CHICAGO—Already at the forefront of research on the effects of repeated blows to the head, Chris Nowinski is trying to raise awareness at a grass-roots level and he hopes former players will lend a hand.
As CEO of the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University, Nowinski has studied the issue closely. High-profile cases in recent years have made it a hot-button topic, but he's also trying to raise awareness by educating coaches and athletes on the high school and youth levels.
"Having the former NFL players is just a great way to get into the door," Nowinski said. "People love them. We're hoping it just gets us more invitations."
That was one of his goals at the "Eye On Concussions ... Taking a Closer Look" fundraiser on Friday, along with raising money and promoting education on the effects of head trauma. Roughly two dozen former professional athletes along with politicians, medical personnel and educators were on hand for the event, which organizers expected to raise about $50,000. The proceeds were to go to the Sports Legacy Institute, which has been studying the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, along with Illinois Eye Institute Foundation and the Chicago Concussion Coalition.
Nowinski grew up in the Chicago area, played football at Harvard and had his career as a professional wrestler cut short by concussions. He has since dedicated himself to the issue.
The groups have helped educate about 2,000 Chicago Public Schools coaches and 5,000 nationally through various workshops. They've also visited with about 6,000 youngsters, mostly in the Boston area, but plan to conduct more in Chicago.
"I think it's been phenomenal what Chris has done," said Reggie Smith, president of Chicago chapter of the NFLPA and a former offensive lineman. "The support that he's gotten nationally and internationally, he's letting folks know in an up-front way. This has always been there, but now, there's an advocate making sure something is done -- not from a `look what happened to these guys' but `let's not let this happen again.'"
The long-term effects of repeated blows to the head have dominated discussions in the NFL, around the NCAA and into the prep ranks for some time now, with states passing laws intended to protect young athletes from trauma.
High profile cases in recent years such as pro wrestler Chris Benoit's suicide after murdering his wife and young son in 2007 and the suicide of former
Brown was taken from his home in Granger, Ind., near South Bend after a seven-hour standoff with police Aug. 12 in which prosecutors say he held his wife hostage with a handgun and bruised her. The standoff ended after Brown shot himself in the abdomen.
"I'm lucky," former Bears player Charlie Brown said. "But I've known a lot of guys who weren't. Dave Duerson was a friend, and we both wore the same number as Bears -- 22. I can't pass judgment on Dave. I just thought he was a fine person."
The NFL and NHL require players who have suffered concussions to be cleared by an independent neurologist before they're allowed to play again. The NFL also made significant changes in offseason workout schedules, reducing team programs by five weeks and cutting organized team activities (OTAs) from 14 to 10 sessions as part of the new labor deal reached this past summer. Practice time and contact is more limited now, too, but youth and high school players don't have a union bargaining for them.
They're relying on the adults to look out for them. They're also more prone to concussions because their bodies are still developing and they're not necessarily using the best equipment. Young children might not possess the language skills to alert coaches who might not recognize the symptoms that there is a problem.
That's why officials insist education is essential, and that's where the workshops come in.
"The goal with that is simply teach them the signs and symptoms and what you do -- and that is tell your coach, tell your parent," Nowinski said. "We've got excellent data showing they walk in not understanding what a concussion is and walk out knowing eight signs and symptoms, and five things they should do when it happens."