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It is typical for a Harvard undergraduate to supplement four years of learning within the walls of Harvard Yard with further studies in graduate school before entering his chosen field. Law schools, medical schools and businesses schools are annually inundated with Harvard alums, as are masters programs of every sort.
But Killer Kowalski’s Pro Wrestling School? Nary an alumnus could claim to have passed through its doors since its founding in 1977, until former Crimson defensive tackle Chris Nowinski ’00 began a journey that would take him from the serenity of the Yard to the chaos of the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) ring.
“Non-Harvard grads are usually shocked or surprised,” Nowinski says of his emergence as WWE wrestler Chris Harvard. “Other people think it’s the coolest thing in the world. Most Harvard grads are real jealous of me because most of them hate their jobs and see how much fun I have.”
Life after Harvard
Nowinski’s first steps down a career path didn’t lead to the WWE.
Rather, they carried him to Waltham, Mass., where he came to fill a role not altogether dissimilar from that of many of his former classmates—financial consultant.
“I was doing financial consulting for Trinity Partners, where probably 20 or 30 ex-Harvard people work,” Nowinski says. “It was one of those great consulting jobs where we were all over paid and didn’t have to kill ourselves too bad.”
Working a standard week and easily providing for himself financially, the former sociology concentrator seemed to be living a life that would be called satisfactory at worst by most casual observers.
But deep within, Nowinski harbored acute dissatisfaction with the hours he needed to keep and the life he had begun to lead.
Though certainly less strenuous than the hours many in his field were required to work, the time put in at the office was too much for him.
“Every summer I had interned in marketing, insurance or something,” Nowinski says. “I hated the 40-hour weeks. I didn’t want to make that my long term goal.”
But luckily for him, the man who would provide an alternative was not far down the road.
He was down the hallway in fact.
It was Nowinski’s boss—John Corker ’79—who first suggested the alternative career path.
A die-hard wrestling fan himself, he and Nowinski would eagerly discuss wrestling, using it as an escape from their humdrum daily activities, before eventually Corker suggested that Nowinski try his hand at it.
“I had never really considered it an option for a career until he mentioned that I could do it,” Nowinski says. “I thought, ‘Who knows but I’ll give it a shot.’ I knew I could be a good enough consultant…but wrestling I had no idea whether I’d be able to succeed or not.”
With Corker’s assistance, Nowinski launched himself into the wrestling world, working part-time and training in the evenings.
“[I] had some friends who worked in the television industry,” Corker says. “I had also done prior work in the development of pay-per-view television. As such, I had more knowledge than the average fan about how the industry works… I helped him get a preliminary tryout with the wrestling organization owned by Turner Broadcasting (WCW).”
Introduction to Wrestling
Adding Killer Kowalski’s four-night-a-week workout regimen to his scaled-back job schedule, Nowinski turned in 14-hour days on a regular basis, pushing himself to the limit.
But even then it was not inevitable that Nowinski would pass between the ropes on his way into the ring.
In fact, Nowinski’s fascination with wrestling was relatively nascent even as he made great strides in his efforts to make the big time.
Unlike many youths, he never imagined himself as a professional wrestler, never donned a cape while imitating Hulk Hogan and certainly never looked forward to watching the sport on television.
“My mother banned [watching] it,” Nowinski says. “I guess it was a blessing in disguise. You pretty much can’t watch something like that if you want to get to a place like Harvard.”
And for three years after leaving home, the habits engrained by his mother endured, thanks largely to the lack of cable access in standard Harvard dormitories.
But during the summer prior to his senior year, Nowinski and a group of his teammates—including his partner in the famed “Polish connection” defensive tandem Isaiah Kacyvenski ’00—remained in Cambridge to train for their upcoming season in DeWolfe.
With access to cable television and surrounded by friends obsessed with “Monday Night Raw” and “Smackdown,” Nowinski had little choice but to watch, idolizing rising stars Triple H and Kurt Angle.
“It was quite an experience,” Nowinski says. “They all watched wrestling, and we had cable and I got hooked on it.”
But at that time, his thoughts were not of a future in wrestling but hopes of a career in the National Football League. Though the idea did not occur to him prior to his junior year, Nowinski trained with a professional career as his ultimate goal during his final two seasons.
“During junior year, I became good,” Nowinski says. “So that became my focus the last two years I was there. But it wasn’t a lifelong dream for me.”
And unfortunately for Nowinski it was a short-lived dream as well.
Two shoulder operations performed after his senior season took a career in professional football out of consideration.
The Road to WWE
With Corcoran’s aid, Nowinski submitted a video to MTV in the hopes of being chosen to compete for a wrestling contract on the station’s new reality show “Tough Enough.”
“I’d been going to wrestling school for about three months,” Nowinski says. “And at the time I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be on a reality show, because I hate them all.”
But after passing several stages of the tryout phase, the opportunity soon became one that he could not pass up.
The show featured several hopefuls living together in a house and training under the supervision of professionals with contestants being either eliminated or kept along the way based on their progress.
Under the tutelage of the more experienced wrestlers, the contestants endured grueling workouts and hours of technical training necessary for success in the sport.
“I hated it,” Nowinski says. “It was physically brutal. We went from 9 a.m. to 4 or 5 [p.m.] with constant physical activity. By the end, I thought my body was just going to collapse. Living amongst a bunch of other people who you don’t like and with no friends, no privacy. It was horrible.”
On camera, the contestants were constantly abused by the professional wrestlers, and though most were much more kind and supportive once the film stopped rolling, the harsh treatment began to wear all its targets down.
And the toll the show was beginning to take on Nowinski came out in a most public way.
With the show being taped round the clock and selectively edited, Nowinski was often portrayed in a way completely inconsistent with his usual personality.
“He was definitely held to a higher standard because he was from Harvard,” Harvard football coach Tim Murphy says.
While some of his fellow competitors were portrayed as humble, generally likeable figures, Nowinski was painted as an arrogant braggart with little connection to the other wrestlers, generating little sympathy from television audiences.
“Everyone’s got their good days and bad days,” Nowinski says. “And they caught my three bad moments and turned it into three episodes.”
Nowinski persevered through it all, though, making his way to the final two in consideration for a contract.
But at the moment he was closest to his goal, the floor gave way beneath him.
Nowinski was not selected as the winner, defeated by Maven Huffman at the final stage in the competition.
But Nowinski was not ready to abandon his aspirations on account of one setback.
“When he puts his mind to it, he believes he can do anything,” Murphy says.
Continuing to train and work independent circuits, Nowinski steadily improved his level of proficiency in the ring. After working out for the WWE, Nowinski was offered a contract and his dream was realized.
“When I signed my first contract was one of the best days of my life, something I made a lot of sacrifices for,” Nowinski says. “I felt like I had earned it, like they chose me not because they needed a winner but because I’d earned it.”
On June 10, 2002, Nowinski made his professional debut on “Monday Night Raw,” leaping out of the stands to toss sermonizing Briton William Regal a set of brass knuckles to aid him in his victory.
“I was just nervous as hell, thinking don’t blow it,” Nowinski says. “It’s actually difficult to toss those knuckles and to have him catch them. It’s a live show, no second chances.”
Off a Turnbuckle, Through a Table
Though Nowinski is both approachable and down-to-earth outside the ring, Chris Harvard is quite a different story.
“His personality is a lot different than the one he’s making a living at,” Murphy says. “He’s a typical Midwestern kid—humble with a little irreverent sense of humor.”
Arrogant and condescending, he has won the disgust of the WWE crowds through his constant disparagement of the other less intelligent wrestlers whom the fans admire.
“Everybody out there in the world hates us [Harvard students and alumni],” Nowinski says. “No one is ever going to feel good for the privileged guy, which is what everyone looks at us as.”
Nowinski’s background is certainly not the same as the one he claims on television. He hails from a humble middle-class family in Arlington Heights, Illinois, the son of a hotel manager and a high school guidance counselor, each of whom took a little bit of time to get used to the idea of their Harvard-educated son as a professional wrestler.
“My family is really supportive,” Nowinski says. “At first they thought I was crazy, but as long as I wasn’t asking for money.”
So rather than build on his own experiences, Nowinski borrows his character’s set of personal traits from another portion of the Harvard community—finals club members.
“The people in the locker room are a lot nicer than the average person you meet at Harvard,” Nowinski says. “My character is based a lot on the finals club guys who thought they ran the place, the people who were full of themselves [and] who never left their mansion or the yard, with no perspective.”
And with his unique insights into the world at Harvard, Nowinski also has the luxury of writing much of his own material.
“I do get to write most of my stuff since the inspiration for my character comes from my experiences at Harvard and no one else has those. No one can see the world through my eyes.”
The fans’ general distaste for him after Tough Enough has only further cemented his position as a “heel.”
“I enjoy being hated by people, especially when they hate me for the wrong reasons,” Nowinski says. “Like Tough Enough—if they hate me for that, go ahead.”
With the sentiment of the fans squarely in opposition to his character, Chris Harvard often finds himself on the losing end, much to the crowd’s satisfaction.
“I don’t mind losing at all, especially [considering] the kind of character I play, I should be losing most of the time,” Nowinski says. “They like to see me lose. I like to entertain in this way. I did a little theater here and there and I’ve done sports. What I like about this is that every night is live, in front of an audience. A lot of it’s scripted but a lot of it’s [improvised].”
And as any who know him can attest, performing is certainly something that Nowinski has always taken pleasure in.
“He’s definitely enjoying this,” Murphy says. “He really enjoys performing.”
But the hours wrestlers keep are certainly not easy and a packed schedule dominates much of Nowinski’s week. Though three shows are aired each week on national television, the list of performances not aired is equally long.
Nowinski’s week starts on a Friday night with a flight out of Logan Airport to the next city on the scheduled tour. After the house show, he is off to the weight room or a tanning salon—a cycle which will repeat itself every day until Tuesday, with a flight home to Boston.
It’s a cycle, but it does have its ups and downs—like being hit over the head with a steel chair.
Luckily for Nowinski, he has never been on the receiving end, but he has on occasion had the opportunity to flatten other wrestlers’ foreheads with a sudden blow to the head.
“It’s a good feeling,” Nowinski says. “You really get to get some rage out.”
Which isn’t to say that he’s avoided all physical punishment all together. Nowinski’s character has been on the receiving end of one of wrestling’s other favorite punishing weapons—the table.
“It’s a very odd feeling,” Nowinski says. “I’ve actually gone off the top rope through a table on the floor, ripping part of my lat in the process. But it’s weird getting little cuts on my body.”
But despite what seems to be a quite violent environment, the physical toll on his body has been surprisingly light. At least compared to football.
“It’s actually a ton better,” Nowinski says. “Day in and day out I feel a hundred times better, partly because I’m fifty pounds lighter. It usually took 4 or 5 days to recover from a football game.”
It isn’t all pain and suffering. Though Nowinski takes quite a beating on occasion, there are those shining moments in which he finishes off his opponents with a stunning move that crushes both their and the crowd’s spirits—the honor roll.
“It’s a double under hook [similar to Triple H’s pedigree],” Nowinski said. “I flip them on their backs, hold them on their shoulders. I just came up with it screwing around one day.”
Moving steadily up through the ranks of the WWE, Nowinski, as Harvard, is living his latest dream.
“I’m really lucky to have been with Scott Steiner for about five weeks now,” Nowinski says. “He’s a former WCW champion. It takes time to learn to do this job right, so I’m not in a huge hurry.”
For now, that keeps the former football player happy. Whether new aspirations will develop in the future, only time will tell.
“I’m taking it as it comes,” Nowinski says. “You never know what this will lead to.”
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