Home » team of experts » Chris Nowinski: The Amazing Journey of a Concussion Evangelist

Chris Nowinski: The Amazing Journey of a Concussion Evangelist

Power of MomsTeam's team helps propel former wrestler to celebrity status


When I ate dinner recently with my friend Chris Nowinski, President of the Sports Legacy Institute, he had just arrived home from five weeks abroad as an Eisenhower Fellow. It marked the seventh year that Chris and I had broken bread. Yet there was something very special about this evening, and it came from my pride, much like that of a mother, of knowing that the early support I had given him helped make his celebrity status in the field of concussion education and research possible. This is a story of the power of team-work.

A favor returned

I first learned about Chris in 2003 when, at the end of a meeting with MomsTeam concussion expert Bob Cantu, M.D. to go over new concussion articles he was reviewing for the site, Bob handed me a scrap of paper with Chris's name, email address and cell phone number and asked me if I would "call him and help him in whatever way" and "possibly help him get his book sold."

Bob said that Chris was ""a terrific young guy, with an amazing understanding of concussions, an ambitious young man who wanted the world to know all about the devastating effects of sports concussions."  He wasn't sure, though, "who would ever want to read his book. If there is anything you can do to help him it would be great."

Given the countless hours Bob had spent to that point in helping MomsTeam become what he later termed the "pioneer" in youth sports concussion information (based in large measure, I might add, on Bob's own, more than twenty-year, body of work in research and writing about concussion evaluation, management, and return to play guidelines), I wanted to return the favor. To be honest, though, I was puzzled as to why he thought a book on concussions wouldn't find a publisher, especially given the dearth of information - except on MomsTeam - about the subject.

I contacted Chris and we quickly set a time to have our first dinner together, where I learned that he was a 23-year-old former Harvard football player forced by a series of concussions to retire from a budding career as a pro wrestler who wanted to share his powerful personal story, to make a difference. I could see the determination in his face. He was working on a manuscript for a book that indeed, initially, was very difficult to convince a reputable trade house to publish.

From writing about and working with parents who had lost a child to a catastrophic sports injury since 2000, and as the founder of Teams of Angels, a non-profit dedicated to increasing awareness about such injuries, I was in a unique position to know how powerful and important Chris's book could be. I agreed to write a letter of support to send to Chris's agent at ICM in which I documented the scores of kids who die or suffer catastrophic injuries each year and how a book like Chris's would be critical to getting the word out about the dangers of concussions in a bigger way.

Unlocking doors

At first, Chris got nothing but rejection letters. We kept in close contact, and every time we talked or met I could feel the deep pain and frustration he was experiencing in being unable to find a publisher for his book.  Later that year and into 2004 I asked Chris if he wanted to join MomsTeam's board of directors, a group of my close friends and colleagues who I knew could help Chris, including a successful parenting author (Mimi Doe), a technology pioneer (Victor Oppenhiemer), a leading Harvard pediatrician and author (Eli Newberger), a two-time (now four-time) Olympic medalist (Angela Ruggiero), and MomsTeam's then corporate attorney (Barbara Jones). Dr. Cantu had also offered to be an advisor. I thought the exposure and introductions would be vital to getting Chris's book sold.

One day, not long after I invited Chris to join my board, Chris and I spoke by phone. He sounded like he was in a deep funk, still suffering from debilitating headaches, having just received a rejection letter from ICM, and becoming resigned to the likelihood that his book would never sell. After hanging up, I decided that I had to do more to help Chris.  Fellow board member Angela Ruggerio had recently had a book published by a small publishing house in Massachusetts, the Drummond Publishing Group. I wondered if we could interest them in publishing Chris's book. Determined to make good on my promise to Bob Cantu to help Chris in any way I could, I picked up the phone and called our MomsTeam corporate attorney, Barbara Jones. I told her how depressed Chris sounded, and said that we really we needed to get his book published immediately. She agreed to contact Drummond on his behalf.

By this point it was now 2005. My own book proposal had been picked up by ICM and quickly sold to HarperCollins. I knew telling Chris about my success in selling my book would be difficult, given how long he had labored to get ICM to pick him up and how hard it was to  find a home for his book. Chris responded to my news with grace and class, remarking, "That's how it should work."

Not long after we talked, Barbara  told me that she had finally succeeded in getting a book deal for Chris with the Drummond Group. I knew from that moment on that Chris's life would change.

A star is born

On September 4, 2006, my book, Home Team Advantage, went on sale.  The next month, Chris's book, Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis was published, and for the next couple of months the stars aligned for Chris. I am not sure I ever realized just how important the book's publication was until I read the newly released book, The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic by Linda Carroll and David Rosner (Simon & Schuster 2011). It was also one very lucky introduction that propelled his media attention. (More on this later).

Just a month after the publication of Head Games, and only days before Thanksgiving 2006, ex-NFL football player, Andre Waters, committed suicide. Chris had been trying to connect the dots about concussion and the debilitating brain condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) but needed a brain someone could autopsy. Getting that first brain would be the key. Getting that interview with a family member of the deceased player would be just as critical. Head Games book cover

According to Carroll and Rosner, Chris tried to connect to the family for days, first leaving a voice mail message for Waters's mom and then talking to Waters's sister. Finally, Waters's niece called back as the "designated family member." She told Chris, as recounted in Concussion Crisis,  that the family had agreed to an autopsy of Andre's brain only after "the family had researched his background and checked out his just published book." Alan Schwarz broke the story about the results of that autopsy, and the subsequent media coverage, including a story by MomsTeam, not only caused the entire country to sit up and take notice but gave Chris the platform from which to launch the Sports Legacy Institute.

Amazing story

It would mark the beginning of a career now going on five years in educating and informing the world on the effects of sports concussions (and the cumulative effect of sub-concussive blows). Chris's ascendance to the pinnacle of media prominence as a concussion educator is nothing short of amazing: a former Harvard football player and WWE wrestler who used his own personal struggle with the effects of concussions, and sheer dogged determination to" talk to anyone who would listen," to get the NFL, Congress and even the leaders of other countries, with whom he visited this past summer for his Eisenhower Fellowship, to do more to improve concussion safety.

It seems like every time I talk to Chris he says to me, he learns "something new." While I have been beating the concussion drum longer than most, and am proud of the work MomsTeam has and will continue to do to educate sports parents on the full range of concussion issues, Chris has achieved a special place in the pantheon of concussion educators for his work in spreading the message about the dangers of concussion and for the groundbreaking research he and his colleagues, including Bob Cantu, are doing at the Sports Legacy Institute.

I asked him what he hopes to do in the future. He was quick to say he "wants to spread the awareness to the rest of the world, but many have doubts they will listen." I do not have any doubts they will listen to Chris. 

Time for celebration

On October 12, 2011, I will celebrate the success of Chris's book by joining him and a host of other thought leaders on the subject of sports concussions at the 4th Annual Impact Awards at the Boston Harbor Hotel, which this year will honor Chris's colleagues, Dr. Ann McKee, and former New England Patriot, Kevin Turner.

I will also be quietly honoring Chris for his tireless work the past five years to educate sports parents and coaches across the country about the dangers of concussion, a cause to which I have now dedicated more than a decade of my life.  It promises to be a special evening, and, if you aren't able to attend in person, you can still be part of the celebration by making a donation to Chris and Bob Cantu's Sports Legacy Institute. For more information about the event and the important work SLI is doing, click here.

Editors note 2014: While some see a career fraught with conflicts others see a young man determined to make a living out of a potential disease that may leave him helpless to even help himself. We wish Chris all the best.

Posted September 11, 2011