Chris Nowinski
1,085,863 views • 11:20

I'm Chris Nowinski, and odds are if you've met me in the last five years I've asked you, after a few minutes, a bit of an odd question: Can I have your brain? Now, it only seems like a strange question if you don't know my story so please let me share it with you.

I grew up outside of Chicago, and I was an athlete and I was very lucky to get recruited to play football at Harvard University. So that's me. And then after graduating, like most Harvard graduates, I decided I wanted to join the WWE. So that's also me.

(Laughter)

Sure you remember me from Monday Night Raw in 2002 and 2003, and I had a blast playing what people affectionately like to call Chris Harvard, the Ivy League snob.

(Laughter)

It was perfect for me. But unfortunately, I got kicked in the head by my colleague Bubba Ray Dudley, and I suffered a severe concussion. And it led to what became permanent postconcussion symptoms: constant headaches, inability to sleep, depression, feeling in a fog. And in that first year, I tried to figure out how could I make this pain go away. And I wasn't getting the answers I needed from doctors, and so I started digging into the medical literature. And I found there's this whole story about concussions that we weren't really being told. So I decided to write a book about it, called "Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis" that came out in 2006.

But in that process, I learned it's not really just about concussions. I learned about a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. What we used to call punch-drunk, because we only knew about it from boxers. We knew that getting hit in the head too many times with boxers would cause their brain to essentially start to rot, to degenerate. And they'd have symptoms like memory problems and problems with cognition, depression, impulse control issues, aggression.

So basically, I got ... I got injured at the right time, in which the first two NFL players were studied for this disease. And it turned out they both had it. The first was Mike Webster, 50 years old, already had dementia. The second, Terry Long, 45 years old when he took his life. The medical examiner in Pittsburgh decided to look at their brains and found this disease. I wrote a chapter about it, and I thought people would make a big deal out of it. But shockingly, even when the first two cases came in positive, there was never a national news story about this, what's going on in football with these cases of CTE.

So the book comes out, not a whole lot is happening, and one day I read the newspaper — November 20, 2006. I find out that Andre Waters just took his life. Those of you who know football, Andre Waters was someone I grew up watching. Former Philadelphia Eagles strong safety, [44] years old, a Division II football coach when he decided to put a gun to his head. In the article they reminded me, his nickname was Dirty Waters. He was known for leading with his head, so I thought I'm just going to look up did he ever talk about the concussions he had. And I found a quote from 1994 where Andre Waters said, "I stopped counting my concussions at 15. I wouldn't say anything, I'd just sniff smelling salts and go back out there." And I thought, I wonder if he might have CTE, too. If that might have contributed to whatever made him choose to end his life.

So I ended up calling the doctor who did the first two studies, and I said, "Hey, I think you should study Andre Waters." And he said, "I'd be happy to. The problem is, the first two cases died in the county in which I work, and I could study them as part of my job. I can't do that with Andre Waters, he died in Florida. If you want me to study him, you're going to have to figure out how to get me the brain." So I said, "OK. How does one get a brain?"

(Laughter)

So I racked my brain and I thought, why don't I call the medical examiner who I think has the brain right now? So I called up the medical examiner in Florida, and I said, "Hey, you don't know me, but do you still have the brain of Andre Waters?"

(Laughter)

And he said, "Yes, I do." I said, "OK, are you going to study him for CTE?" And he said no, in fact at that time he didn't believe that was a real disease. I said, "OK, if you're not, do you mind if I have it?" And he said, "Well, young man, I can't give you the brain. You need his family's permission. But if you do get the permission of his next of kin, I will release the brain to you." And I said, "Great!" And then I realized I had to figure out who his next of kin was and ask them, and it turned out it was Andre Waters's 88-year-old mother. And I sat there, and I took a breath and I thought, "Am I really going to cold-call an 88-year-old grieving mother who just lost her son to suicide?" And almost everything in me said, "Don't do it. It's too much to put this poor woman through, she's been through so much already." But then this other voice in my head said, "You know what? If guys are killing themselves from this disease and we could study it to maybe prevent this from happening in the future, sometimes you've just got to suck it up and do something that's very hard."

So I called her. First time, nobody answered. Second time, no one answered, third... no voice mails. The fifth time, I got an answer. And thank God that Andre Waters's family was so gracious about the call and said, "You know what, we want to know what happened to Andre. We want to know why he changed so much in the last five years of his life." And so we studied the brain, and it turned out that he did have CTE. He became the third NFL player diagnosed with the disease. This is what it looks like. He was somewhere between mild and severe.

OK, we have three of three NFL players here. Maybe this needs to get a little bit more serious. Maybe something's happening here. So I ended up starting the Concussion Legacy Foundation, actually formalized the work, so it wasn't just some guy calling for brains. And I searched the world. And I put together the best research team I could find. So we partnered with Boston University, we partnered with scientists at the VA here in Boston, and we started a brain bank. Turns out, if you want to know how to cure degenerative brain disease, you have to start by actually studying the brains. At this point, we were the first center in the world focused on CTE. It just had not been studied formally.

And so we start this brain bank, and it's my job to get the brains for Dr. Ann McKee and her brain bank, right in the middle. We also work with Dr. Bob Stern, Dr. Robert Cantu, truly my dream team of scientists that I support. So my job is to get the brains. And I was very successful in those early years. Since 2007 I've started every day by reading the obituaries. And it's a tough way to live. And it's hard on me and it's even worse on these poor families that I've been calling for the last 10 years, to ask for their brains.

And so early on in the process, as it started to really eat away at me, I decided, you know what, can I find another way to get people to donate their brains to this research? And I figured out, what if we could create a culture of brain donation in this country? What if it became normal for athletes to donate their brain after they died? And so what I started was a brain donation registry. And I started asking athletes if they would publicly pledge to donate their brain to science. And it started with, actually, a hockey player in 2009. One of my first pledges was a former Harvard hockey player, Noah Welch, who was in the NHL at the time. It was a slow start people understanding what this was about. So when the news hit the front page, "Noah Welch pledging his brain to science," he said he went to the locker room the next day, one of his teammates pulled him aside and said, "Hey, I heard you're donating your brain to science." And he said, "Yep." And he said, "Wow. How many games are you going to miss?"

(Laughter)

True story.

(Laughter)

But we've been remarkably successful — over 2,500 athletes have signed up. They get a brain-donation card they keep in their wallet. This is mine, I was obviously first, it says 01. And I will donate my brain to this. We've also been lucky to have people like Brandi Chastain, the women's soccer icon, NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt Jr. Just two weeks ago, Hall-of-Famer Nick Buoniconti who had been diagnosed with dementia, signed up to pledge his brain. So it's been wonderful, and the great thing about it is that it has worked in changing how we're able to get brains. So now, instead of me having to call, more families call us. And our phones ring off the hook.

And so I can now focus on taking this information, figuring out how do we work towards a cure, how do we work towards prevention, and so my life has gotten a lot easier. This is just some of the headlines that we've able to get over the years from athletes pledging their brain.

The problem has been what we learned. So when we started this, only 45 cases existed in the world of this disease that had been studied in brain banks. Since then, we have acquired 500 brains and found over 300 of them had CTE. To put that in perspective, the rest of the world has not studied 100 brains since we started this. What we've seen though is very frightening. So some of you might have seen the headline in July in the "New York Times." And a recent study we published, that of the first 111 NFL players we looked at 110 were positive for this disease. Of the first 53 college football players we looked at, 48 had this disease. That's something that's a very big concern to me. And so now, I'm very much focused on what can we do to actually treat this disease? We still can't diagnose CTE in living people, we have no treatments that are going to be coming out of the pharmaceutical industry in the next five years. This is a long, long fight. But our Concussion Legacy Foundation is here to not only facilitate this work, and that's the long game, but the short game is, hey, we can prevent this.

We can prevent this disease if we just stopped hitting people in the head so much. And frankly, we need to stop hitting children in the head. Turns out, it's not a great idea to hit a five-year-old in the head 500 times each year. And it does actually open up the door to this disease. And so, we've got a lot of work ahead of us. But I have great hope that we're on our way to curing this disease.

But I hope you understand my story a little more now. And now that we've gotten to know each other a little bit better, this is the time where I ask you, "Can I have your brain?"

Thank you very much.

(Applause)

Thank you.

(Applause)