The guy standing center ring in a standing-room-only South Philly wrestle-teria Friday resembled a Skynyrd enthusiast. The guy flying through the air with the greatest of ease had an epic perm and smiley-face covering his singleted rump. My cell camera captured the blurry moment when Perminator took feet to foe’s skull.
Confession: I enjoyed the unapologetic Ring of Honor Wrestling violence as much as anybody, but later — thinking about legs, arms, chairs and whatnot being forcefully applied to skulls — I couldn’t shake flying-head-shot physics from mine. It’s just not good. You know it. I know it. And Chris Nowinski knows it.
A Harvard grad, Nowinski went from 2002’s WWE “Newcomer of the Year” to 2003’s concussed shell of an athlete to 2009’s advocate for sports-related brain-trauma awareness with the Sports Legacy Institute near Boston. He cites former Eagle Andre Waters and former Flyer Keith Primeau as local ties to his ultimate goal. After Waters’ November 2006 suicide, docs posited damage from hard-hitting pro football contributed. This April, Primeau donated his post-death brain for study so that other careers aren’t cut short by multiple concussions like his.
On Saturday, Nowinski keynoted the “Connections for Life After Brain Injury” gathering at Thomas Jefferson University. He showed a video of co-workers roughing him up. “The guy who kicked the back of my head broke his foot,” he commented. That resonated in a room of injured brains. Nowinski’s battle to get the NFL to man up and take responsibility for former players’ game-related head injuries has recently gotten big-time attention. He testified before an Oct. 28 Congressional committee hearing – NFL interest can help youth players, Nowinski offered, along with a “10 Point Plan to Save Football” — and national publications have finally written about science supporting his stance. Once woefully underreported from youth to pro leagues, it’s becoming a topic du jour. This is good.
But what isn’t good is players getting sent home to shattered lives while team owners roll around on beds of billion-dollar bills. Nowinski says the NFL has started budging because “it’s in their best interest to change” which explains the closer eyes kept on Brian Westbrook’s mental-fitness to play. That’s not enough. “If a group profits off of destroying people’s brains and is not willing to change, they’re the enemy,” Nowinski says. “We need to prevent people from dying because of ignorance.”
Even head-kicked wrestlers knows that.
– Brian Hickey is a freelance journalist living in East Falls.
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