Before Brandi Chastain ripped her jersey off after scoring the winning penalty kick in the ’99 Women’s World Cup, it was Briana Scurry who reached out and blocked a penalty kick from China’s number three kicker. It was a save in goal that sent the 90,000 plus screaming fans into a frenzy. July 10, 1999 is a date that has never been forgotten by the soccer faithful all around the country and it’s a date that lives on through the generations as every man, woman and child remembers where they were on that amazing day. For Scurry, however, it is April 25, 2010 that weighs heavily on her mind. That day, it would be a hit to the head that would end her professional soccer career and create a platform for speaking out on the dangers of concussions in sport.
We went One-on-One with Briana in December to talk more about her advocacy, experience, and recovery from nerve decompression surgery.
Interview Date- December 6, 2013
[Concussion Connection]: During your playing career, growing up, in college, with the national team, and the two professional team, what was your overall knowledge and/or awareness of concussions?
[Briana Scurry]: I would have to say throughout the majority of my playing career I
didn’t have a whole lot of understanding about concussions and, to be honest, I didn’t have a lot of interest. It’s kind of like until something happens to you, you aren’t all that concerned about it . We had the ImPACT testing done way back around 2002 with the national team or 2004, something like that, so we were one of the first groups to have this testing done for our team. I would get knocked in the head every once in a while, but I have been blessed for the most part to not get injured at all, really. So you know, we took the ImPACT test and thought it was kind of funny, you know, and then you don’t think about it until you get rocked and then you think I have to take these tests and it’s really hard and it’s a little scary. I think I got 27% on one and I was like, you know. I didn’t really know a lot about concussions and I really, unfortunately, wasn’t all that concerned about it at the time either.
[Concussion Connection]: What you knew about concussions, what you were taught through the national team or through your professional team, or were you just aware it was a head injury?
[Briana Scurry]: Well, we were made aware on my National team through the trainers and the doctors. There wasn’t ever a meeting about concussions specifically, it was just a meeting about overall health. It was kind of like, hey these guys are here and they are going to administer this ImPACT baseline test and everyone is going to do it, here is your time. And we were like, “Okay” and by the time you would take the test and were out the door you would forget all about it until you got rocked. I have to say even when other teammates would have a couple days out of training for head injury, no one ever had anything severe when I played as far as I know. I know Abby (Wambach) is one of those cases where thank goodness all the times she has been rocked that she has recovered fairly quickly even from the bad ones. I remember times where she would have to get stitched up on the sidelines after getting smacked in the head, she had like eight stitches and a staple gun. She always recovered, to the best of my knowledge and so no one was ever severely affected by it. It’s quite a bit more of a trend now, honestly. More of a trend from football and what have you. I think the science just wasn’t there at the time, when I played, to be honest.
Our National team I think we did it (ImPACT) through the USOC so it might have been a USOC top down kind of thing and we were one of the first teams to do it for soccer back in 2002 or 2000 whatever it was. I had never heard of it and no one else had ever heard of it and so I think we were one of the first adopters to even have it done for our team, for soccer anyway. That was a long time ago, for us. You are thinking 2009, you know, that’s at least five years, if not more.
The reason I am so driven to be a voice and a face for this is because it’s just a weird injury that you can’t see it. Someone the other day, I was in the car with someone and I was telling them about my injury and how I did have this surgery done a month ago and this and that. They were like, “Oh, you look fine” and everyone says that. I am like, “Thank you”, but that is part of the problem. Before my surgery and before I even met Dr. Crutchfield and Dr. Ducic, I could muster a little bit of sanity for an hour or two to hang out with some friends. It was the nights or the hells or the times when I was just by myself that I knew things weren’t right with me. Yea, I could figure out don’t bump into this car or don’t bump into that door jam, but walk in the middle because I am feeling tilted and don’t talk about how I have a level seven headache right now, just don’t talk about it. So everybody is like, “Well, you look fine” and I’m like, “Yea, but how do I explain to someone who says that I look fine, that I’m not.”
[Concussion Connection]: Did you feel like people just didn’t want to hear about how you were feeling anyway, even if you said something?
[Briana Scurry]: You know, I felt like when I talk to people about what I was going through, it wasn’t that they didn’t want to know, it’s just that they really couldn’t relate to it. I always thought, “am I not communicating clearly?” Because I would say, “I’m cloudy today” or “the pain is radiating from behind my ear” again, always the same place, this and that.
You know, I’m in great pain, but earlier that day I hit two home runs on the softball field. Then the guys on my coed softball team, when they read the article they would be Facebook me and be like, “What? I had no idea!” and I would be like, “I know you didn’t because I didn’t show that side, I was trying to be normal.” I think part of my trying to be normal was not necessarily hiding it, but just not talking about it to anybody as if it would go away or something. That’s not what I thought, but it’s just like you know what? If I say something then it is just going to be a five minute conversation that they probably won’t understand anyway.
Unless they’ve been through it, then they would get it. The only way you get it is if you go through it is the sad thing. People say that you wouldn’t understand, well concussion is kind of like the injury you wouldn’t understand. I’ve tried so hard to conceptualize, to go from my feelings to a conception to a description to someone else of how it feels and I hear myself say the words and I’m like, “No, that’s not it.” I’m like, no, not like that, it’s more like this. You can’t… I’ve thought about this a lot. The problem is the way I saw the world, the way I experienced the world changed. And that is not something someone gets until they have the change on them. That’s how I try to describe it, but it’s like having a set of sunglasses on that are blurry, that aren’t yours. This is the best way I can describe how my day is for the most part. People work and go to school and they do whatever they do, I mean you guys know, you guys have your lives, you walk through your lives 24/7 365 and it’s your life. You have certain time when you are engaging someone else’s attention and you have a bunch of time in between when you’re not and that’s the time when you notice something is not right. And you just learn to deal with it overtime, because what else are you going to do?
[Concussion Connection]: And as athletes, that’s what we do.
[Briana Scurry]: Exactly, get back out there, shake it off, you know. I’m fine, you’re fine, we’re fine, you know. Team needs me, coach is pressuring me. All kinds of stuff like that, there is so much around that, especially when you can’t see it. You know you’ve got these coaches that want these kids who are 15 years old playing club soccer and one girl gets her head smashed by another girl trying to do a header and she’s down while, but she seems fine because the coach is looking at her and she looks fine, but he wants her back out there. She’s not quite sure, but of course she wants to be back out there too, right? So she goes back out there and you have one trainer that doesn’t really know because it’s somebody’s parent who is a nurse or something and their like, “well, I don’t know, but Lindsey looks fine.” Ok go!
[Concussion Connection]: We use this analogy- Asking a concussed player if they can play is like asking a drunk person if they can drive.
[Briana Scurry]: Exactly. Exactly! What’s the answer always going to be? “I’m fine”. You get your drunk situations and you think back to them and they’re stumbling, but are like, “I’m fine.” And you know clearly, no, but a drunk person will fight you for the right to get behind that wheel and make a weapon out of their car, they will fight you for the ability to drive themselves home. Just like a player will fight, will argue their case to their coach as to why they can go back out there. Abby (Wambach), I think, I would venture to guess, and I love her to death, but she is very convincing. You could not keep… Abby would run through a brick wall, fall down, pass out, wake up, and would want to run through another one. How do you tell that girl, “no”?
[Concussion Connection-Samantha]: Well, I think that’s the thing. Doctors don’t want to get between coaches and players, but from my perspective, it’s like that’s your job because both of them want the same thing so they need to step in and say, “you can’t play.” The coach might be mad, but that’s what you have to do.
[Briana Scurry]: You’re a check in the balance as a medical professional to make these decisions. I mean when a player goes out there and breaks their ankle and it’s facing the wrong way, okay, you’re out, you’re leg isn’t working. But with a head injury a lot of times you can’t tell it right away for sure. For me, I got hit 35 minutes into the first half and I didn’t start see stuff shift for a couple of minutes. I got progressively worse over the next 24 to 48 hours from when I got hit. I’m sure I’m not the only one where that is the case.
[Concussion Connection]: It’s almost like initially you don’t really realize what is going on and so that’s why you say, “I’m fine” because there is no pain right away necessarily.
[Briana Scurry]: Right and plus as an athlete you are trained to say “I’m fine”. It’s like a knee jerk. And you are thinking about how to say that sentence, “I’m okay coach, put me back in”. Having to think about the words and say them properly is a sign that you are not okay.
[Concussion Connection]: How many concussions have you had? Do you know?
[Briana Scurry]: Well, in the course of my entire career, I have honestly, truly been incredibly blessed by being able to get the hell out of the way of the situation before it occurs to me, before it happens. So I would probably say, if I were completely dead honest and calling something that was a little more than a bell ring what it is, which is a concussions, I would say I have had five in the 15 years I played on the National Team. I don’t recall a single one when I was in college to be honest, doesn’t meant it didn’t happen though, but I don’t recall any. So between November of 1993 when I got my first call up to the National Team until 2008 when I played my very last game that year, I probably had five in a 15 year span, which isn’t bad. You know, relatively spread out, not that severe. I think I read a stat recently that 85% of people who get hit and have a concussion have no problem, I think Dr. Crutchfield said that, 85% no problems. It’s the 15% that are the ones that need the help. If I got hit five times, the one out of five which is roughly 20%, is the one that got me.
[Concussion Connection]: It’s the key to having them spread out also, that’s important.
[Briana Scurry]: Yea, it is important. It’s that healing, right, it’s the time to heal like any other injury. I’ve known players to play on torn, completely severed ACLs. Can everybody do that? No. Can some people do that? Yea. That doesn’t mean she didn’t tear her ACL in half just because she went back out there and played. She still got the injury, but she was, for whatever reason, her body was made in a way that her muscles were supportive enough that she is still able to play although she is feeling pain and is hindered and then when you give her the MRI and it’s “holy crap” it’s torn in half. How did you do that? Well, I mean, everybody is different.
[Concussion Connection]: What are your thoughts on the concussion lawsuits?
[Briana Scurry]: Going the suing route because when you get taken out early on in a very promising professional career, at some point you are probably going to look to sue somebody. What you could’ve been doing and what you are doing, you would clearly have been doing the other thing if you were able to.
My thing is, okay, I say a concussion has… okay, say you have a bowl and you have M&Ms in it, like 47 M&Ms in the bowl. Those are all symptoms of concussion, if you reach your hand in and grab a scoop of M&Ms that’s the set of concussion symptoms that I have and then you reach your hand in there and you pull out different symptoms, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a concussion, you just have different things going on in your head and in your mind than I do. I think, too, that is part of the problem also. Certain things, no I didn’t have, but was I walking to my left all the time and smacking into the wall and losing my balance, yea! I had that going on, I still have that. I still have issues and I think, for me, it is important to be a voice because my level of concentration, my ability to tune out 90,000 people in the World Cup penalty kicks, I could tune out 90,000 people and there are not a lot of people in the world that could not see themselves in that situation. So my ability is 90,000 people, I don’t want to be average, I wasn’t average to begin with, see what I’m saying? I want my ability back to tune out 90,000 people and have that kind of focus, but the way I’ve been living for the past three and a half years, I couldn’t focus on anything. I was completely and totally distracted all of the time. I couldn’t get… my ducks would be running all over the place and I couldn’t get my ducks to get in line and it’s frustrating. I don’t know, how can I convey that to someone how frustrating that is for me?
[Concussion Connection-Lauren]: I explain it to people, like my day to day life, even in a quiet room is like living in an airport 24/7. People are like, “oh wow, that could be annoying” and it’s like “uh, yeah!“
[Briana Scurry]: Yes. You’re like yea, annoying as crap, I can’t magnify, I feel the focus is everything. It’s really noisy compared to when I was able to feel the focus to a dot where I could literally just shut things off and concentrate. Now, I can’t concentrate 10 minutes on the internet without getting up, straightening this, fidgeting with this, thinking about that, all of these thoughts coming in. I get up, I go to the bathroom and decide I want to brush my teeth right then. I don’t want to brush my teeth right then! It’s irrational almost.
[Concussion Connection]: You know your ability beforehand and you know your ability after so when you try to explain to someone, even though they are still functioning within a normal limit, they don’t understand. They are like “well you are able to do these things” and it’s like “absolutely, but it takes me five times the effort than it used to”.
[Briana Scurry]: Exactly. It takes extra effort and it takes me forever, you know. That’s the normal limit of, no offense, but normal people. I had superpower, you know what I mean, I had superpower focus and superpower intensity. I had the ability to go in the zone at will. Professional athletes talk about the zone, the ability to do that, and very few professional athletes can even say they can go into the zone at will, but I had that ability and now you are telling me I am in range? Well, who’s range?! You take those tests and they are like, you tested in the 98th percentile, okay, well yea, I was up there even higher. For you telling me I am within range, I want to punch you in the face because I’m like yea, what range are you talking about?
[Concussion Connection]: People look at you and are like, “I have a hard time remembering that too.”
[Briana Scurry]: I know, the car at the mall thing and they’re like “you know, I forget where my car is too” and I say “you don’t understand, I never forgot where my car was.” That’s not something that was in my skill set. I had the ability to not forget where my car was and now I have to write it down! I have to write down where I part my car, I have to write down what level, and I have to write down as much information as I can. You know, if it’s like G2 green with a peacock, I have to write all of that down. Some places, like Mall of America, it’s crazy like that because they have like eight things to indicate where you parked your car and I had to write all of it down because I’m not going to find my car.
[Concussion Connection]: Do you have emotional symptoms as well, past or present?
[Briana Scurry]: Oh my goodness, yea. Okay, so with my surgery, that was one situation of three. I have the vestibular process which is the annoying balance thing, I have the occipital neuralgia which is damaged nerves, and I have what Dr. Crutchfield classified as post-concussive symptoms. I think I have something else, number four on a list of five.
What I have is serious emotional difficulties. I had to decipher was my depression from the
end of my career, or was I depressed about not getting better, or is there really something with my brain right now where the chemistry has changed. I didn’t know for sure, but I had a really nice lady Facebook me the other day and she is dealing with the same thing. She was like, “I’ve been on the couch for months, I can’t even drive.” I think wow, that’s really bad, she can’t even get herself anywhere. She has to depend on someone else. It’s things like that, that’s the stuff that makes you depressed, because you are an independent person and then all of the sudden you have all of these things radically change. You’re having pain or you’re having ringing in your ears or the room starts spinning and all of these types of things. That in and of itself is depressing. So a lot of time they give you anti-depressants. I had depression and, which I thought was absolutely ridiculous, anxiety. I didn’t even know what anxiety was before I got hit. People will play professional sports talk about their IPZ which is their performance zone, this is the time before the competition right, it’s like a psychological term. I never ever worried or was concerned about a game. I never had worry, I never had anxiety, I never had panic, I never had any of that. I had all kinds of anxiety about going to meet someone: if I was going to get lost, if I was going to find it, if I was going to be late, all this ridiculous stuff. That one took me a while to figure out. Like why do I care about this stuff? I never used to care about this stuff. Why do I care about it now? Why do I literally have, like I feel a little sweaty or I feel a little panicky and my heart is beating about meeting someone for lunch and whether I am going to be late or find a parking space or find the place. What is that? That’s the kind of stuff, that’s the emotional side too. That’s my anxiety, panicky, stupid. I thought it was stupid, I’m like why am I concerned about this stuff?
[Concussion Connection]: Once you get a name behind it, it’s kind of nice to know what it is.
[Briana Scurry]: It is. Once I figured that out, I was like okay, I am not just losing my mind, well it felt like I was losing my mind which made me angry. Once I figured that out, I was like “Okay Bri, you are having this because it is just part of the concussion.” Then once I got that, then I did have some peace around it, I admit. Once I figured out what it was, I did have some peace around it, but boy did it drive me bonkers up until then. I’m like, why do I even care about this stuff, you know? And then you said something about five times the effort to do something, that’s another thing that I use with people when I tell them. I’m like yea, I can do this, I can write this email that I just wrote you, say I wrote you an email. Do you know how long it took me to write that? Do you know what I mean? I have dissected sentence structure and reassembled it in bizarre ways sometimes. I’ll read an email, I’ll write one and I’ll put it away for a draft and I’ll look at it later because I’m like I have to double check this or triple or quadruple. I’ll have stuff in there that I am like, what? Write a thought, have another thought in the middle of that thought, write that thought and go back to the other thought. I’m like, what is that doing there? What did I even mean by that? That’s not what I was thinking. That disconnect between what I wanted to say and what I actually typed somehow gets intertwined.
One of my doctors who was a team doctor, he would come to games when I was with the Washington Freedom so I had already retired from international play with the National Team. When I got this hit he was at the game that I went to after to support the team, I wasn’t playing, and I was shagging balls right? A ball hit one of the signs behind the goals, one of the metal signs behind the goal, a sign for sponsorship. The ball hit that and I was completely startled and he said to me later, “Bri that’s when I knew there was something wrong with you because there is no way you would ever have been startled by a ball hitting anything.” He is the one that told me, okay you have a certain amount of context of what you can input the content of your life like stressors, tasks, things to do, all this stuff. You have a level at which you can deal with this stuff before you will feel stressed out, right? Whatever that level is. So playing the World Cup, playing in the Olympic Games, I never felt stressed about that. I was always incredibly comfortable and at peace with it whereas most people would probably be like holy shit, right? He came to me and said, “Bri what happened when you got hit is your context dropped. Now when you put in the stressors of daily life, you will start to feel that panic and anxiety at a very, much lower level than you are used to because it almost depleted and it shut down your context.” I was like, “that is a great analogy doc, but okay how do I get my context back to the way it was? I’m interested in that, you know?”
For me it ended up being the pain behind my ear, that was the thing that needed to get solved first and that was what the surgery was about for me. So I still have a road to go on, but that pain was not going to allow me to do anything unless it was gone. Dr. Crutchfield figured that out early and he told me, “we need to deal with this source of your pain here because I can’t fix what’s wrong with you with your balance and your mood and all of this other stuff. If you have this constant pain then you are going to be stressed and nothing is going to work.” That was the first thing.
[Concussion Connection]: We are all about the support aspect. Obviously you played on the National Team and you were very close with teammates and those you played professional soccer with. Did any of them know what you were going through for those three years before you came in the article and said everything you had been dealing with? When they did find out what was their response? Were they surprised? Did they support you? What was the experience like with those you had played along side for, you know, decades?
[Briana Scurry]: They didn’t really know because I would see them periodically post-hit, I got hit April 25, 2010. I was retired from the national team and most of my teammates at the time were retired except for a handful, like maybe two, Abby (Wambach) and Christie (Rampone) were the only two I played with on any consistent basis and Hope (Solo), of course, but that was only two years. The girls that were all retired, I would see them and, like I said, I could hold myself together for a little while and seem just fine.
I was at the World Cup with ESPN for a month. I was there with Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy. I guarantee if you ask Brandi now that she knows, she would probably say okay, because I would go to my room after the work was done. I seldom went out to dinner with the gang, with the group, because of the loudness of a restaurant and I zapped my tank all day because I was working on the set or whatever, I needed to rest. Often I would either bail out early or I wouldn’t go or I would go just once every few times. I hid it really well, but I think now if people look back in retrospect, my teammates would probably say “okay, I did notice Bri, she would be there for the work and then we would all go out to dinner and she would go back to the hotel.” I’m sure at the time everybody just thought I was being antisocial. It ended up being antisocial but there was a reason. One was that I needed the rest and two was that I needed to recharge my batteries because I probably had to do some studying on the next game that was coming up.
[Concussion Connection]: When you were filming the ’99ers and you were all together in the spring of this year, none of them had any idea. Eve as you were talking about things, they were completely unaware at the time?
[Briana Scurry]: That is a great example! That whole reunion part of that show, of that film that Julie (Foudy) did, fantastic job by the way. She did that January 29th and 30th of this year back to Pasadena in the Rose Bowl. That was not even a week before I saw Dr. Crutchfield and he diagnosed me with all of my issues. At that time, during the day when we filmed all of that, there was a part of that filming where I was very emotional toward the end of it. A lot of that had to do with what I was talking about, but also had to do with my emotional state. It seemed that I was just very touched and emotional talking about the good ol’ days, but it wasn’t just that, it was my issues. They all, all of them have emailed me since the story came out. Emailed me or called or Facebooked and said, “Bri, I had no idea.” Everybody says, “I had no idea.” Just my handful of really close friends that I have known 10 plus years, only they knew because they were the only ones that I would actually speak to about it.
[Concussion Connection]: That speaks to your ability to hide it. You know your limits and then bow out gracefully when you know you have reached that limit.
[Briana Scurry]: Exactly, I played softball recreationally three nights a week back in the spring and summer of 2012. That was before Dr. Crutchfield said I need to cut that shit out, I was inflaming my occipital nerve on a regular basis when I went out and played softball and hit that ball and ran around and all the other stuff. Stop training those kids because when you are demonstrating and you are slamming yourself on the ground, there is a reason why you have a level 7 headache or a level 10 and you had to take vicodin to knock it down. He told me I was making it worse, but I didn’t know, I just thought this was my lot. Although every doctor told me there is nothing I can do, I always held out hope that at some point I would meet a doctor that would tell me what was wrong. In the meantime I have to have a life. When the story came out, a lot of my softball team Facebooked me and said, “Bri, I had no idea” and “boy, you looked great”. Well, my three hours of playing ball I could muster, but after the game I was in absolute hell. On my drive home from the game or from a training session, oh my God, the pain was insane. Vicodin was the only thing that helped, at the time. I think, for me, now that I have had that surgery and that pain from the left side of my ear was so severe at times, I am in absolute heaven now that I don’t have any of that pain anymore. I still bump into the wall on occasion because the vestibular process balance issues, I still have those. It’s like night and day now that I don’t have any nerves in that area at all basically. They just went in there and took them all out of there, but hey, you know.
[Concussion Connection]: Our motto is you take it “One Day at a Time”
[Briana Scurry]: Yea, that’s all you can do. I mean as elementary as that sounds, because can you take it any other way? Well, not really, but I kept waking up the next morning thinking I was going to be me again. How cool would that be? Every once in a while I would have a really clear and crisp day and I would be like, oh this is great, and I would think, okay this is what it’s like to be normal, it’s been so long. Then the next day I would wake up or later that day I would start to cloud again. I would actually start to use my neck again, I would start to use my eyes, I would have stimulus happening because I’m awake and here I am cloudy again before you know it.
[Concussion Connection]: It’s nice when we get the opportunity to talk to someone who understands what we have been through as well.
[Briana Scurry]: That is so important, and I love my friends to death. One of my friends used to play Division I college soccer, she’s a goalkeeper as well and had her bell rung more than a few times so she has had some concussions. So she gets it as well as anyone, but when you have had the same issues going on three months, six months, a year, a year and a half… I mean, for crying out loud you learn to live with it, but for goodness sake!
My relief that I have had since the surgery, I realized how much better I was when I went to a restaurant with some friends and I didn’t have to have complete lockdown eye contact with whoever was talking in order to hear them. I didn’t have a headache and I didn’t feel distracted and I didn’t hear every single chirp of anybody in that restaurant that was incredibly loud in my ear. That pain being gone, for whatever reason, made the world more pleasant for me. I was so happy during that one meal, I felt like oh my gosh, I’m on my way, this is awesome! So this is what it used to feel like to be me.
Everybody is different and that’s the one thing I think for me, I wasn’t willing to accept what the doctor was saying that this was just going to be my life. I was like, hell no. I understand that the practice of medicine is called a practice for a reason. They call it a practice because it’s not a science, being a doctor and diagnosing people is not necessarily a science for a lot of things. I mean, how many people have mystery things wrong with them, go to six doctors and none of them can figure it out, but go to number seven and he figures it out. I was like, okay, I will search until I find a doctor that knows what he is talking about.
When I saw Dr. Crutchfield and he examined me, he was the first doctor to actually touch me. All of the other doctors didn’t touch me. He touched me behind my left ear where the occipital nerve was and I near jumped off the frickin’ table. I had no idea that it was that sensitive back there. And he said “yup” and then had me do another test where he had me walk away from him and walk back and close my eyes and stand there. Then he asked me to lift my right leg and I started to tip over and he was like, “yup”. Then he told me to close my eyes again and he started smacked me around a little on my shoulders for my balance and I would fall over and he’s like, “yup”. Bam, Bam, Bam, in 10 to 15 minutes. Then I sat down and I cried for five minutes straight because I knew I had finally found the guy that could help me. Three years it took to find the right doctor. I’m a professional athlete, I should have access to badass people that can figure stuff out and nobody could figure it out.
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