My Heady Soccer Tale (or How I Got a Concussion)

Photo: iStock/Getty

Photo: iStock/Getty

One minute I was running toward the soccer ball. The next, I was lying face up on the grass. What happened between those two moments has been erased from my memory.

Slowly, my awareness of the world came back, fading in like an old TV set that had just been turned on. I got up and saw the other kid also on the ground, holding his head. Somehow, as we were both going for the ball, we collided and hit our heads together. I didn’t know it yet, but we both had concussions.

Back in 1980, when I was 13, I had only a vague sense of what a concussion was. It sounded more serious than just two kids knocking heads, so I dismissed my injury and continued playing the game. I told the referee I was fine, and we got on with it.

My coach wasn’t much more informed, since he didn’t take me out of the game. My mom was concerned on the sidelines but she didn’t insist I see a doctor after the match. Taking cues from the adults in my life, I figured it was no big deal.

Concussions, though, have become a very big deal, especially those occurring during organized sports.

Former players in the National Football League have filed a major lawsuit claiming the league failed to effectively inform them of the risks of repeated concussions on the field. The NFL has recently begun to take this situation seriously, finding that retired players have a higher incidence of memory problems, depression, and dementia. The league now, in a settlement, has agreed to pay whatever is necessary to compensate retired players who suffer from these long-term neurological effects.

And recently, a new campaign has been launched to change the rules in youth soccer leagues to restrict kids younger than 14 from being able to head the ball, recognizing that jarring blows can affect brain development. The campaign is lead not by overly-cautious couch potatoes, but by former U.S. women’s soccer players. This increased attention to sports-related concussions would have been helpful back in 1980.

****

You see it all the time in movies and on TV: someone gets hit in the head with a heavy object and is out cold. Later, they wake up, shake it off, and go on their merry way. Reality is much different. In spite of how commonplace the term “concussion” seems to be, it is a form of brain injury and should be taken seriously.

The definition of concussion seems to be elusive. “Mild traumatic brain injury” is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it. It can happen either with or without an impact. It is mostly identified by its signs and symptoms, including:

  • headache,
  • changes in balance or coordination,
  • confusion,
  • amnesia,
  • fatigue,
  • nausea, or
  • loss of consciousness or a “blackout.”

The worst part is that symptoms don’t always appear right away, and repeated injuries have a cumulative effect. Children younger than high school age are especially vulnerable.

I support all of this new focus on concussions and how they affect the brain. I question, though, why it has taken this long. Why were we so uninformed in 1980? Is it because there were more vexing public health issues–like polio or measles or AIDS?

I also wonder what percentage of the population has been walking around with undiagnosed brain injury. Are there correlations between youthful concussions and failed potential or criminal behavior? Have the mentally impaired been running the show all these years? Are the memory problems that so many elderly people face really just a result of too many blows to the head from a rough-and-tumble childhood?

Additionally, while I’m in favor of efforts to make sports less damaging, I think that the the proposed ban on heading the ball in youth leagues is only a band-aid on a much larger issue. The serious concussions in soccer are not from performing headers but rather–as I can attest–from collisions with other players.

****

The day of my soccer concussion, I had a massive headache on the brink of nausea. Somebody (my coach?) told me that if I fell asleep, that was a bad sign, so I spent the rest of that Saturday lying on the couch to nurse my headache but never quite relaxing for fear I would doze off.

As for my memory of the incident itself, it never had a chance to form. Between the moment where I am running to the ball and the moment where I’m coming around on the field, there is nothing–retrograde amnesia, it’s called. My mind blipped from one point to the next, like when you skip forward on a digital recording, the discontinuity a sign that something was omitted.

By the next morning, I was feeling better. I don’t recall talking to a doctor about it, or really anyone. By that point in my life, I had been hit in the head or face or mouth so many times that it just seemed like normal part of growing up. I can recall having had at least two other concussions prior to this one.

On Monday, the guys at school asked how I was feeling.

“Fine, I guess,” I said nonchalantly.

“Really?” one friend said. “Because you gave the other guy a concussion.” Only then did it occur to me that maybe I had one too.

I wonder now about the long term effects. Am I depressed more than average? Do I have cognitive impairments that I would not have had otherwise? Am I vulnerable to mental aging more than is typical? I’ve managed to turn out okay, but would things have been different?

I’m not sure where this leaves me. I love soccer just the way it is, in all its free-form, democratic madness. And I was just a boy being a typical boy.

But occasionally, when I think of reasons for my struggles in life, thoughts frequently bring me back to my childhood concussions.

 

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