Taylor Twellman’s career-ending injury: A different time in concussion awareness
by Liviu Bird
This is a story I wrote for my Reporting and Storytelling class in March. I’ve been trying to get it published since I finished it, but I haven’t had any success. I figured it was time to post it here, just to get it out there somewhere. It’s a fairly long piece — 3,500 words that I’ve broken into two pieces for the site — but Taylor Twellman’s is a story worth reading in detail.
New England Revolution forward Taylor Twellman watched the ball go wide to teammate Khano Smith on the left side of the field, about 35 yards from the goal. As Smith took a look into the penalty box, Twellman prepared to cut toward the goal. Smith took one more preparatory touch and served the ball in with his left foot.
Twellman was one of two New England players in the box. He strolled in unmarked and leapt to meet the ball with his head, eyes focused on the flying sphere. Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin jumped up to punch the ball out, leading with his fists. Twellman got to the ball a split second before Cronin, heading it past him into an open goal from seven yards out.
“It was something that I’ve done my whole life and my whole career,” Twellman said in a phone interview in late February. “The ball goes out wide, I get in the box and do anything I can to get on the end of it.”
Then, the moment of impact: Cronin’s outstretched fists smacked Twellman on the right side of his face, snapping his head back and sending him into the turf.
That moment was the start of a two-year-long process in which Twellman battled the head injury that ended his professional soccer career. At the time of his injury, Twellman’s stock was rising in Major League Soccer, and his club had just refused to allow him to go to England and leave the league that needed his star power.
His status in the league contrasted sharply with the malaise and depression that followed his injury.
At first, Twellman didn’t seem to care that he just got punched in the face. The crowd was on its feet, cheering and yelling. Twellman sprinted toward the sideline, jumped and pumped his fist into the air. Shalrie Joseph was the first player to reach him, and as Twellman turned back toward the field to face him, he pointed to his head and said, “I’ve got a concussion.”
“The adrenaline’s there — big crowd, big game for us as we’re pushing for the playoffs — and so you score a goal, you celebrate, but then immediately, I was like, ‘Wow. My head hurts,’” he said.
He slumped down, his hands on his knees, leaning against the advertising boards next to the field. He grabbed his face, bleeding in the spot Cronin inadvertently punched him. Twellman collapsed onto his back, and the trainer rushed out to him.
The trainer held a piece of gauze to Twellman’s cut. As it turned out, Twellman also got a piece of Cronin — the goalkeeper’s finger broke on the play, and he left the game at halftime. However, Twellman stayed in the game after some preliminary tests (“Where are you?” “I’m in Foxborough.”), even though he told his teammate and the trainer he had a concussion to go along with his shiner.
The New England Revolution and Los Angeles Galaxy were locked in a 0-0 tie in the 22nd minute of a game with playoff implications on Aug. 30, 2008 when Twellman struck. In game No. 22 of the 30-game MLS season, New England needed points in the standings to get off the bubble and into a playoff spot.
It was Twellman’s 172nd game for New England, and his goal was the 99th of his MLS career. He had 30 U.S. national team caps and scored six goals, the last of which happened at Gillette Stadium, his club team’s home field. In the lead-up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Twellman scored a hat trick against Norway, solidifying the argument that the 25-year-old had to be included on the U.S. roster for the tournament.
Head coach Bruce Arena felt otherwise and left Twellman at home.
The St. Louis native continued to put goals away. In the summer of the World Cup, he bagged 11 goals. The next year, he poured in 16 in six fewer games. Although Twellman suffered through an injury-riddled 2008 season, he scored eight goals in 16 games.
It seemed nothing could keep him down. He ran through a goalkeeper’s fists and scored. Even though that goalkeeper left the game and missed the rest of the season, Twellman played the next eight weeks. It came as a surprise when, on Oct. 28, the New England Revolution announced that its star forward would be out indefinitely.
Twellman still suffered from concussion-related symptoms, even though he played every minute of league play since his encounter with Cronin. Without him, New England failed to score in its two playoff games against the Chicago Fire, tying 0-0 at home and losing 3-0 in Chicago. New England’s season was over, but for Twellman, the battle was just beginning.
Concussion awareness really took off in 2007, as the National Football League and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teamed up to start the Heads Up: Concussion in Youth Sports initiative. The initiative stemmed from former NFL players’ battles with concussion in retirement.
In the National Hockey League, Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby suffered hits to the head in consecutive games on Jan. 1 and Jan. 5, 2011, causing him to miss the rest of the 2010-2011 season with concussion symptoms. He returned briefly in November 2011, only to play eight games before his symptoms returned. Crosby hasn’t played since Dec. 5, 2011, although he is scheduled to return to play tonight.
Over the last few years, several high-profile MLS players have had their careers ended by concussion. Former No. 1 draft pick Alecko Eskandarian suffered four concussions in his pro career, which lasted from 2003 to 2009. Ross Paule retired at age 28 in 2005 after suffering four concussions in a year’s time. Josh Gros retired at age 25 in 2007; he had no less than seven concussions in that season alone. Terry Boss retired after last season at age 30 after suffering two concussions in quick succession, in July and September, although they were not the first two of his career.
Concussion symptoms vary by patient, said Dr. Mike Morris, medical director and orthopedic surgeon for Seattle Sounders FC, in an interview in his home in February.
“It can be as vague as, ‘I just don’t feel right.’ We had a player last year who came in at halftime, and we diagnosed a concussion because he said, ‘I don’t have a sense of urgency anymore. I don’t really care,’” Morris said. “So it can be very subtle stuff like that.”
Symptoms usually include headaches, dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to light and a lost interest in normally enjoyable activities. Concussions are caused by trauma; in other words, somebody has to be hit in the head to get a concussion. A rebound effect on the brain inside the skull is usually present, such as when somebody falls and hits his or her head on the ground. This whiplash-type effect sometimes causes an incorrect diagnosis of a concussion as a neck injury.
What the New England Revolution called a neck injury early on turned into a daily struggle with concussion symptoms. Twellman couldn’t look at his cell phone or a computer for more than five minutes at a time. He wore sunglasses and a hat anytime he left his Boston apartment because direct sunlight was too much to bear.
The headaches and nausea were the worst part of his post-concussion symptoms, Twellman said. In the beginning, his daily routine consisted of a short walk with his two dogs around the neighborhood followed by lying down in a dark room. He spent days on end in dark rooms, limiting his exposure to electronics or anything bright.
“I didn’t get much relief from it, so then I started looking into acupuncture,” Twellman said. “I really exhausted every opportunity to not only continue my playing career, but more importantly, just feel better.”
From the beginning, he kept a journal, which helped him when he was seeing neurologists. He recorded what his symptoms were, when they occurred and what changes to his daily routine or his diet did for his symptoms.
“It’s all the same crap you go through when you see a neurologist,” Twellman said, “but when I started showing them my journal, it’s amazing the prognosis that can be made and the help that (they could give me).”
In the meantime, he stopped exercising. Even riding a bike for 20 minutes gave him vertigo and made him nauseated.
“I don’t think anybody that’s ever had it will say that any other injury they’ve had was harder,” he said. “Reality is, none of us can do anything we do without our brain, and if you injure your brain, you can’t do anything.”
Depression set in, as Twellman could not do anything about his injury.
“The last three years of my life have been very difficult, dealing with depression and all that stuff,” he said. “The depression — people think it’s because I’m not playing soccer, and that’s part of it, but depression is a big part of … waking up every day feeling bad and feeling helpless, and it sucks.”
Read Part 2 of this story here.