When Noah Welch was asked by former professional wrestler and college football player Chris Nowinski to help spread the word of the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit devoted to studying the effects of concussions, the Panther defenseman was more than willing to help.
And that help will continue even after he’s gone.
Welch is one of several professional and amateur athletes – the only one, however, in the NHL – who has agreed to donate his brain to the Institute in hopes research can lead to education, policy change and improved protective head gear while studying the effects of concussions on depression and cognitive impairment.
Welch, who does not have a history of concussions, said he really didn’t give it much thought when Nowinski asked him to be a donor.
“If it helps someone enjoy their life after their career, that would be great,” said Welch, who, like Nowinski, graduated from Harvard University. “I’m all ready an organ donor. For me, when I’m gone I’m gone. I believe my body will be here but my spirit, hopefully, will be in heaven.”
The Sports Legacy Institute, working with Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has recruited a dozen athletes to be donors, including former New England Patriots’ linebacker Ted Johnson, former Tennessee Titans’ tight end Frank Wycheck, and former U.S. national soccer team member Cindy Parlow. Nowinski said he’s also received commitments to be a donor from two former NBA players, an ex-boxer and a swimmer.
Nowinski, who wrestled under the name Chris Harvard, estimates he suffered six concussions during his wrestling career. “Six times when I blacked out or the sky changed color,” said the former defensive tackle at Harvard (1996-99). He said Welch’s commitment to the Institute is invaluable.
“Noah is such a smart guy,” Nowinski said. “Noah gets it. He gets the value of the study. He will help us greatly.”
During Welch’s popular Hock, Rock & Bowl charity event over the summer in Boston, he spoke to Nowinski about the Institute and what it was trying to accomplish.
“One day he showed me the pictures of some former NFL players who were suffering,” he said. “Half of their brain was black from trauma to the head. It’s so important to get as much information we can on the brain and concussions. So it’s about getting information and getting the word out. Athletes want information. Everybody wants information so we can compete and get back sooner from injuries.”
When asked how his family took the news, Welch replied; “I got a couple jokes from my uncle. My brother thought it was cool. My mother started crying. But after she came to grips with it, I think she realized it was a good thing.”