Briana Scurry Talks Concussions

The Olympian and Women's World Cup champion on the brain injury that ended her goalkeeping career. And kickstarted her role as advocate.

Women’s World Cup champion and Olympian Briana Scurry. photo by Jennifer Packard

It’s easy to imagine Briana Scurry defending a soccer goal, although it has been years since she did it for a living.

After a decade and a half of goalkeeping at the highest echelons of women’s soccer, she still shows certain reflexes, like the way her hands automatically fan open as she talks. Sitting on the couch of her Alexandria townhouse (she recently moved there from Ballston), she appears ready to spring into action. But the determined grimace she wore as goalkeeper in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final—when her penalty-kick save propelled the U.S. Women’s National Team to a win against China—has been replaced by a wide smile, even when she brings up the hard years that have transpired since then.

When asked about the brain injury that ended her professional career—and launched an unexpected second act—Scurry, still athletic at 45, jumps from her seat and into a crouched position, arms wide.

“It’s easier if I show you,” she says.

It was April 2010 and Scurry was in goal for the Washington Freedom during an away game against the Philadelphia Independence. The ball came toward her from the left, she pantomimes, intended as a pass to an attacking forward she didn’t see speeding toward her right side. When Scurry scooped it up, her opponent’s knee collided with Scurry’s right temple, sending them both to the ground.

A few minutes later, the backs of her teammates’ jerseys began to blur and she struggled to stay upright until the halftime whistle. She didn’t play the second half. She hasn’t played professional soccer since.

Scurry didn’t know then that the haze, the dizziness and the chronic headaches that followed were a textbook case of traumatic brain injury (TBI), the beginning of her crash course on a subject she never wanted to know so intimately.

The headaches radiated from behind her left ear, where the snap of her neck during the collision had left her occipital nerve in a shambles. The nerve damage caused pain so intense, she says, that it masked secondary issues with balance, memory and her emotional state—problems that physical therapy might have otherwise helped remedy.

Scurry tried to push through with her post-career aspirations, appearing as a commentator during ESPN’s coverage of the 2011 Women’s World Cup and working as general manager for a professional women’s team, the MagicJack. But she struggled to remember the players’ statistics or to absorb new information. She was bumping into things, she recalls, and felt depressed, anxious, even suicidal.

“If you have a knee injury, you might be on crutches for a while, but your brain is still working,” she says. “But when you have a concussion, all of that can be disrupted. It’s like a record with scratches on it; it affects everything.”

She didn’t know that one out of two female soccer players is likely to suffer a concussion over the course of her career—a statistic from the for-profit Sports Concussion Institute that Scurry now quotes regularly. She didn’t know she would be among a small number whose lives are dramatically altered by an injury that has become so commonplace in so many sports, yet is often ignored or misdiagnosed. Although more people than ever understand the risks associated with football—three-quarters of male football players are likely to have a concussion, according to the Sports Concussion Institute—few realize that half of female soccer players may suffer the same fate.

When Scurry needed help getting her insurance company to cover a promising treatment she had found in Washington, D.C., she decided to go public with her story. She turned to Live Wire Media Relations in Arlington and moved to the area from New Jersey.  In the fall of 2013, she had experimental surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital to “release” her occipital nerve. The surgery relieved her headaches, allowing her to treat the other symptoms with physical therapy. And the media attention established her as a concussion expert willing to speak out about her own experience.

Chryssa Zizos, founder and president of Live Wire (which is based in Shirlington), got to know Scurry while helping her launch a full-time public speaking career that has included testifying before Congress about the debilitating effects of concussions. The two fell in love and have been together for three years.

“Her ability to connect with her audiences is unparalleled,” Zizos says. “We’ve had people on the verge of suicide reach out to her, and she drops everything she’s doing to try to help them.”

When Scurry speaks at colleges or at brain injury conferences, people in the audience frequently come up afterward to talk—not about her Olympic medals (she has two golds) or about her inclusion in a permanent Title IX exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. More often, it’s to mention the hit that they—or their child—took during a game and how they’ve never felt the same. Parents ask if it was worth it, if they should have let their daughter play, knowing the risks.

Scurry gives them a hug. Sometimes, she cries.

“Soccer has given me so much,” she tells them. “I would never say that I wish I hadn’t done it.”

Freelance journalist Whitney Pipkin played travel soccer as a kid, but dreaded being put in goal.

Categories: People