Football star Brianna Scurry discusses her traumatic brain injury: NPR

Briana Scurry saves a penalty shootout during overtime for the Women’s World Cup Final against China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, July 10, 1999. The US team won 5-4 on penalties.

Eric Risberg/AFP

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Eric Risberg/AFP

Briana Scurry saves a penalty shootout during overtime for the Women’s World Cup Final against China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, July 10, 1999. The US team won 5-4 on penalties.

Eric Risberg/AFP

Soccer star Brianna Scurry still remembers the day she knew she wanted to be an Olympian: It was 1980, and Scurry, then 8, watched on TV as the losing U.S. Olympic ice hockey team beat a league Soviet Socialist Republics in Lake Placid, New York.

“She inspired me so much, I got up off the couch and announced to my dad that I wanted to be an Olympian,” Skerry says. “Fortunately, they fed this little inspiration and helped me hone my skills in all the different sports through high school.”

Scurry went on to become one of the best goalkeepers in American women’s football history. She won two Olympic gold medals, in 1996 and 2004, and the World Cup in 1999. But her football career came to an abrupt end in 2010, when she was playing in the new Women’s Professional Football League and a member of the opposing team collided with her, hitting her knee in Scurry’s right temple.

“My whole life changed from that moment on,” Scurry says. “I knew something was really wrong… This was the last football match I ever played.”

The collision left Scurry with a traumatic brain injury, resulting in persistent and excruciating headaches, blurred vision, cognitive problems, and depression. She was unable to work and the league soon collapsed, leaving her without a medical team or training facility to help her. To make matters worse, the insurance company Scurry refused to cover the surgery she needed to repair the nerve that was the source of her pain, and she was turned into a pawn of two gold medals.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Scurry says of selling her Olympic medals for $18,000. “But the patch and temporary fix was just what I needed to get some stability in order to keep moving forward and get the help I needed.”

Scurry credits Chryssa, the woman who would become his wife, with helping lobby an insurance company to cover surgery and treatment — and helping her buy back her Olympic medals. In 2017, Scurry became the first black woman to be inducted into the National Football Hall of Fame. She tells her story in her new memoir, The greatest saving.

Interview highlights

My Greatest Rescue, by Brianna Scurry
My Greatest Rescue, by Brianna Scurry

In the fight for equal resources with the NFL – like day allowance, air travel and prize money

We felt in 1995 that we had some leverage at the time because the Olympics were so close and we were, in fact, the favorites to win. So I and eight of my other colleagues decided to go on strike against the union. Not only did we risk our livelihoods, we risked our dreams as well. … I was an 8-year-old girl who wanted to be an Olympian, and here I was on the verge of realizing the possibility of a lifelong dream, and I was risking it for something bigger than me. We knew the union was going to fall apart eventually, but boy, were they bad and dirty in the process. They said some hateful things about us as players, and all we were trying to do was provide fairness not just to ourselves, but to all the women who would come behind us, wear the jersey and represent the USA in soccer. We wanted to make sure that this playing field was more even and that they were very strong-willed and had an iron fist about that – but in the end we got what we wanted.

In blocking the penalty kick that paved the way for Team USA’s victory over China at the 1999 Women’s World Cup

Goalkeeper kicks in a big match like this are a very interesting proposition. We practice it almost every day in the pre-event training. And then you also hope actually that you’re not in the shootout, but when you find yourself in one, as you did in ’99, you’re very confident. We’ve trained. We’ve talked about it. I did some sports visualization with the sports doctor on it. And that third goal, and my normal secret, the way of operations for penalty kicks is to not look at my team’s kicks, and I don’t really look at the opposing player getting into the penalty area. And in that particular knockout, that third hit, as I walked into the penalty area to present myself for a block, I heard something in my mind saying, “Look.” So I actually looked at it and watched it approach a penalty kick, which I don’t usually do. I knew then that this was the person I was going to save.

Often times he is the only black player on the team

It was hard not to see more people like me. I was very motivated and very passionate about my dream of becoming an Olympian. …I had no great difficulty being the only one because I knew I was making a way for myself and others to come after me. But I also learned that more representation of women of color on the team was necessary and appropriate. And so I really advocated for more women of color to be on the team. … Work[ed] With different organizations, like the Boys & Girls Club of America, different sponsors like Allstate and Pepsi, who basically helped me go to urban areas and tell little girls in middle and high school about the game of soccer. …and I had one incident, I was at a boys and girls event and one of the little girls who was about 12 years old, an African American girl, said to me, “I didn’t know black people played football.” And there at that moment sums up the whole problem. You didn’t know. So I took it upon myself to be my job to help develop the game in urban areas, and the NFL and the NFL helped me do that.

On the traumatic brain injury that changed her life in 2010

In the first half he bent down for a low ball coming from my left side, and as I was going to make a save and I bowed down, the attacking player came in from the right side and trying to get her toe on the ball in front of me, she crashed into the side of my head with her knee. I never saw her coming. [Because] I didn’t see her, I couldn’t prepare for her at all. So I was completely exposed. bumped into me. We collected. Naturally, my first thought was, Did you grapple? sure enoughAnd the I had the ball in my hand. …

I’ve had a concussion before – you get blurry vision, you have some sensitivities. And then … it fades away, like a wave of emotions and the issue disappears and clarity returns again. But I didn’t get clarity. I was leaning to the left. The names on the shirts were blurry. And in the first half, which exploded maybe seven or eight minutes later, I was walking off the field and… my coach came on the field to meet me, and she grabbed my hand and said, “Bre, are you okay?” and I said, “No, I’m not.” …

For the longest time, I was angry with him [the player who crashed into me]. I found out her name and who she is exactly. And for several years, I was angry with her for putting me in this position, because she did not avoid contact with me. I realized over time that my anger towards her didn’t help me and… for a long time I wished I could undo that blow. And when you’re in an emotional state like a concussion, you’re basically detached from yourself. I had all these symptoms and was very angry with them. I prayed many days. I was like, “Why can’t you just miss me?” Because I was a different person now. You have changed emotionally, you are different. My confidence, my focus, all these different things. And I was so lost in the wilderness.

Having suicidal thoughts due to its psychological and physical symptoms

I was in that state of emotional distress. I had emotional and physical symptoms. I had depression. I once stood on the edge of Falls in Little Falls, New Jersey, and contemplated suicide. The railing where the falls were very low and the water was just rushing over the falls and I could feel the spray of water on my face. And I thought about jumping and knew if I did I wouldn’t make it because I can’t swim. And the water was very high because it had rained recently. I knew if I went into these waters, I would never get out. But what stopped me was a picture of my mom and some officials, some law enforcement officials knocking on her door and informing her that her baby is gone. I couldn’t do that to her. So this photo got me off the edge and onto a hard floor, literally. And then, I decided I wouldn’t commit suicide while my mother was alive because I couldn’t do it with her. That was the beginning of my journey back to me.

About how his now wife Krisa, who has a PR firm, pressured the insurance company to get the brain surgery she needed

The insurance company certainly didn’t want the headline to be “Two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup champion, wrestling with the insurance company over obvious issues and clear payments they must make.” They didn’t want it to be The USA TODAYAnd the Los Angeles TimesAnd the New York times and the like. And so when Chrissa and I finally spoke, I told her all about my ordeal, everything I was dealing with. And she said, “Okay, let me talk to your attorney and we’ll talk about what we can do.” And so Kris spoke to them. And the lawyers are the ones who went back to the insurance company and said, “Look, here’s the deal. You have to do the right thing. You have to pay for this surgery. We actually went to court and found that you were responsible and you had to pay. So do it or that’s what happens. You’ll find out. The media’s this story and it’s not going to look good on you.” At that moment, they made a full 180. The surgery was done. I got treatment for a whole year after that. And she was able to settle down with that insurance company during that year as well. …

When I got out of the surgery, I remember opening my eyes and I was so happy, I started crying. Because when you have chronic pain like this, which I’ve had for three years, you don’t realize how much pain and how much energy it takes for it to go away. And then when he was gone, I was so excited.

About appearing at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

I was humbled and thrilled to be in the same building as Oprah Winfrey, as Rosa Parks, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. I didn’t really think that my contribution would necessarily deserve this kind of honor. And then when I talked to them, they wanted me to be an example of Title IX for the Title IX exhibit within the Museum’s Game Changers exhibit, and I was very honored and pleased to do so. So at Game Changers this is the shirt I wore for the Women’s World Cup in which the penalty kick was made. This is the actual shirt on that show.

Sam Briger and Susan Nkyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Ciera Crawford have adapted it for the web.

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