Can I Have Your Brain? The Quest for Truth on Concussions & CTE: Chris Nowinski (Transcript)

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.

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. 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.

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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?”

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?”

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.”

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