Chris Nowinski is relieved Daniel Bryan put his health ahead of wrestling
The "Yes! Yes! Yes!" scream-along catchphrase helped Daniel Bryan become one of WWE’s most popular performers.
But when it comes to Bryan’s decision to retire at age 34 because of brain trauma, few are happier he said no to continuing his pro wrestling career than Chris Nowinski.
In fact, Nowinski’s own history with concussions and his advocacy toward promoting awareness can indirectly be tied into all that went into Bryan calling it quits.
A budding WWE star himself in the early 2000s, Nowinski suffered a series of head injuries that forced him to walk away. He then sought answers as to why the effects — excruciating headaches, nausea and insomnia — lingered.
The result of Nowinski’s research was a breakthrough book — "Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis" — that not only covered his own medical issues stemming from his WWE and college football days but also the NFL’s failure to acknowledge the impact of head trauma among current and former players.
Four years after adopting a concussion protocol in 2008, the WWE built a working relationship with Nowinski and the Concussion Legacy Foundation he co-founded. Nowinski told FOXSports.com that’s when he began "providing educational lectures on concussions to the (WWE) roster and wrestlers in the developmental program."
Among those who heard him speak: Bryan Danielson, aka Daniel Bryan.
How much Bryan took Nowinski’s message to heart is something only he can answer. But when he suffered the 10th documented concussion of his 16-year pro wrestling career last April, Bryan’s storied grappling career essentially ended.
WWE — which, like the NFL, is being sued by former in-ring workers claiming they suffered brain damage from being improperly diagnosed and/or treated — refused to let Bryan return despite his gaining clearance from neurologists not associated with the company. Bryan then decided to retire rather than pursue wrestling with other companies when further testing revealed a lesion in his brain that was believed the cause of post-concussion seizures he had experienced, the Wrestling Observer Newsletter reported.
Bryan announced his departure during an emotional 25-minute farewell speech on last week’s episode of "Monday Night Raw."
"I felt extraordinary sympathy for Daniel," Nowinski said. "It’s tough to walk away when you feel like you could still perform. In a sense, I was lucky because I had headaches I couldn’t kick and other problems that told me I shouldn’t go out and do (wrestling) again. He didn’t have that. He had to really dig deep to find the justification to walk away from the job he loved.
"It has been very interesting to watch the process. I’ve read that he was upset about WWE’s decision, but he saw other doctors and WWE really encouraged him to find another path because they recognized his brain was injured too much."
WWE has made plenty of changes in its handling of concussions since Nowinski’s show-biz days as Chris Harvard. Nowinski said there are ringside physicians at every match and instructions to stop the bout if a performer shows concussion symptoms. A baseline test is conducted that serves as a guide for when an affected performer can be cleared to return. Blows to the head with chairs and other objects, which were pro wrestling staples in the 1990s, also are now banned.
Nowinski’s group does have financial ties with WWE, which made a $1.2 million donation in 2013 and has a top executive (Paul "Triple H" Levesque) on the Concussion Legacy Foundation board of directors. Nowinski, though, is stating unbiased fact when praising the improved concussion culture among WWE performers and management.
"Superstars are more likely to report concussions. That’s big," said Nowinski, who speaks regularly with Levesque and WWE’s medical staff about the topic. "Wrestling also has an advantage over sports in general because you can write wrestlers out of storylines or have them participate without physical exertion when they are recovering from concussions."
Because of WWE’s refusal to clear Bryan, there is a chance other wrestlers may try to hide concussion symptoms due to fears the same may happen to them. Nowinski hopes that isn’t the case because of the potential consequences if brain trauma isn’t treated properly.
There also is the possibility Bryan would still be wrestling today had he taken more time off from his previous concussions and recognized negative effects from those that weren’t diagnosed or reported.
"I’ve always said it’s a shame to lose talent to doing what I did, which is lying about concussions and having my career end early," Nowinski said.
Bryan will have plenty of time to reflect upon whether the same happened to him with his in-ring days now over.