Presley Roberts had every reason to believe she would be the next great goalie.

When a world comes crashing down

They call it The Beautiful Game.
But it also has a dark side: Concussion.
The first of a two-part series

Somewhere in Presley Roberts’ house there’s a big box filled to the brim with soccer goalie gloves, and every once in a while she pulls it out for a look.

Each set reminds her of something. Tiny ones from long ago when she first got serious about netminding. Whenever the coach asked who wanted to play goal, there was little Presley, jumping around, waving her arms in the air saying, ‘Me! Me! Me!”

Another pair reminds her of a diving stop she made in U-12, and she hears the echoes of teammates and coaches yelling, “Great save Presley!”

In her hands now she stares at the gloves she wore so proudly in 2006 when she traveled to Tampa, FL for an Olympic Development Program camp. Yep. She was that good. No. Great. She was going to be a high school star. Then a university star, and who knows after that.

Sky was the limit.

“I wasn’t the one going out to buy a bunch of stiletto shoes,” Presley says. “When I got my pay cheque, I was going out to buy gloves.”

She was going to be the next great goalie, until one day and one moment changed everything.

* * *

It’s a friendly after-school soccer game, pitting the girls against the guys.

Lots of joking. Lots of laughter. The perfect way to blow off steam after a long day at school.

Presley’s in net as the ball gets booted into her end. It’s close enough where she thinks she can rush out and get it, and because she’s one of the most aggressive goalies you’d ever meet, you know she’s going to try.

She comes rushing to the top of her 18 yard box and drops to one knee as she stretches for the ball.

BAM!

Her own teammate’s knee slams into her nose, and everything goes black.

What happens next, Presley only knows because people have told her. Only fragments come back to her. Blood on her gloves. A really itchy nose. Mostly she remembers the feeling, like being hit by a train.

Presley’s been told she spent 15 minutes laying on the turf at Townsend Park, and she remembers being horribly dizzy and nauseous when she finally got to her feet. So dizzy and nauseous she had to be carried off.

In her entire soccer career to that point, Presley had never exited a game before it was done and one of her fragments is the faces of people who watched her leave the field that day, seeing their looks of fear. They didn’t know what was going on, and neither did she as she took a short two-minute drive to Chilliwack General Hospital.

* * *

When Presley was young, her parents called her Crash. She was nine months old, just learning to walk when she had her first accident, tripping over a pillow and flying face-first into the fireplace step. If you study the bridge of her nose closely, you can still see the scar.

She’s fallen down stairs and received more stitches than Frankenstein.

So when her Mom, Shelley and step-dad, Richard, got the call that Presley was at the hospital, you couldn’t have blamed them for saying, ‘Oh yeah. Presley’s done it again!’

But what Shelley remembers from the drive from their Fairfield Island home is a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Mother’s intuition maybe, but she knew this wasn’t another one of Presley’s bumps n’ bruises.

They found Presley in the emergency room, wet from the rain, tired, hungry and confused. Four hours she sat there in her soggy soccer gear, clutching a little blanket and an ice pack. Sitting and waiting. Sitting and waiting. Sitting and waiting some more.

All that time to see a doctor for 10 minutes. After taking x-rays, he froze her nose to numb the pain, stitched her up and sent her away.

It was 2 a.m. when she finally got home, and she barely slept at all that night.

Whatever was wrong, she knew it was much more than a broken nose.

* * *

Presley looked in the mirror the next morning and saw a stranger peering back at her. Her nose was about twice its normal size and both her eyes were black.

But whatever. She put on sunglasses to hide the damage and went to school, anticipating funny looks and nothing more.

Until she got to class.

It was exam-prep time and the teacher was taking the class through review. Presley tried to pay attention, but nothing was sticking. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons.

Voices were five times louder than they usually were and the light from the window was really bothering her.

But she wrote it off to sleep deprivation and went home.

That night, as she tried to study, she started to panic.

“This was the last week before Grade 10 exams,” she recalls. “And I was getting really stressed out because I couldn’t remember anything that I’d learned. Nothing was coming back to me.”

No matter how long she stared at her notes and textbooks, she couldn’t remember, and when she sat down to write the exam a week later she knew she was in for a rough time. Determined to get it done, she sat at her desk for two hours, labouring over questions that would normally be gimmees. She answered one question and skipped the next four, and about halfway through, Presley gave up and left.

The A-level student scored a 53.

* * *

The first person to actually say the word concussion was Presley’s family doctor, sharp-eyed Jodie Lippa.

From the way the teenager walked and talked, and the symptoms she described, the diagnosis was crystal clear.

And Lippa’s proposed treatment plan seemed nice.

Take the summer to relax, sleep a lot and get a tan. No sports, but otherwise perfect, and through July and August Presley felt a whole lot better. But when school started again that fall, everything fell apart. The newly-minted Grade 11 student was beset by headaches and dizziness and nausea and all the bad stuff she thought had gone away.

Presley went rushing back to Dr. Lippa and was referred to a concussion specialist, Dr. Heather Underwood.

To determine the extent of the concussion, the Vancouver-based doctor ran Presley through a series of tests, all of which seemed simple enough. Underwood would give Presley a list of words to remember and repeat back. Elementary school stuff that Presley found she couldn’t do.

Underwood would have Presley stand in one spot while she pushed her shoulder.

“Easy!” Presley thought. “I’m a soccer player. Balance isn’t a problem for me!”

Until she almost fell into the wall.

Underwood got the 16 year old started on vestibular therapy, an exercise program designed to strengthen her neck and help with equilibrium issues.

For example, Presley would wear a laser-pointer head-band. A piece of paper was taped to the wall with a circle on it. All she had to do was trace the circle with the lazer, five times clockwise and five times counter-clockwise.

It made her want to vomit and she thought it was useless. Still she carried on with regular appointments, twice weekly at first before working down to once a week, then once a month. And it did  prove beneficial, to a point. But still, there were too many days when Presley couldn’t take a short walk without feeling sick.

* * *

Back at school, she was struggling. Used to pulling down A’s and B’s, Presley was performing at a C level.

“I’d be sitting in class, writing things down but not knowing what I was writing down,” she says. “And at the end of the day I’d be doing my homework and not even remember being there for the lesson. And the headaches, constant ringing in my head that I couldn’t shut off.”

Many days saw Presley retreating to a quiet and darkened room in the nurse’s office to take a nap.

Because she couldn’t play soccer and was struggling with everything else, she got down on herself. And she projected her anger and frustration on everyone else.

Presley didn’t want to hang out with friends anymore. Most of the time she didn’t even want to talk to them, and if she did they’d better be saying the right things in the right way. Anything wrong with their tone of voice and she was storming out, slamming doors as she went. All she really wanted to do was get home and sleep.

But home is where her parents were, and they bore the full brunt of her fury.

Can you imagine fighting over ice-cream? It’s humorous to look back on it now, but in the moment it was a huge thing when Presley wanted… nay, needed with every fiber of her being… ice cream. But, at the end of a long day, Shelley wasn’t going out to get it and her daughter was livid.

Presley was ready to head out the door, hop in the car and get it herself (without a drivers’ licence). Shelley wasn’t letting her. There was yelling. Lots of yelling, and Presley feeling like she wanted to throw stuff.

Dr. Underwood had Shelley writing journals, and she looked back at an entry from that time.

“Headaches and dizziness which has caused a lot of irritability,” she wrote in scribbled notes. “Hard to help her at times as she always says I don’t understand what it’s like. I feel and care so bad for her. Trying to figure it all out with her.”

Walking on eggshells. Shelley and Richard worried about everything they said and did, wondering what might set Presley off. Shelley couldn’t tell how much of this was the concussion and how much was normal teenage angst, but she desperately needed it to stop.

“I wanted to let it go a lot of times because it didn’t make sense to get caught up in it and keep arguing back and forth, so I let her get away with saying what she wanted to say,” she said. “And Richard would be like, ‘Why are you letting her talk to you like that?’ But we tried to stay strong as a team, and realize that it wasn’t her. This wasn’t our Presley.”

Through the darkest times, Mom clung to one thought.

“She will come back to me.”

 

~ Watch for Part Two  Friday.