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A brain injury cut short Briana Scurry's soccer career. It didn't end her story

Briana Scurry blocks a penalty shootout during overtime of the Women's World Cup Final against China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., July 10, 1999. The U.S. team won 5-4 on penalties.
Eric Risberg
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AP
Briana Scurry blocks a penalty shootout during overtime of the Women's World Cup Final against China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., July 10, 1999. The U.S. team won 5-4 on penalties.

Soccer star Briana Scurry still remembers the day she knew she wanted to be an Olympian: It was 1980, and Scurry, then 8 years old, watched on TV as the underdog men's U.S. Olympic ice hockey team beat Team USSR in Lake Placid, NY.

"I was so inspired, I rose up from the couch and declared to my parents that I wanted to be an Olympian," Scurry says. "They, thankfully, were nurturing of that little inspiration and helped me hone my skills in all different sports through high school."

Scurry would go on to become one of the top goalkeepers in the history of U.S. women's soccer. She won two Olympic gold medals, in 1996 and 2004, and a World Cup in 1999. But her soccer career ended abruptly in 2010, when she was playing in the new Women's Professional Soccer league and a member of the opposing team collided with her, crashing her knee into Scurry's right temple.

"My whole life changed from that moment," Scurry says. "I knew there was something really wrong. ... That was the last soccer game I've ever played."

The collision left Scurry with a traumatic brain injury, which resulted in constant, 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, Scurry's insurance company refused to cover the surgery she needed to repair the nerve that was the source of her pain, and she was reduced to pawning her two gold medals.

"It was the most difficult thing I'd ever done in my life," Scurry says of selling her Olympic medals for $18,000. "But it was the patch and the temporary fix that I needed to get some stability in order to continue to press forward and get the help I needed."

Scurry credits Chryssa, the woman who would become her wife, with helping to pressure the insurance company into covering her surgery and therapy — and with helping her buy back her Olympic medals. In 2017, Scurry became the first Black woman to be inducted in the National Soccer Hall of Fame. She tells her story in the new memoir, My Greatest Save.


Interview highlights

My Greatest Save, by Briana Scurry
/ Harry N. Abrams
/
Harry N. Abrams

On fighting for equity in resources with the U.S. Soccer Federation — like per diems, air travel and prize money

We felt in 1995 that we had some leverage at that point in time because the Olympics were just around the corner and we were, in fact, favored to win. So myself and eight of my other teammates basically decided to go on strike against the Federation. We risked not only our livelihoods, but also our dreams. ... I was an 8-year-old girl who wanted to be an Olympian, and here I was at the precipice of potentially achieving a lifelong dream, and I was risking it for something that was greater than myself. We knew that the Federation would have to cave eventually, but boy, were they mean and nasty in the process. They said some very unsavory things about us as players, and all we were trying to do was provide equity for not only ourselves, but for all the women that would come behind us and don the jersey and represent the United States of America in soccer. We wanted to make sure that that playing field was more level and they were very, very strong willed and had an iron fist about it — but eventually we got what we wanted.

On the penalty kick save that paved the way for Team USA's win against China in the 1999 Women's World Cup

The goalkeeping shootout for a major game like that is a very interesting proposition. We train for it pretty much every day in training leading up to that event. And then you also actually hope you don't have to be in a shootout, but when you find yourself in one, like I did in '99, I was supremely confident. We had trained it. We had talked about it. I had done some sports visualization with the sport doc on that. And that third kicker, my normal MO, method of operations, for penalty kicks is to not look at my team kicks, nor do I really look at the opposing player walking up to the penalty spot. And on that particular kicker, that third kicker, as I was walking into the penalty area to present myself for the save, I heard something in my mind say, "Look." So I actually looked at her and watched her approach a penalty spot, which is something that I normally didn't do. And I knew right then that that was the one I was going to save.

On oftentimes being the only Black player on a team

I was in a Boys & Girls Club event and one of the young girls who was 12 years old, roughly, a young African American girl, she said to me, "I didn't know Black people played soccer.

It was difficult to not see more people like me. I was so driven and was so passionate about my dream of being an Olympian. ... I didn't have too much difficulty being the only one because I knew I was blazing a trail for myself and for others to come behind me. But I also knew that more representation for women of color on the team was necessary and relevant. And so I really advocated for more women of color to play on the team. ... I work[ed] with different organizations, like the Boys & Girls Club of America, different sponsors like Allstate and Pepsi, who helped me essentially go to the urban areas and tell young girls in junior high and high school about the game of soccer. ... And I had one incident, I was in a Boys & Girls Club event and one of the young girls who was 12 years old, roughly, a young African American girl, she said to me, "I didn't know Black people played soccer." And right there in that moment basically encapsulates the whole problem. She didn't know. So I took it upon myself to be my job to help grow the game in the urban areas, and the U.S. Soccer Federation and Foundation also helped me do that.

On her life-changing traumatic brain injury in 2010

In the first half I bent over for a low ball coming from my left-hand side, and as I was going to make that save and I was bent over, the attacking player came from the right-hand side and, trying to get her toe on the ball in front of me, crashed into the side of my head with her knee. And I never saw her coming. [Because] I didn't see her, I couldn't brace at all for it. So I was completely exposed. She crashed into me. We bundled over. And, of course, my first thought was, Did I make the save? Sure enough, I had the ball in my hands. ...

I had had concussions before — you get some blurry vision, you get some sensitivities. And then ... it fades away, like the wave of the emotions and the issue fade away and you get clarity again. But I wasn't getting clarity. I was tipping to the left. The names on the jerseys were blurry. And at half time, which blew maybe seven or eight minutes later, I was walking off the pitch and ... my trainer came into the pitch to meet me, and she grabbed my hands and she said, "Bri, are you okay?" And I said, "No, I'm not." ...

For the longest time, I was mad at [the player who crashed into me]. I found out what her name was and exactly who she was. And for several years, I was angry at her for putting me in this position, for not avoiding contact with me. I realized over time that my anger towards her wasn't helping me and ... for a long time wished I could undo that hit. And when you're in an emotional state like a concussion, you are essentially disconnected from yourself. And I had all these symptoms and I was so angry at her. And I prayed so many days. I was like, "Why couldn't you have just missed me?" Because I was a different person now. I changed emotionally, I was different. My confidence, my focus, all these different things. And I was so lost in the wilderness.

On having suicidal thoughts because of her emotional 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 ledge of a waterfalls in Little Falls, New Jersey, and contemplated suicide. The railing where the falls were was really low and the water was just rushing over the falls and I could feel the mist of that water on my face. And I contemplated jumping over and I knew if I did that I wouldn't survive it because I couldn't swim. And the water was so high because it had rained just recently. I knew if I go into this water, I'm never coming out. But what stopped me was the image of my mom and some official, some law enforcement official knocking on her door and notifying her that her baby was gone. I couldn't do that to her. So that image got me off the ledge and onto some solid ground, literally. And after that, I decided I wasn't going to commit suicide while my mother was alive because I just couldn't do it to her. And that was the beginning of my journey back to me.

On how her now wife Chryssa, who has a PR company, pressured the insurance company to get her the brain surgery she needed

The insurance company definitely didn't want the headline to be "Two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Cup champion, battles insurance company over clear issues and obvious payments that they should make." They didn't want that to be in the USA Today, The L.A. Times, The New York Times and the like. And so when Chryssa and I finally did speak, I told her all about my plight, all about what I was dealing with. And she said, "OK, let me speak to your lawyers and we'll talk about what we can do." And so Chryssa spoke to them. And the lawyers are the ones that went back to the insurance company and said, "Look, here's the deal. You need to do the right thing. You need to pay for this surgery. We already went to court and it was found that you were liable and that you need to pay. So do it or this is what's going to happen. The media is going to find out this story and it's not going to look good for you." At that moment, they did a complete 180. I got my surgery. I got a whole year of therapy after that. And I was able to settle with that insurance company during that year as well. ...

When I came out of surgery, I remember opening my eyes and just being so happy, I started crying. Because when you have chronic pain like that, that I had for three years, you don't realize how painful and how much energy it takes up until it's gone. And then when it was gone, I was just so excited.

On being featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

I was so humbled and so thrilled to be honored to be in the same building as Oprah Winfrey, as Rosa Parks, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. I didn't really think that my contribution was necessarily going to be worthy of that type of honor. And then when I spoke to them, they wanted me to be the Title IX example for the Title IX exhibit within the Game Changers exhibit at the museum, and I was more than honored and thrilled to do so. So in that Game Changers exhibit is the jersey that I wore for the Women's World Cup that I made that penalty kick save in. That is the actual jersey in that exhibit.

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

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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