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HL20: Chris Nowinski—Collecting Brains, Combating Concussions

Margaret Dick Tocknell, for HealthLeaders Media, December 13, 2011

In our annual HealthLeaders 20, we profile individuals who are changing healthcare for the better. Some are longtime industry fixtures; others would clearly be considered outsiders. Some are revered; others would not win many popularity contests. All of them are playing a crucial role in making the healthcare industry better. This is the story of Chris Nowinski.

This profile was published in the December, 2011 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

 "I hope to reform football, ice hockey, soccer, and lacrosse by the time I have a child old enough to play."

Chris Nowinski collects brains—specifically, the brains of deceased athletes.

Nowinski is the president, CEO, and cofounder of the Sports Legacy Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit that works to raise awareness about concussions and their long-term effects on athletes.

His interest stems from personal experience. As a Harvard football player and then a professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment, Nowinski says he's had six concussions. Make that six concussions he can remember.

"I started playing contact sports when I was six years old. Based on the data, I'm sure that I had more bell ringers and dings but I just can't remember them. There were times when I hit my head, but I was one of those unlucky guys—I never lost consciousness long enough for anyone to notice."

His wrestling career ended in 2003 when he caught a boot to the chin during a routine tag-team match. He says he struggled with that particular concussion for several years, visiting doctor after doctor in search of relief. Those were dark days, he says. "They were pure misery."

Nowinski credits Robert Cantu, MD—the eighth doctor he saw for his concussion problems—with his turnaround. Cantu, who is known as the "godfather of sports concussions," explained to Nowinski that athletes don't need to play through concussions, but instead need to rest their concussions. And for the first time he learned that many of his health problems were among the long-term consequences of multiple concussions.

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