Book Excerpt — Concussions: Are the Rewards Worth the Risks?
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.
Pioneers: Emily Harner, Bound and Determined
INTRODUCING: Emily Pickering Harner
COLLEGE: The University of North Carolina
CLUB TEAM: Emily told us it was as if the soccer gods came to find her in her own neighborhood, with Gordon Bradley, the British player-coach of the New York Cosmos moving in just two houses away on Orlando St. in Massapequa, N.Y. Bradley had been instrumental in founding the Massapequa Soccer Club for boys in the winter of 1970 and local women, Liza Gozley and Nellie Haire, along with Gordon’s wife, Vera, soon started the push to allow girls to play, too. Emily was among the first in line at age 9.
OTHER SPORTS: “You name the game, I played it and I played it well,” said Emily, who starred in basketball, volleyball and field hockey and laments the single-sport mentality that has taken over youth athletics in the past 20 years. Berner High School on Long Island didn’t even add girls soccer as a varsity sport until Emily’s senior year, yet won the New York state championship its first season.
NATIONAL TEAM: Emily appeared in 15 games from 1985 to 1992, including the second game all-time on Aug. 21, 1985 at a tournament known as the Mundialito in Jesolo, Italy. Emily assisted Michelle Akers on the National Team’s first-ever goal, and then scored the second goal, giving the American team a 2-2 tie against Denmark. She retired seven years later after appearing in the only two games that year for the U.S., in August of 1992, both of which were losses to Norway.
TRUE GRIT: “Nobody messed with Emily Pickering,” said Emily, the second all-time National Team captain, who is now an insurance executive in Potomac, Md. That was a sentiment shared by her teammates at North Carolina and the National Team, including Michelle Akers, who credits Emily with establishing toughness as a core team value. By her junior year, however, a freshman would challenge Emily’s supremacy as ringleader. “April Heinrichs came in cocky and arrogant, and the members of my class thought we were pretty good, too.” Emily still remembers the one and only tackle football — American football — scrimmage among teammates when April came barreling toward her carrying the pigskin. “I was bound and determined to stop her in her tracks, which I did, but not before she plowed me over and I just had to hold on for dear life. Wow, that hurt, but I didn’t let her know. That was the mentality that we established together, that you win at all costs without cheating.”
DIGGING DEEP: Emily shared some conflicted memories of North Carolina’s legendary coach Anson Dorrance on Page 133 of “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” Even though Anson was just beginning his more than four-decade career when she arrived in the early 1980s, she said he already had an uncanny knack for motivating the players. “It was interesting. We could be practicing what we thought was pretty hard. And he could step out there and say, ‘Some of you aren’t giving 100 percent.’ You’d find yourself looking around. I’d think to myself, ‘Dammit, Stephanie, get moving.’ But then you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Well, maybe I could give a little bit more, too.’ The next thing you know, the practice has gone from mediocre to this incredible level. For some reason, you played to prove to Anson that you deserved to be there — probably because you knew there was always somebody who would come along and take your place if you didn’t.”
STAKING INDEPENDENCE: Emily said she hated wearing shin guards and preferred to play with her uniform sleeves tucked under her bra straps. By 1985, with the AIDS epidemic causing a global panic, shin guards became the rule. “They didn’t want blood being exchanged on the field. So I cut mine into the smallest shin guards imaginable — and I would start the game with my shirt sleeves down to keep the coach happy, but then I’d tuck them in again a few minutes later.”
LINGERING EFFECTS: Emily offers cautionary tales to parents and players, both from her own perspective and that of her daughter, Avery, a teenager who recently stopped playing club soccer due to chronic injuries related to concussions and iliotibial band syndrome from overuse of the knees. On one hand, Emily said, children who hope to progress to the highest levels of the game need to be practicing frequently with the ball in their own back yards or local parks to improve their skills. On the other hand, she said parents need to be sure the children are not being exposed to too much contact too young — and they’re allowing injuries to properly heal. Emily recently suffered health setbacks due to an autoimmune disorder and wonders if it could be related to frequent heading of the ball all those years earlier. She is among 20 National Teamers, including Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain, who volunteered for a landmark study of female soccer players’ brains, known as SHINE, at Boston University. “There’s just so much we don’t know,” said Emily, who was inducted into the Long Island Soccer Hall of Fame in 2015. “It’s a great game. I’ll always love it. But I do know we need to be more careful.”