clock 15 years.

If only he could do the same with his brain.

During his four years as a Harvard defensive tackle and nearly three years as a popular WWE wrestler, Nowinski endured several concussions.

While those traumas, which included post-concussion syndrome and depression, ruined his professional wrestling career, they gave life to another career that aspires to a much more grandiose goal:

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Protecting the brains of millions of children (and adults) that engage in contact sports.

"Right now, I'm having a new appreciation for what brain trauma does in children," Nowinski said. "Fifty percent of athletes report concussion-like symptoms. We only diagnose 10 percent of those."

Where does Nowinski get these numbers? Not only did he write the book "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis" in 2006, he co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute shortly thereafter.

The SLI works with the Boston University School of Medicine to study the effects of repetitive blows to the brain.

When former Bears All-Pro Dave Duerson committed suicide in February, he made sure his family donated his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute's research.

As Duerson suspected and feared, he suffered from a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) triggered by all of the blows to his head during his career.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"This is not a disease you'd wish on your worst enemy," Nowinski said. "It's turning great men into monsters."

The SLI has 74 brains in its research bank -- the latest donated by the family of Derek Boogaard, the 28-year-old New York Rangers winger who died Friday of still-to-be-determined causes.

Boogaard, a top-flight enforcer, suffered a concussion during a fight in December and didn't play again.

The vast majority of donated brains -- including 14 of the 15 from former NFL players -- showed the degenerative signs associated with CTE.

Nowinski receives emails and phone calls each day from people promising to donate brains when their time on earth has passed.

The more brains the Sports Legacy Institute studies, the more everyone learns about the devastating effects repetitive-contact sports such as football, hockey, pro wrestling and soccer can produce.

That's why Nowinski, named in January to the Hockey News' list of 40 influential people under 40 years of age, believes it's a powerful sign when the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Minnesota Twins' Justin Morneau have missed so much time for concussion-related reasons.

If the finest professional athletes can be allowed to rest for extended periods, then amateurs (and their coaches) should be willing to do the same when necessary.

"The brain is just something you can't mess around with," Nowinski said. "Any coach who sees the signs of a concussion in a kid, they should sit out for the rest of the day and see a doctor before playing again."

Nowinski, who's single, goes further with regards to the harm football can do.

"I don't think there's any way I'd let my (prospective) son start playing football until high school," he said. "And hopefully we'll have done more research by the time he'd get to that point."

If Nowinski seems like he's in a hurry to fulfill his missions, there's a sobering reason for his accelerated pace.

When asked whether he's concerned how well his brain will work as he turns 55 ... 60 ... 65, Nowinski is blunt.

"I worry about what's going to happen when I'm 40," he said. "Going by what we've seen in our research, people with my level of trauma do not do well."

• Lindsey Willhite's Suburban Sports Reunion column appears each Tuesday in the Daily Herald and online at dailyherald.com. If you have a former suburban athlete or coach you'd like to see profiled here, please contact Lindsey at lwillhite@dailyherald.com.