We finally got a chance to catch up with New England Revolution great Taylor Twellman. The most, not perhaps, but the most prolific MLS striker of the decade–sorry Jeff Cunningham.
For the youngsters who, sadly, may not have gotten to watch Twellman play many games, there was no other striker that went after the ball in the air or drove the ball to the hole, so to speak, more aggressively than the Minnesota & Missouri native.
That Twellman’s career was cut short by his much publicized battle with post-concussion syndrome is perhaps not suprising given just how violently Twellman played the game and just how ruthless he was on his body.
That’s not to say that Twellman didn’t take care of himself; it’s to say physical sacrifice was never a barrier to getting the job done on the field for the striker.
Taylor was gracious enough to spend nearly an hour speaking with us and we’ve broken up his interview into two parts. Part I focuses exclusively on Twellman’s “relationship” to the injury called a concussion–his struggles, treatments and even depression–and Part II focuses exclusively on the Kick Medic…kidding Taylor. You’ll just have to wait for Part II where Taylor expounds on playing in Europe, MLS growth, and hustling fellow national team members during January camps.
TSG: First, let’s set the stage for this interview. Our audience probably knows your career and concussion history, but just take us through basically making your decision to retire just a few short weeks ago due to residual effects of receiving concussions throughout your soccer career.
When was the moment you knew you needed to retire and how did that feel?
Taylor: Alright, um, well you know I had my share of injuries as a pro athlete.
Most notably, 2003 on ESPN I was kicked in the face against the Galaxy by Danny Califf and that was my first severe Grade-Two concussion.
Then I received my 2nd major Grade-Two concussion, August 2008, playing against L.A. again.
It really wasn’t a decision unfortunately.
When you don’t feel right for about 18 or 19 months, you start thinking “Uh-oh.”
You stop actually thinking about playing and you just starting thinking about, “Is there ever gonna be that chance again that I’m going to feel better.”
So I went through that process.
On the moment, I was at Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and said to a buddy of mine “Why are Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson sitting next to each other.?”
And he looked at me like I had three heads. That’s when I knew. It was 24 months since being punched in the head and it wasn’t right. I couldn’t go to basketball game and not have double vision.
It really wasn’t a decision.
When the doctor looks at you and says, “You’re gonna struggle unless you give us soccer and focus your efforts on living a healthy life.”
It made the press conference a little easier.
TSG: We’ve read a lot of the interviews. One of the things that caught me was the little nagging things, like playing golf and having a headache because the sun was going down.
Give our audience a sense of the post-concussed symptoms, what are the little things that are just so…so…debilitating?
Because I think we all have an idea, “there’s the headaches, the double vision” like you mentioned but what is the public missing?
What are those common things during the day that you’re just like “this isn’t right that I can’t do that”…and a normal person like myself takes for granted?
Taylor: It’s a great question and it’s something that a lot of people don’t ask me.
First, when you say headaches. I’m not talking about a little headaches:
“Oh, I’ve had too much chocolate.”
“I’ve had too much caffeine.”
I’m talking about both sides of your head feeling like they’re getting pushed together by someone’s two hands.
That’s the type of headache….
TSG: Let me interrupt….what’s the frequency of those headaches?
Taylor: It’s constant. It’s the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep and when you wake-up it feels like you didn’t sleep.
It’s like studying for a mid-term exam 24-7. That’s what your brain feels like.
And then when you throw in nausea and you throw in dizziness.
The feeling of dizziness is like when you’re on an elevator and the elevator kind of drops under your feet.
Well, I feel that standing on normal ground.
I first felt that walking on to the field against Columbus Crew–I think it was Columbus don’t quote me on that because I don’t remember who it was.
I felt that walking on to the field and it was scary. I felt the field was sinking below me and obviously it wasn’t.
Taylor: There’s the double vision, the nausea also and you’re not able to watch HD TV, not being able to read.
I mean, reading. You’re not able to read.
You can’t read because behind your eyeball you feel like everything is being squished together.
Taylor: Those are the little things. Then there’s other things, the green and red spots, etc.
TSG: What’s the frequency of those symptoms now in your life?
Taylor: They’re still there.
There’s a couple teammates–I won’t mention names–that say, “So you’re feeling better, now?”
Everyone still thinks that I’m going to wake up and pull a Brett Favre here and start playing again. It’s not going to happen.
For instance today, it’s raining and I woke up with a headache.
I picked up the paper, picked up the newspaper and I’m like, nope, I’ve got a headache today I have to go low key. It’s not happening.
But..the frequency has 100% died down because I’ve given up the exercise.
My working out is reading the newspaper for 30 minutes. That’s a workout for me.
Or going to play golf…18 holes, walking..that’s a good workout for me.
Now I can do that without repercussions whatsoever.
TSG: Jesus–pardon the language–is it so debilitating at times as well that you can’t, let’s say, drive a car.
Obviously you have trouble reading. I mean with the trouble reading…..
Taylor: My first 6 months in 2008 I had someone drive me. I can drive and do everything now.
What I can’t do is get my heart rate over 115 to 120 or rather closer to 130.
As long as it’s below that, it’s fine. That’s my limit.
But driving cars, playing video games — I can play a little bit now.
The frequency of my severe symptoms….for instance…I can do to an ESPN telecast and not have any of the symptoms I was having back in July.
There are a lot of positives now that I’m not really working out and chasing a playing career.
Taylor: I did for the first year. If I went grocery shopping, I wore it consistently.
TSG: My goodness.
Taylor: And that’s the thing I take so much pride in. I know 100% I gave it every ounce of my energy to come back–100%–and I know I can’t.
I did everything. I did acupuncture every morning for about 3 hours.
My limit was 36 needles in my head at one time.
The heart rate monitor really taught me…what everyone forgets…and I’m kind of rambling….is I’ve been doing this for two years.
So I went through the process of coming back and playing again and coming back and realizing I can’t come back.
I know my limits and my limitations now.
The fact that I can walk and play golf and that I can carry my bag and don’t get headaches….my focus is good, my balance is the best it’s been in a long time.
It’s improved a lot.
Once I stopped running, things got better…running was a huge problem.
TSG: A little tangentially–we all know the competitor you are, the skill you have, the dedication–so I don’t think anyone questions your efforts to come back and if they do they’re worse for it…how fatiguing was this process of the past two years….not at making the decision or trying the comeback, but on merely managing the symptoms?
Taylor: I’ve probably aged 20 years.
I feel older than I ever have. When I was playing I felt like I was 12 year old; I played like I was 12.
If you watched me play, I had fun. I really enjoyed it. I loved the locker room.
But this process is something that I haven’t talked a lot about is depression,…you talk about fatigue…but a bigger component of post-concussion syndrome is depression.
It’s been the most difficult part of my life….because I am a positive, happy guy.
And this injury really brings into my life a whole new aspect of my life that I’ve never seen before and it’s depression. My priorities have changed from wanting to play again to “I want to feel good.”
I want to feel like the way that I used to and I want to be happy again.
If you talking to anyone that’s had severe concussion symptoms, it’s the hardest thing to do….is dealing with the depression.
TSG: How do you manage that depression–if you don’t mind talking about it….
I’m sure there were low points when you were at the doctor’s office receiving a prognosis, diagnosis.
Talk about the points when you’re home alone by yourself if you would, Taylor….
Taylor: I’m not one to be scared to talk about it.
If you asked or cared about me….well…this process taught me who my friends really are.
It’s also showed tremendous love from some fans out there that have really cared about me as a person not as #20 on the Revolution.
The only way to deal with it personally was the natural reaction.
I cried, I cried a lot.
I felt like, why hide it? I didn’t cry with anyone because I’m kind of proud.
But in the house or in the car, I would just let it out.
I felt like it was the most natural way to get rid of my anxiety of being depressed.
It was also talking to other people. It was talking to other athletes who have gone through this.
It was one of those things where it’s hard to describe other than, if you’re depressed you can’t do it alone and you need help.
My family and a couple of friends really noticed that I wasn’t right and they helped me get out of it.
There wasn’t ..there isn’t a day that I don’t shed a tear or just let it out.
TSG: Is there anyone specific you want to mention that really helped you with that?
Taylor: No there’s not, because if I single one out.
Put it this way I had a handful of people–they know who they are–it’s meant a lot.
No matter what your job is. We’re all men or we’re all good people.
But you need help.
When you’re depressed, you can’t help yourself.
My family and a couple close friends of mine really came through. Especially my family. They were there.
TSG: Let’s bring it back a bit. You had the Califf hit, the Cronin hit. Do you think you’re concussed symptoms were an accumulation of injuries over time or pointedly those moments?
Taylor: First of all, I’m going to completely change the subject.
I have the opportunity that I’m really excited about and that’s to be the ambassador for concussed athletes especially in the sport of soccer.
I have thoughts about starting a foundation, because I want US Soccer, US Youth soccer, the kids, the parents to have a forum where they can ask me questions.
To answer your question, I’m very proactive and I said this in my retirement speech. If you tell me I can’t fix it, I’m going to try to find a way to fix it.
If you tell me I’m not good enough, I’m going to try to prove you wrong.
I was very proactive after I quit playing and I reached out to 30 different athletes, baseball, football hockey and what I learned, this whole connotation of he’s had 9 concussions.
No, you can have one serious one and never recover.
And that’s the thing about this injury, it’s the invisible injury.
To answer your question, I don’t know why I’m done playing, I just know that I had a couple of serious ones that I think took it’s toll and my body could never recover from the last one.
TSG: I’m going to move on to the game. What changes would you make in the game–would you outlaw heading?–to help stem some of these concussions?
Taylor: Well the first thing I’m going to do…every youth soccer coach and every youth soccer player needs to be educated on concussions.
And if you fully understand science….the one change that I’m going to push for is…why we are heading the ball so much at ages 8, 9, 10, 11?
It’s scientifically proven human brains aren’t fully developed at that age yet.
And yet you go to a youth soccer practice and it’s all head balls.
Is there that much heading in the game at those ages?
That’s the one change I want to see.
You can still play the great game of soccer. But do we really need to go to two practices a week and do a 100 headballs?
TSG: What about in the senior game? Is there any rule change? You have yourself, you have Petr Cech. You know I was taught playing soccer to go through the player to the ball.
Is that going to change in a game where guys want to maintain million dollar salaries, or do you think it can?
Taylor: No, I don’t think you can change the nature of the sport. It’s like the discussion of [American] football right now.
Everyone is up in arms in terms of Roger Godell lately on his penalties. He’s not changing the sport; he’s going back to what the sport was meant to be. The sport was meant to be tackled below the shoulders.
The headballs is always going to be part of the game.
What needs to change, what has to change, the education of our trainers, our doctors and coaches across MLS and across Europe.
You cannot tell me that someone gets punched in the head like I was and look me straight in the eyes and say, “You didn’t have a concussion.”
I was told I did not have a concussion.
It’s 100% impossible.
If that [education] changes it, you’re going to see better care of the players and fewer games lost for players.
TSG: So it’s more focused on identification of the issue, and less about specific instances that might change the game?
We need the education that when an athlete comes to you with certain symptoms, you know what it is, you shut him down and he heals.
TSG: Okay, let’s call you the head of FIFA’s Concussion Division. What would you propose?
Taylor: Well that’s what I am; I’m the player representative. There is a concussion committee and the MLS is coming up with a return-of-play protocol.
TSG: I didn’t know that.
Taylor: It will be given to all teams and athletes in January and February of 2011. We’re going through that process right now.
You can’t put a mandatory rest period because each injury is different.
What you have to do is make sure that is a player has a head injury they are coming off the field immediately, find an independent neurologist and go from there.
TSG: Excellent, okay, let’s give your brain a rest from the concussion talk…
Part II shortly as Taylor talks about playing in Europe, the growth of MLS, his thoughts on Don Garber and hustling some cash playing golf.