For two Harvard grads, concussions are not head games
Two Harvard grads, one a former NFL player and the other a former pro wrestler, are trying to change athletes attitudes toward concussions
At the time, for fear of speaking out on a taboo subject — concussions and how they’re handled in the league — Kacyvenski was hesitant to talk to his former college roommate and teammate.
But only a couple of years after Kacyvenski refused to give Chris Nowinski a quote, the former Seahawk ended up offering up his brain.
When a couple of Harvard grads end up using their Ivy league degrees to forge careers as a football player and a professional wrestler, it stands to reason that they may not head down the usual path in life.
Even so, neither Kacyvenski, a Seahawk for six of his seven years in the NFL, nor Nowinski, Kacyvenski’s Harvard teammate who wrestled for Word Wrestling Entertainment, could have imagined life would lead them here.
Nowinski, who had to give up his wrestling career after suffering multiple concussions, began studying the effects of concussions on athletes not long after he retired. In 2007, he started the Sports Legacy Institute with the goal of “trying to solve the sports concussion crisis through education, research and treatment.”
A year earlier, Nowinski released a book called “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis.” And while Kacyvenski didn’t feel comfortable going on the record for that book, he decided to fully immerse himself in his friend’s cause once his playing days were over.
Kacyvenski first got involved as an athlete advisor for SLI, and was later voted on the company’s board of directors. In addition to promoting education and awareness, SLI and Nowinski have also gained notoriety for their work with the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) at Boston University. Part of the research being done there involves studying donated brains of deceased athletes. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain most commonly found in boxers, but more recent research has also linked the disease to football players.
Kacyvenski was the first to sign up when Nowinski started soliciting brains for future research. Since that time, Kacyvenski has helped add to a list of donors now 150 strong, consisting mostly of former athletes and also military personnel.
“To me it’s like being an organ donor,” Kacyvenski said, who estimates he had seven to nine concussions during his football career. “So many people in this world donate their organs, so why wouldn’t you want to donate your brain. Some people are a little creeped out by it, but this is something that is going to help people not only in football. You’re talking about people in the military, people in all kinds of other sports. There are huge implications.”
Through their research, SLI and the CSTE have found troubling results. Many retired athletes whose heads took poundings had debilitating mental problems later in life, including:
n Former Steelers lineman Justin Strzelckyk started having mental problems in his 30s, and in 2004 he led state troopers on a long chase before dying in a head-on collision with a tanker truck.
n John Grimsley, a Pro-Bowl linebacker for the Oilers, developed memory problems in his 40s and accidentally killed himself while cleaning a gun at the age of 45.
n Former wrestling star Chris Benoit, someone Nowinski knew well, shocked friends and colleague when he murdered his wife and son, then killed himself.
Nowinski believes those deaths all had something to do with head injuries. All had multiple concussions during their careers, and when all three of their brains were studied posthumously, they showed signs of CTE.
“His brain was the worst one, the most damaged,” Nowinski said of Benoit. “I knew him for five years. He was one of the most respected guys in the locker room, but he also confided in me about his concussions, and he had taken an interest in my research while he was alive, which now tells me that he knew something was wrong.”
Not everyone in medical fields is totally on board with what Nowinski is preaching, though few have problems with more research being done.
“Our opinion is we need more data to be able to tell with certainty what’s occurred,” said Dr. Thom Mayer, the medical director for the NFL Players Association. “My personal opinion is that CTE is a real entity, but there are some very intriguing things about it you don’t hear very often.”
Mayer points out that the area where the buildup of tau — an abnormal protein — occurs is in a more protected area of the brain than where most injuries occur.
“That doesn’t mean it’s not due to trauma, but it strongly suggests to me that there is a factorial, meaning it’s more than just trauma,” Mayer said.
Mayer hypothesizes that other factors such as genetic predisposition or drug use combine with trauma to cause the problems Nowinski speaks of.
But regardless of what their research ends up showing, Nowinski and Kacyvenski hope to make football a safer game in the short term by changing the way people view concussions.
“That’s the biggest reason that I am involved, because I think there is a huge opportunity there,” said Kacyvenski. “It really is tough for someone who hasn’t played in the NFL to understand how tough it is to be able to sit out when you endure a concussion. You’ll never have a player — especially in the NFL where there’s so much on the line — go up to somebody and say, ‘Hey, I need to get out of the game.’ That’s just not going to happen, so for me it’s taking the decision out of the hands of the player and having a protocol in place where you don’t have to question a player’s toughness, you don’t have to question his heart.”
At the NFL level anyway, that’s happening now more than ever. Nowinski, who has been critical many times in the past of how the league handles head injuries, admits that a lot of progress has been made under new commissioner Roger Goodell.
“The NFL is the greatest example of a group that has responded to this research,” said Nowinski. “In 2007 they mandated baseline neuropsychological testing of athletes. They mandated that you can’t put a player who has been knocked out back into the same game, they’ve made rule changes.”
But what worries concussion experts and doctors is the fact that the same controls aren’t as good in other levels of football.
“I’m less worried about a Seahawk that gets concussed than I am a high school athlete that gets concussed who doesn’t have proper care,” said Dr. Stanley Herring, a Seahawks team physician. “Playing with a concussion doesn’t make sense for a lot of reasons. The results can be deadly in middle school and high school if you do. It can kill you. If it doesn’t kill you, it can disable you.”
In May, Herring helped get a law passed in Washington that requires youth and high school athletes that have suspected concussions to be held out until they receive medical clearance to return to play. The law, named for Zackery Lystedt, who at the age of 13 was seriously disabled as the result of multiple concussions, is the first of its kind in the country.
Still, in the case of minor concussions, players can sometimes hide the injury from the medical staff, which is why Kacyvenski wants so badly to remove the stigma from concussions. He doesn’t want players to take dangerous chances for fear of losing a job or being thought of as soft.
He doesn’t want athletes, especially friends and former teammates like Seattle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, saying this:
“Injuries are the unfortunate part of this business, but you can’t let it change the way you play the game,” said Tatupu. “You’ve only got one life to live man, that’s how I feel about it ... I know that I’m helping my family now because of my situation with how well compensated we are for what we do. It means the most to me to help them out, so I’m not worried about my long-term health as of right now. It’s life. I know I love this game very much, so I’m not too worried about it right now.”
The quest is personal for both Nowinski and Kacyvenski, because both suffered multiple concussions during their careers, and both sometimes worry about what lies ahead for them.
“It’s scary to think about,” Kacyvenski said. “It’s kind of one of those things where you’re like, OK, you’ve sustained these concussions, you don’t know the effects ... So yes, it is very worrisome, but we can make the world a better place by taking up this opportunity to make the game better.”
That’s a long ways from where the two were a less than a decade ago, sharing a field and room at Harvard. Nowinski recalls a time when Kacyvenski was knocked out during one practice. Looking back, Nowinski would be disgusted with the attitude of his former self.
“I remember thinking he was soft,” Nowinski said with a laugh. “We were young and dumb, we had no appreciation for injury back then.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.
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