By RACHEL WALTHER
Capital News Service
COLLEGE PARK – Briana Scurry, the 42-year-old two-time Olympic goalkeeper and Women’s World Cup champion, has found a new life focus. Following a debilitating concussion four years ago that took her permanently off the professional playing field, and then a surgery last fall that helped ease her pain, she’s attracting attention for her work to increase traumatic brain injury awareness.
During the last five months, Scurry has worked with Concussion Connection, an online athlete concussion support group, spoken with dozens of news outlets and appeared before the National Soccer Association, Congress, the Brain Injury Association of Maryland and the U.S. Soccer Foundation about the dangers of concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
“What she shared with us [in terms of time and her story] is far beyond what we expected,” said Concussion Connection Co-founder Samantha Sanderson. “The way she opened up and has been willing to be there for people has been invaluable,” Sanderson said.
Scurry said she is trying to press for brain injury awareness as quickly as she can. “I keep encountering these kids with three, four, five concussions a year — and that’s way too many and too young,” she said.
A two-year study of 20 high school sports in the U.S. showed girls’ soccer had the second-highest percentage of concussion injuries, behind boys’ football, according to a study published in January 2012 by The American Journal of Sports Medicine. It’s a fact Scurry is quick to point out at speaking events.
The concussion that knocked Scurry out of professional soccer came April 25, 2010, in a game that pitted her Washington Freedom team against Philadelphia Independence players.
A Philadelphia player surged toward the goal post, and the two women collided. Scurry said she was struck hard in the neck and went down hard.
She didn’t know then that the impact snapped her neck so hard it damaged her occipital nerves, giving her a massive concussion that would be misdiagnosed and mistreated for years. She didn’t know the injury would end her career as a professional soccer player.
But she did know something was wrong.
Her balance was off and her vision was foggy, but she continued playing. It wasn’t until half-time when she met with the team’s athletic trainer and was barely able to stand up that Scurry was taken out of the game.
She would spend the next three years on the couch, binging on TV and taking naps to cope with debilitating headaches and depression brought on by her injury. She survived on worker’s compensation after being declared legally disabled.
Her life finally changed for the better in October 2013. Following surgery with Dr. Ivica Ducic, she lay on a gurney at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital missing a chunk of nerve tissue from her neck and, for the first time in years, an aching pain in her head.
Ducic had made a small incision on the back of Scurry’s neck and used a scalpel to scrape away scar tissue and part of the nerves. Removing the tissue relieved the pressure on the nerves, alleviating the headaches and other symptoms.
The difference was immediate. Scurry opened her eyes pain-free. Within months she began improving her stamina and balance through rehab.
Scurry wants to address the concussion problem in soccer the same way the scalpel had scraped away built-up scar tissue and nerves. Directly.
The soccer champion said she is determined that no athlete should deal with concussions alone or play in ignorance of health risks. As a concussion survivor, Scurry speaks to Congress, sports and safety associations, coaches, parents, and most importantly, young sports players.
“My new mission is to provide a new face and voice to those who have and may suffer the long and difficult recovery of a devastating traumatic brain injury,” she told Congress in March.
Scurry said she is not compensated for the bulk of her speaking engagements. She continues to live off worker’s compensation.
“I want to get out there and see if I can turn these rough four years into a good thing, and that’s what really started it,” she said of her decision to speak out.
Friends remember watching Scurry morph into a different person following her injury and agree the soccer culture — which can encourage athletes to play through pain — needs to change. Her concentration – legendary on the soccer field – became nonexistent following her head injury, they said, and anxiety became prevalent.
“To me, she really withdrew into herself,” said Kerri Reifel, a long-time friend of Scurry’s. “Her symptoms just kept dragging on. It was a really hard process to watch.”
As Scurry’s recovery continues, so will her activities.
The athlete continues rehab in Baltimore for her balance and is slowly working up time on a stationary bike. As her strength increases she can dedicate more time to speaking events and providing lessons for aspiring goalies, soccer coaches and club teams.
Her schedule is set around her recovery, however. Short trips to New York from her Washington, D.C., home require a full recovery day.
Scurry plans on a national speaking tour aimed at parents, coaches, young players and various sports associations to change soccer safety and attitudes among parents, coaches and young players.
A major part of her speaking events is encouraging young athletes not to give up on treatment and to be open about injuries.
“Be honest about how you’re feeling,” she implores young athletes. “I know that’s hard. … Sitting out watching your teammates isn’t fun, but you’re doing the best thing for yourself and your team if you’re honest about how you’re feeling.”
The trouble with brain injuries, the athlete said, is that the damage is inside and out of sight.
Scurry remembers a 15-year-old girl approaching her at a speaking event and telling her about the five concussions she had sustained that year.
” ‘I’m here now, and I know I look fine,’ ” Scurry remembers the girl telling her. ” ‘But I know I’m not okay.’ ”
Adults must help to keep young athletes safe and healthy, she said.
“There’s a responsibility of coaches and parents,” she said. “Literally take the decision [to not continue playing] out of the hands of athletes and communicate that in a way that doesn’t make the kid feel bad at the time.”
Her passion is a part of Scurry’s success as a speaker, but her personality and background as an athlete endear her to audiences as well.
“She talks to us like a normal person,” said Sanderson, who also sustained a crippling concussion playing soccer. “She knows what we’re going through and what we’re dealing with. It’s much more personal than just someone on our expert panel.”
Scurry understands the need for a support system for recovering athletes and tries to encourage them not to give up.
“I try to give hope,” she said. “In my speeches I always say, ‘I hope I touch at least one of you in this room and inspire you to have a little bit of hope and seek treatment,’ ” Scurry said. “It’s easy to get bogged down in what you no longer have. I know, because I was lost in it myself.”