Concussions may have ended Presley Roberts’ playing career

Light at the end of a long, dark tunnel

The final in a two-part series on the impact that a concussion can have on a young athlete.

Part 1: When a world comes crashing down

Part 2:

It seemed like forever before Presley Roberts started to emerge from the fog of her first concussion.

At first, doctors suggested a three-month recovery, which stretched to six months and then a year. Not until the 18 month mark did she finally start to feel normal.

For three weeks she didn’t have any headaches, and she was able to concentrate in school. She could go on walks without feeling fall-over dizzy. Most importantly, the depression and roller-coaster mood swings subsided.

Her mom said Presley would come back to her, and she did.

The happy-go-lucky teen with a zillion Facebook friends was back in action, planning a return to the thing she loved most.

Soccer!

Heading into her Grade 12 year at Chilliwack secondary school, she readied herself to backstop the senior girls soccer squad. Head coach Shane Mummery was thrilled to have her back, naming her first as he scanned his roster.

“She is a real good goaltender and she’ll give us a chance to be competitive in just about every game we play,” he said.

At a preseason tournament at CSS, Presley was enjoying her long-awaited return to the pitch.

“Just don’t head the ball,” Mummery said, half joking. Which is, of course, exactly what she did. A few minutes into her first game, she came tearing out of net and threw her noggin into the ball, with Chilliwack Progress photographer Jenna Hauck capturing the moment on the front page of the Progress sports section.

But, she felt OK! Presley was happy beyond belief.

For the next 10 minutes.

Suddenly, an opponent was on a breakaway and Presley was at the top of the 18-yard box to challenge. The attacking player had a bad touch and the keeper thought she could dive out and get the ball. All her life Presley had been taught to bring her knee up when she dove, using it to protect her face, and that’s what she tried to do here. But she wasn’t quick enough. She got the ball, but she also got kicked in the head.

“I tried to get up but went right down back again, and I knew something was wrong,” she said. “Everything I felt with my first concussion started coming back instantly and knew it was another one.”

Intellectually, Presley knew it.

But she didn’t want to admit it.

Mummery moved a finger in front of her face to check her eye movements and asked her some basic questions. All the while, Presley was trying to assure him that she was OK. Despite everything she’d been through with the first concussion, and her awareness that she’d just sustained a second, her main goal was staying in the game.

“I’m stubborn, and I wanted to keep fighting,” she said. “I was basically denying everything I knew.”

Presley sat on the sidelines, still insisting she was OK. But the yelling and screaming of the crowd behind her was so, so loud. And as she tried to track the movement of the players and ball on the field in front of her, she felt herself becoming nauseous.

She desperately wanted to get to the bathroom to throw up. Escorted by her friend, Sarah Bowen, Presley moved like a celebrity trying to avoid the paparazzi. Head down the entire way, talking to no one, she walked through the gym in her cleats, found a toilet and vomited. As she left the bathroom she was confronted by Mummery and all of her gym teachers, intervention style.

A few minutes later, Mom got a phone call that her daughter was at the hospital.

“It made me sick,” she recalled. “The poor thing having to go through all of that again.”

• • •

At least this time Presley knew what to expect.

While not all concussions are created equal, she recognized the symptoms and knew how to manage them. Still, she battled her type-A personality the entire way. Every time she had a good day, she wanted to get out there test herself.

She almost always regretted it.

“As soon as you try you know you probably shouldn’t have,” she said. “When you’re an athlete, a lot of times you hurt your knee or get some bruises and you tough it out because you know you can ice it down later. With a concussion, the more you try to push through it the more you hurt yourself later on. That’s the hardest part. Knowing when to stop and when to go.”

For her 16th birthday, Presley wanted to go bungee-jumping. While concussed! And she was angry when her parents objected.

In the midst of her second concussion, Presley and some friends (including also-concussed Sarah Bowen) went to a Luke Bryan concert.

Worst. Idea. Ever.

The lights started strobing and the music started blaring and all Presley and Sarah could do was lower their heads and cover their ears.

* * *

It was a trip to Victoria and a visit with a neuropsychologist that finally drove home how serious this was. She went there for a meet-and-greet, accompanied by her aunt. After her first concussion, Presley thought she might want to get involved in this field of medicine, and this trip was supposed to be about that.

But while she was there, the doctor ran her through a series of tests.

Again, simple stuff. Presley sat at a computer and tapped the keyboard to test her cognitive reflexes. She was asked to match colors and shapes. The tests ran over four hours, but one hour in she knew she was in trouble.

“She’s a lot more damaged than she appears to be,” the doctor said.

Later, Presley looked at her scores on a computer monitor. You want green, not red, and all she could see was a sea of red. She had scored in the first percentile, meaning that if Presley and 99 of her peers took that same test that same day, all of them would have performed better than her.

It shifted her world.

She looked the doctor in the eyes and asked if she could still play soccer.

She’ll never forget the response.

“If you want to continue to live a healthy lifestyle, you should give it up now.”

Later, on the ferry ride back to the Mainland Presley felt a tear running down her cheek, and she rushed to the bathroom.

No one was around, so she let it all out, sobbing uncontrollably.

All the weekends given up. All the late night practices in the rain. The struggles. The bruises. The joy. The laughter. Presley had dreamed of playing soccer at the university level and she was almost there. So, so close. And now, done.

She told her parents when she got home. They expected it. After the first concussion they’d encouraged her to battle back and play again. But the test results were too scary. The game she loved could hurt her too much.

* * *

She went to school the following week and sat down in Mummery’s office.

Throughout the last year, Mummery and co-coach Jason Templeton had leaped out her way in the school hallways, joking about not wanting to hurt her. They’d teased her about wrapping her in bubble wrap. But sitting there now, Mummery wasn’t in a joking mood.

He knew Presley’s potential and knew how long and how hard she’d worked. To him, it was like taking the paint brush out of Picasso’s hand. Taking the piano away from Beethoven. It wasn’t fair to end it like this.

The stoic coach tried so hard to hold back the tears. Presley could see his eyes get watery and when one tear finally escaped she felt better.

“It made me feel like, even though I’m not playing anymore, I made a difference,” she said.

* * *

It’s early October now and Presley is on the grass field adjacent to Promontory Community School, surrounded by a pack of seven, eight and nine year old girls. Presley’s been asked to come out and give the Chilliwack FC Hornets a crash course on goaltending, which would be easier to do if they’d just stop giggling for a second.

She takes them through a warm up, starting with butt kicks (giggle). They run to a pylon and back, their feet hitting their butts on the way. Then they do skips (giggle) with Presley telling them to get their knees up.

For these girls the biggest issue is diving. They are scared to hit the ground and stop the ball.

“I was scared, just like you are,” Presley says with a knowing smile.

She runs them through proper technique, putting added emphasis on the need to bring the knee up to protect the head. By the end of the practice the Hornets are flinging themselves from post to post with enthusiastic abandon.

Presley has a smile on her face and it’s hard to figure who’s getting more out of the experience, them or her.

She graduated high school in June and is trying to find her way in a world without soccer.

This moment gives her a brief connection to the game. Coaching is something she has a knack for. But she also doesn’t think she’s finished as an athlete just yet.

She might try her hand at track and field.

“It’s a new chapter, and I’m thinking pro wrestling,” she grins.

She feels almost fully recovered from the second concussion, though the family dog has been no help. One day she’s in the living room when Sid, a large fella named after Sidney Crosby, comes over and slams his head into hers.

He is persona non doggie the rest of the day.

She will live the rest of her life with just a little bit of fear forever lurking in the back of her mind. But Presley feels she’s stronger because the concussions happened. Her whole family is.

Asked how the experience has changed her, she pauses to reflect, then says, “We all saw each other when we were bare and broken down. We were all at the bottom and it took this experience to know how much we care about each other. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that you can’t go through something like this by yourself.”

Part 1: When a world comes crashing down