Thursday, December 25, 2014

My concussion, and rethinking the role of contact in 'contact' sports

I had a tough time deciding whether or not to write about this issue, considering the timing. When you have a concussion as an athlete in a contact sport, you are supposed to conceal it for fear that you could be targeted. I guess if a player wants to target my head, it is at his discretion, but I think it is an important topic and players need to start talking openly about it.

My concussion, and rethinking the role of contact in 'contact' sports

Wings captain Brodie Merrill moves with the ball during the Wings´ 16-8 loss to the Calgary Roughnecks Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center. (Wings photo)
Wings captain Brodie Merrill moves with the ball during the Wings' 16-8 loss to the Calgary Roughnecks Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center. (Wings photo)

I had a tough time deciding whether or not to write about this issue, considering the timing. When you have a concussion as an athlete in a contact sport, you are supposed to conceal it for fear that you could be targeted. I guess if a player wants to target my head, it is at his discretion, but I think it is an important topic and players need to start talking openly about it.

I was caught on a blindside hit in our game against Buffalo. The player came out of the penalty box as I was pursuing a loose ball, I didn’t see him coming, and he hit me shoulder to chest. I didn’t have possession of the ball, but the hit wasn’t high and by lacrosse definition it was a “clean hit.” There was no penalty on the play and no further discipline.

I didn’t lose consciousness and was able to finish the game, but I just didn’t feel right. My immediate symptoms were tough to describe and easy to hide. As time went on, my symptoms persisted and intensified. I was experiencing a general fogginess and pressure in my head, especially around activity. Over the years, you learn to deal with injuries and focus on the controllable aspects of your recovery. Concussions are different. The less you do, the better. Your rehab plan consists of literally doing nothing. Avoid anything that is going to stimulate the brain.

The best thing to do when your injury is acute is to sit in a dark room. This is counterintuitive for an athlete. You want to push through the pain. When you have an injury, your mind can go to some bad places. You contemplate a lot. Will I ever feel right again? I have gradually started to make progress, feeling a little better everyday. I know for many in this situation, the symptoms can be much stronger and last much longer. The unpredictability of concussions and the little that we know about them, presents a unique challenge.

Growing up playing hockey, I loved contact. I remember being so excited when I finally got to the age when body contact was legal. Every Christmas for 20 years I received the Don Cherry “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em” videos, highlighting the biggest hits, fights, and goals of the previous NHL season. The Scott Stevens “trolley track” hits were encouraged and celebrated. If someone had their head down, it was your goal to hit that player as hard as you could. If you were caught with your head down, it was your fault for having your head down.

Likely a similar explanation for the hit that I took. Well, what did I expect, my head was down?!? I really believe that we need to change this way of thinking.  My head was not down, my head was directed on the ball. And by head down, we really mean defenseless. If the player stepping out of the penalty box had just played the ball, then I wouldn’t be in this situation. In this specific play, like many situations in our game, I was vulnerable and not in any position to protect myself. I would say most players are going to make that hit every time. You are constantly competing and held accountable for your performance. So we have to take it out of the hands of the players, because we are always going to test the rules and look for any advantage.

I grew up idolizing guys like Scott Stevens, Pat Coyle, some of the most physical athletes in sport. Junior Seau was one of my favorite athletes and I used to wear his number 55 growing up in lacrosse (see picture). His suicide hit me hard.  He went through his 20 year NFL career as a middle linebacker with no reported concussions. In a game like football, in the era that he played in, and the position/style he played, that simply is not possible. I would argue that the amount of games that he (or any other middle linebacker in the NFL) played in where he didn’t experience head trauma (to some degree) would be in the vast minority.  He shot himself in the chest, so his brain could still be analyzed.  Not surprisingly, it was later revealed that he suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

The NFL just lost one of its greatest players/leaders and they are still dragging their feet to respond.

So what does this tell us? The symptoms are easy to hide and usually not debilitating. In the 2011 MLL Championship, I played with a concussion. I remember being out to dinner the night before our game and the restaurant was spinning and this was from a blindside hit I took two weeks prior. I refused to acknowledge my symptoms and I could pass any concussion test presented. The only one that is going to know if you are really better is you! It is hard not to lose perspective in the heat of the competition. And the pressures (internal and external) we face to perform. In order to fully recover, the athlete has to be honest -- with yourself and your doctor.

If you hear me on the sideline coaching one of my Hill Academy games, you will hear me constantly reminding our players to play the ball, play the ball, play the ball. I no longer believe in the big, Scott Stevens hits. Having possession of the ball is everything. I think we need to take a serious look at the role of contact in our sport. Do the big hits make the game what it is? I don’t think so and I don’t think we would miss them if they were gone. If you are strongly against this, then you are unlikely to have ever experienced a concussion.

So while football fumbles around with the issue and we see more cases like Seau (not if, when!), lacrosse needs to be proactive and look for ways to protect our players. The more we learn of concussions, the less parents will want to sign up their child for a contact sport like lacrosse. We have to make fundamental changes to our game and we have to catch ourselves when we act with the “win at all costs” mentality. We have a lot of smart, forward thinking people involved in lacrosse. If you are serious about the game and serious about the safety of the players, you have to step up.  Some concussions are unavoidable, but so many others are avoidable, but we have to change the culture.

Still not sure if I will be playing this weekend, but regardless, I look forward to seeing you on Saturday for our game against the Toronto Rock.

Brodie Merrill Philadelphia Wings
About this blog
Wingin' It is the place for up-to-the-minute Wings coverage from Brodie Merrill of the Philadelphia Wings.

As the Philadelphia Wings' captain, Merrill is widely regarded as one of the top players in the NLL and was recently named Best Player in the World by Inside Lacrosse and named NLL Transition Player of the Year in 2009 and 2010. Last season, Merrill was named an NLL All-Star.

Brodie Merrill Philadelphia Wings
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