Book Details Concussion Damage in the NFL

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Research shows that late NFL football player Andre Waters had brain damage. Waters suffered multiple concussions during his NFL career, and committed suicide in November at age 44. Former Harvard football player and professional wrestler Chris Nowinski is behind the research that led to the discovery.


Now, a story that raises questions about professional football, concussions and brain damage. The New York Times reports today that a forensic pathologist has examined the brain tissue of former NFL defensive back Andre Waters, who committed suicide in November at age 44.

The neuropathologist found that Waters' brain tissue resembled that of an 85-year-old or an early Alzheimer's patient. He concluded that brain damage was either caused or worsened by the number of concussions Waters sustained in his 11 years in the NFL. And the doctor linked Waters' depression before his suicide directly to the condition of his brain.

The discovery came about through the interest of Chris Nowinski. He played football at Harvard, then became a professional wrestler until repeated concussions ended his career. Chris Nowinski joins us from Boston. And I understand you have direct interest in this. You've in fact written a book about it based on your own experience.

CHRIS NOWINSKI: Yes, I had to retire three years ago from too many concussions. And I started researching it myself to figure out what's wrong with me after my memory started fading in and out and, you know, I had, you know, occasional depression and severe migraines. But the problem is obviously very considerable at the NFL level.

BLOCK: When you heard about Andre Waters' suicide, you decided to approach his family and you called his mother. Tell me about that.

NOWINSKI: Yes. I read about the suicide online. And I spent the evening looking, you know, researching into archives in terms of Andre's history of concussions, and discovered that he had one of the most severe concussion histories of any NFL player I've ever come across. You know, he admitted to stopping counting his concussions at 15, so very severe stuff.

So after some back and forth with the medical examiner down in Florida who had the body, he gave me the contact information for next of kin, which was the mother and a sister. And I decided to call them and ask, and say, I think there's a long shot, but there might be some more to the story. They said, you know, if this can help, you know, NFL players and this can help kids, you know, it's, and this could give some answers into why Andre killed himself, let's do it.

BLOCK: In the case of Andre Waters - and if you stop to think about his suicide - you know, in the New York Times article today by Allen Schwartz, it's mentioned there that he did not get the coaching jobs that he wanted within the NFL. And you can easily imagine there would be many reasons - suicide can be so mysterious - many reasons why he might have killed himself that had maybe nothing to do with the condition of his brain.

NOWINSKI: Certainly, I mean, it's so difficult to pinpoint, you know, why a person would take his own life. And I don't know, I mean, we could speculate all day, but the fact is that, you know, when you have that kind of brain damage, you know, everything is off.

BLOCK: How would you describe the mentality around concussions and how they're treated or viewed within the NFL?

NOWINSKI: Within the NFL, they are not taken seriously at all. I mean from the players' attitude, it hasn't changed much since Andre was playing, when he said I would just grab some smelling salts and go back in there. It's the doctor's job on the team to pull guys out when they're impaired, but guys should be staying out longer and more guys should be staying out after the concussion. I mean the NFL said 50 percent of their guys who get concussions in a game returned in the same game.

BLOCK: And a lot of them would probably be saying I'm okay. Put me back in.

NOWINSKI: Everyone says they're okay. That's not the question. They are asking the wrong questions. I mean, you know, my issue is we're not even telling the players what the problems are. We're not giving them the choice yet. Even the announcers who are watching the NFL, when a guy gets knocked out and they go back in the same game, they're like oh, wow, what a gutsy move by that guy. That's not a gutsy move. That guy at that moment in time is impaired.

He doesn't know - A, he doesn't have the judgment to make the decision whether it's right or wrong in the long term for his life to go back in the game. B, Now, we're starting to understand well, this is - might cost him a few years off the end of his life. It might cost him quality of life, like this isn't a heroic act. But these guys don't know those risks and, you know, that's not right.

BLCOK: Well, Chris Nowinski, thanks for talking with us.

NOWINSKI: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Chris Nowinski is author of the book "Headgames: Football's Concussion Crisis."

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