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My Brain Injury Story

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My Brain Injury Story
     The moment before my life changed, I was lined up to defend a corner kick, something I had done countless times. It was my freshman year of college and a sunny September day in Washington state. As the ball came sailing in, I went up for a 50 50 challenge, an opposing player’s skull smashed into mine, both of us going full speed in the opposite direction. I fell to the ground, unconscious. 

At the hospital, I was told I fractured the base of my skull and two vertebrae in my neck. I was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury and a spine injury that would not only end my soccer career; it would change my entire life. 

For what it’s worth, I did win the ball ;)

 

I don’t remember the collision or much of the days and weeks after, but I remember the pain. I was dizzy, had incredible pressure in my head, my eyes couldn’t track, my vocabulary and memory were cloudy, my neck felt on fire and my speech slurred. Sharp pains shot through my head when any movement, light or noise would happen and the migraine was constant. They told me people can get better through a lot of therapy, but some people don’t. 

As I got in my neck brace and began rehabilitation, I began to see just how much my life had changed. I had been an athlete in the best shape of my life, a straight-A student and even a state public speaking champion. Now, I was trying to make it to each meal. My friends drifted as they enjoyed their first year of college, my purpose and passions swept away with one blunt force trauma to the head. Who was I without sports? How could I be happy with such a sedentary life? Why did this happen to me? I missed my teammates. I missed being busy. I missed my old self. 

As people hear my story, I often hear, “This is why I won’t put my kid in sports.”

There was a time I wondered if I should be mad at soccer. Maybe if I had chosen not to play in college, this wouldn’t have happened. Maybe if I had chosen tennis or ballet, the trajectory of my life wouldn’t have changed. 

But I never could hate the game. I never could hate sports. Because sports taught me every lesson I needed to survive this brain injury.   

The nerves I feel before a big procedure remind me of the nerves before a big game. The grit you develop when an exhausting 0-0 game goes into overtime translated to grit I need to fight the marathon of brain injury. The way I rely on my parents for mirrors the trust we have in our teammates on the field. Every day I do hard things, I pull in the perseverance from 6am workouts or miserable losses.  

After one year I got out of my neck brace (hallelujah) and my black eyes faded, and after two years I was learning to live with my disability. I managed to finish college, although it looked different than a typical college experience. I didn’t spend weekends at parties or hold a regular job. I couldn’t wear a backpack or be in loud places without ear protection. But I made the best of what I could do, taking an internship with the athletic department making sports videos and eventually starting my own sports show. 

The work I put into the other side of sports proved to be fruitful, because at the five year mark, I was hired in the NFL. This felt like a big achievement, not because of the magnitude of the league but because I had found a way to keep sports, a piece of the old me, a part of my life. My first task as an employee was to write letters to fans going through a hard time. “You have the strength to get through this, and when you feel like you don’t, remember we are with you,” I would write, knowing I could relate to their battle more than they knew. 

But just like college, my disability followed me into the NFL. I attended brain rehabilitation at 6:30am before a full day’s work, holding onto railings at work to keep my balance and staying late to do work without the lights and noises that slowed my brain down during the day. The invisibility of my injury – the way you could not see my pain by looking at me – allowed me to hide it from those around me. One time I had vestibular testing at a hospital in the morning – which is where they put you in a spaceship-looking machine and spin you around until you are close to vomiting - and then I walked across the street to take our players to visit kids at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The juxtaposition was not lost on me; I was so grateful to be alive and, at the same time, struggling.  

Despite my perseverance, my body developed complications that put me back in the hospital and took away my ability to work. It wasn’t the triumph story I had planned, but I have come to understand there is a lesson in it all. This time, it was that not everything can be “pushed through”. Sometimes you have to listen to your body. 

When my story was shared on ESPN and when my Dad went viral on Tiktok, I felt the veil of “I’m okay” being peeled away from me. I had hoped to be known for breaking barriers for women in the NFL or for my charity work, but instead the most intimate parts of my personal battle – my sickness and how much I still depended on my parents to keep me alive – was on display. I felt like an imposter because I hadn’t yet conquered this, and deeper down wondered if I ever would. 

But I also heard from people who were facing invisible battles of their own. Veterans suffering from PTSD, 20-somethings with chronic illness and former NFL athletes who are now adjusting to the mental and physical challenges of life after the game, the only thing they ever knew. I was reminded that everyone – everyone - is battling something. And for many people, you would never be able to tell by looking at them.

I hope my story reminds you that every hour you put into that field, whether you are still playing or not, is teaching you lessons you can’t yet imagine. When you get up for your early morning conditioning, I’ll be gearing up for my own. When you make a mistake and your teammate bails you out, I’ll be hanging on to my parents for saving me. And someday, after you’ve stepped off the field for the last time, when you smile about the memories and all the lessons you took with you through the rest of life, I’ll be smiling, too. 

Life’s challenges can be as simple as winning a 50-50 ball or as complex as a life threatening injury. Remember Ladyballers, keep fighting, keep persevering, keep smiling-you got this.

 

Emily Petterson

IG: @EmilyPetterson

Dad Advice IG: @DadAdviceFromBo

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A note from SoccerGrlProbs:

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Comments

  • Maria P posted on December 17 2020 at 06:12 AM

    Inspiring. Real. Thought provoking. Thank you Emily for writing this, and thank you Soccer Girl Problems for the platform! I’m 18mo out from my TBI and your story has helped me feel rejuvenated. I am in awe at how you were able to finish college, get hired into the NFL, AND continue to work all before having to take a moment to heal further. And absolutely BALLER to be a woman in the NFL 👏👏👏 you are breaking down barriers of all kinds left and right! Keep pushing. Keep inspiring. We are rooting for you. (And well done on winning the 50 50 😉)

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