Chris Nowinski was in New York City giving a talk and raising $20,000 for the Concussion Legacy Foundation on Thursday night when he looked down at his phone and saw 50 messages.
Many came with the video of Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa being spun hard to the ground by Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Chris Tupou and smacking the back of his helmet hard on the ground for the second time in five days.
“I immediately felt sick,” Nowkinski said.
He felt angry, too. He sat down and typed on Twitter:
“This is a disaster. Pray for Tua. Fire the medical staffs and coaches. I predicted this and I hate that I am right. Two concussions in 5 days can kill someone. This can end careers. How are we so stupid in 2022.”
Now it was early Friday morning and Tagovailoa being released from the hospital and flying back to South Florida with the Dolphins hadn’t lessened Nowinski’s anger.
“People die from this every year,” he said. “Someone needs to be fired.”
Nowinski isn’t playing a doctor on Twitter like many were after Tua’s injury. He’s a neuroscientist who is co-founder and CEO of the concussion foundation associated with Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. For years, the center has studied former NFL players and CTE, a neurological disease associated with repeated head trauma.
No, Nowinski didn’t examine Tagovailoa, like the NFL doctor in the designed concussion protocol who allowed the quarterback to return to play against Buffalo last Sunday or the Dolphins doctors who cleared him for play Thursday. The NFL players’ union announced after Sunday’s game it would be investigating that process that cleared Tua.
That investigation hasn’t begun yet, but Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said all precaution was taken, repeated it was Tua’s back and not his head that was injured last Sunday and said he would, “never put a player in a position for them to be in harm’s way. That is not what I’m about at all.”
Nowinski, watching last Sunday’s game from his Boynton Beach home, recognized, “five separate signs of a concussion, any of which should’ve mandated removal from the game.” He listed the five:
1. Tagovailoa grabbed his helmet, suggesting his head was an issue.
2. He wobbled as he stood up.
3. He shook his head in a, “clear-the-cobwebs move that in my experience happens only when you have visual disturbance,” Nowinski said.
4. He fell while walking.
5. He would have fallen again if teammates hadn’t helped him.
“The NFL’s supposed keep you out with no chance to return when you display such gross motor disturbance,” Nowinski said. “The story that, ‘I tweaked my back,’ is preposterous. He doesn’t even reach for his back at all. No good doctor should take the player’s word. The mechanism is in place to protect the player.
“I honestly thought the team would’ve sobered up on Monday and admitted a mistake was made in missing the concussion or at least erred on the side of caution that he wouldn’t play (Thursday).”
Four hours before Thursday’s kickoff, Nowinski tweeted: “If Tua takes the field tonight, it’s a massive step back for #concussion care in the NFL. If he has a second concussion that destroys his season or career, everyone involved will be sued and should be lose their jobs, coaches included. We all saw it, even they must know this isn’t right.”
Thursday’s hit on Tua was Nowinski’s fear come true.
“I can’t believe how violent that hit was,” he said. “The tension in the hands, called ‘posturing,’ or ‘fencing posture,’ meaning the injury to his brain could have included injury to his brain stem that made it a more serious injury.”
Earlier this year, three more Dolphins off the 1972 Perfect Season were diagnosed posthumously of having CTE, a neurological disease often from repeated trauma to the head associated with playing football. Jake Scott, Jim Kiick and Nick Buoniconti joined four other teammates with the disease that can only be diagnosed by examining the brain after death.
Serious issues from concussions often don’t wait until later in life. Nowinski was a WWE pro wrestler who retired after suffering two concussions and getting medical advice. He talked of just observing Rowan Stringer Day for a Canadian high-school rugby player who died after improper treatment of her concussions. Boston University’s CTE Center has opened a new study, an online survey for anyone over 40 who played football or soccer at any level called the Head Impact & Trauma Surveillance Study.
Now it was just before 6 a.m. Friday and Nowinski was about to board a flight out of New York after his fundraiser. He had one hour of sleep after studying and discussing Tagovailoa’s situation. He was asked what he wanted to see play out here. He mentioned an investigation and education for all.
“Proper decisions need to be made,” he said, “because it’s been unbelievably stupid to this point.”