Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 29. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
One of the most bizarre and important resumes in the world of sports desperately needs revision. Visit the website of the Sports Legacy Institute -- the organization Chris Nowinski co-founded with Dr. Robert Cantu, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University Medical Center and director of sports medicine at Emerson Hospital -- and you'll find that the former's official bio starts with this: Chris Nowinski is best known as a former professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment. He debuted on WWE's flagship program Monday Night RAW in 2002, when he was named "Newcomer of the Year" by RAW Magazine...Which, these days, is something like Ronald Reagan headlining his C.V. with Knute Rockne, All American. True, some of us first encountered the 32-year-old Nowinski back when he was a pro wrestling heel known as Chris Harvard, a 6'5", 270-pound hulk in red spandex. But that's not -- or at least shouldn't be -- how Nowinski is best known today, almost a decade later. And it sure as hell isn't why a man with his own finishing move (the "Honor Roll") is presently my Sportsman of the Year.
No, this nomination is premised on a different series of maneuvers by the youngest male Hardcore Champion in WWE history (as the aforementioned resume notes). It was Nowinski, you may recall, who called up Dr. Bennet Omalu -- the Pittsburgh-based neuropathologist who identified chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of late ex-NFL players Mike Webster and Terry Long -- in '06, directing Omalu to the damaged mind of deceased defensive back Andre Waters (NFL CTE victim No. 3). It was Nowinski who helped partner the Sports Legacy Institute with the Boston University School of Medicine, giving rise to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE) -- a cutting-edge research center that has evolved into the NFL's most incisive critic. And it was Nowinski who published a book four years ago called "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis from the NFL to Youth Leagues," at a time when such a title merely came off as overdone.
That it does not sound that way anymore would already be proof enough of Nowinski's cultural contributions. But there's more: he's the lead recruiter for the CSTE's "brain bank," overseen by Dr. Ann McKee, where some 300 athletes have agreed to donate their brains upon death (and, until then, submit to annual cognitive examinations). In September the CSTE, which Nowinski also co-directs, unearthed the early stages of CTE in Owen Thomas, a Penn lineman who'd hanged himself at age 21, the youngest football player to ever receive the diagnosis. And the month before that? Nowinski, McKee, Cantu and the folks at the CSTE discovered the first pathological evidence that such repetitive head trauma is associated with motor neuron diseases like ALS. It is Nowinski's figure which looms behind the doctors and the headlines and the debate roiling over sports' newfound commitment to minimizing head trauma.
Which brings us back to that winding resume. A former financial consultant and All-Ivy defensive tackle at Harvard (thus the ring alias), Nowinski remade himself as the leading advocate for CTE awareness because he, too, had needed to see the light. What was the original impetus for testifying in front of Congress, various medical conferences, youth coaches and NFL players? A concussion suffered when 300-pound Bubba Ray Dudley's boot caught Chris Harvard in the chin during an '03 WWE tag-team match. Nowinski wound up on the floor of the Hartford Civic Center, crowd thundering, his mind unable to recall the rest of the night's script. As he wrote in "Head Games" of that fateful moment: "I still couldn't answer the most important question: What comes next? I know I have to do something, but what?"
Chris Nowinski, thankfully, figured out the answer. That's why he's my Sportsman of the Year.
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