NOTE: This story appears on pages 182-183 of Raising Tomorrow's Champions
Whitney Klein, from what I could observe from the sideline, was a demure high school-aged assistant coach for my daughter’s club team. She seemed to quietly come and go sporadically for two seasons, for reasons left mostly unexplained, except that the effects of her soccer-related concussions were lingering. When Whitney didn’t appear at practice at all during the winter and pre-Covid spring of 2020, I reached out. “Soccer is my thing!” Whitney told me in a tone that instantly quelled my impression of her shyness. The game is in her DNA, she said. Her grandmother Elizabeth Phillips Stoddard was a pioneer who filed a formal complaint with the Wellesley school board in Massachusetts in the late 1970s to force the town to add a girls’ high school team, which she coached. Her first-ever roster, notably, included future National Team player and coach Dr. Lauren Gregg.
Whitney laughed disarmingly when she told me about suffering her first concussion playing goalie at age 10. The fog was so thick she never saw the shot go by, and when she went back to retrieve the ball she also never saw the goalpost coming. “I grabbed the post with both of my hands and tried to hold myself up, then I kind of just collapsed,” she said. That would require a seven-month recovery. At age 13, playing midfielder, she took a shot to the back of the head. She sat out the rest of that game, played the next day, but felt progressively worse. Diagnosed with concussion number two, she missed three months of soccer.
Fast forward to her final soccer practice as a player, Nov. 14, 2017, suffered a head-on collision in front of the goal. The result was an Advil for one girl — and nearly three years of emergency rooms, entire semesters of school missed, and trips to the Mayo Clinic for Whitney. During that winter of 2019 and spring of 2020, she was hospitalized for acute migraine headaches, followed by a month of intensive physical therapy. She rattles off just some of her conditions like a med student — acute light-headedness (“postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome”), swelling of the throat (“idiopathic angioedema”), and chronic fatigue syndrome (“myalgic encephalomyelitis”) — yet can no longer do the most basic math problems without a calculator, and has lost the faculties to learn new languages.
Through it all, said Whitney, she was never a crier — except when she tried to come back to the soccer field in those early days of coaching. What I mistook for shyness was actually a barely concealed broken heart. “My greatest joy was taken away from me,” she said, still remarkably upbeat. “I have had to learn to love the game again in a different way.” When I asked her what I thought was the most obvious question, she reiterated that to be able to play the sport that her grandmother fought for meant everything. “Yes, I had all the doctors discourage me from playing all my life since the first concussion. My parents knew soccer was my one true love, and they let me continue. After the second concussion, I think most everyone wanted me to stop . . . and I’m so grateful that I didn’t because I really would not be the person that I am today. I mean, if I wouldn’t have gotten that last concussion, I literally would have been a radically different person. But I also would not have been able to play soccer for my freshman team. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.” — P.T.