Inside Taylor Twellman’s Head (Part I)

Twellman on Twellman...

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.

Twellman always "went after it...."

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.

Mr. Twellman:

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.

Twellman "going elevator" against the Crew...

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.

TSG: Jesus!

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.

It’s scary.

You can’t read because behind your eyeball you feel like everything is being squished together.

TSG: Wow…

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.

TSG: Now how acutely did you, or are you, monitoring your symptoms? You mentioned your heart rate. Do you wear a heart rate monitor?

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.

Twellman, loved like no other by Revolution fans...

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?

Taylor: 100%.

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.

.

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35 responses to this post.

  1. Both an enlightening and sad tale here by Twellman. What a struggle, but such an interesting story and one that hopefully helps future soccer players avoid his same fate.

    Great candid conversation. Great work TSG.

    Reply

  2. Posted by matthewsf on 2010/12/07 at 6:13 AM

    Thanks Dan; we’ll promise to uplift you with Part II.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Mike Toole on 2010/12/07 at 6:44 AM

    Thanks for posting this. Taylor Twellman is my favorite player ever, and watching him struggle and be done in by a crazy injury has been frustrating for the supporters, too. I look forward to part 2, and hope that Taylor keeps being a spokesman for better safeguards and understanding of sports concussion – I don’t want any more like him. No more Twellmans, no more Namoffs, no more Eskandarians.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Scott Gallagher on 2010/12/07 at 8:03 AM

    Taylor Twellman is from St. Louis, Missouri not Minnesota.

    Reply

    • Posted by bunkelUSA on 2010/12/07 at 9:00 AM

      Born in Minneapolis, I believe.

      Reply

    • Wikileaks is down but Wikipedia still works ;) born in Minneapolis, raised in St. Louis.

      But I still remember watching SLUH-chaminade games with my dad when I was a little kid. Kinda sticks with you. Both of us may have been born elsewhere & now live and work in Boston, but backs to the wall I think both of us would admit we’re more “St. Louisan” than not.

      Reply

  5. Posted by John on 2010/12/07 at 8:28 AM

    Fantastic stuff here as usual.

    Reply

  6. Posted by 4now on 2010/12/07 at 8:33 AM

    Congrats Matt, et al.
    The ShinGuardian continues to establish itself as the premier soccer website in the United States for in-depth, honest reporting…

    Reply

  7. Posted by Steven on 2010/12/07 at 8:50 AM

    Nice work here. Look forward to pt2.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Johninho on 2010/12/07 at 8:50 AM

    Tremendous respect for Taylor Twellman, not only his service to the game, but his honesty, intelligence, and courage.

    And it’s nothing but a bonus that he joins Martino as a premier American soccer-knowledgeable color man in the broadcast booth. I’ll take alternatives to Harkesie whenever and however I can get them.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Ben on 2010/12/07 at 8:54 AM

    Yikes. I’ve never been a fan of Twellman but I feel terrible for the guy. Anyway, nice job on the interview. I’m looking forward to the second part.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Jason on 2010/12/07 at 9:22 AM

    amazing. so glad to hear he’s enjoying life after being such a tremendous athlete with an unfortunately shortened career.

    Reply

  11. [...] mentioned The Shin Guardian back in October, but the boys have outdone themselves by posting an incredible interview with Taylor [...]

    Reply

  12. Posted by Tux on 2010/12/07 at 10:09 AM

    I’ve come to this sport too late to know anything about Twellman’s game, but his concussions literally sicken me. I haven’t seen video of him taking those blows to the head, but think about this (and pardon the reference to American football, but this needs to be discussed):

    Soccer is a sport that isn’t centered around collisions. A guy that weighs 180 is a large man. And De Jong aside, not many players are likely to try to drop a shoulder on a guy like an NFL safety. How much worse are the concussions suffered in the NFL? I don’t care if you’re wearing a helmet, you’re getting hit harder and far more frequently by far larger human beings. I mean, even if magnitude of the injury is only on par with this, it’s still a far more common occurrence.

    And James Harrison wants to lead with his head. While Twellman suffered a horrible injury, these occurrences are far less common in the beautiful game. I applaud him for being open about his injuries and the cause it’s led him to champion. Maybe professional soccer will be more open to change than the NFL will.

    Reply

  13. Posted by Russ on 2010/12/07 at 10:44 AM

    I’ve never seen a better group of consistent interviews from any sort of US Soccer medium.

    Hope you guys win the USSF “Best of” award for this year. Richly deserved.

    Reply

  14. Posted by Russell on 2010/12/07 at 12:38 PM

    I branched out to MLS a little late to catch Twellman at his best.. I regret that. I knew him mostly as a fringe pool player trying to make the 06′ team.

    I started reading this article with limited interest but after reading it, I’m more interested in Concussion awareness .. and Twellman’s career including his broadcast career. I sorta never really liked Twellman without knowing why.. now I’ll root for him and I do know why.

    Excellent article.. especially the detail on the ongoing symptoms. It is curious in all the NFL player talk especially how so little explanation/detail is given on that.

    Reply

  15. [...] Taylor Twellman is doing an interview series with Matthewsf about his retirement, injuries, depression and future in the game. Part 1 is a must-read. [The Shin Guardian] [...]

    Reply

  16. Posted by SamsArmySam on 2010/12/07 at 2:35 PM

    I watched you play, Taylor. And I saw you had fun. Fun and fearless. I always loved that about your game. Best of luck with your transition to What’s Next in your career. And knowing the competitor that you are, I am sure you will be a raging success whatever it is you choose.

    Reply

  17. Posted by TJ Ferguson on 2010/12/07 at 4:08 PM

    spot on with the depression part, can’t get through it without help.

    Reply

  18. [...] Inside Taylor Twellman’s Head (Part I) We finally got a chance to catch up with New England Revolution great Taylor Twellman. The most, not perhaps, but [...] [...]

    Reply

  19. Posted by kaya on 2010/12/07 at 5:28 PM

    Another great interview in your ever increasing quiver of soccer-related breadth. Good job =)
    Concussions are little understood and it’s the invisible injury for so many people: My own little story was that I got a “minor concussion” when I took a tumble from my bike on the streets of SF. I mention it because the depression is very real even though I’m pretty sure the extent of my concussion was *very* minor. Not that I’d know for sure, because I never received a formal diagnosis, but I nonetheless wasn’t myself for about a year.
    Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anything to do but wait for yourself to heal. This then goes back in part to the Martino post about not letting players make decisions about their own health. If you don’t step away from the sport to let your brain fully heal, the best case scenario is to indefinitely delay healing, but more likely is that you get another knock and worsen an existing condition.
    As already mentioned in the interview and in some comments is how brutal the NFL is for concussions which I read average 2 a game (!!) I recall hearing a show on Fresh Air that featured an author (whose name I don’t remember) who talked about how vague the guidelines are for concussion recovery and that a lot of PTSD diagnoses for soldiers involved in IED detonations were in fact often those “invisible” symptoms of concussions. Apparently the body of research between the military and NFL doctors shares a lot of commonality in this area.

    Reply

  20. Posted by Seybold on 2010/12/07 at 8:09 PM

    Excellent interview. Much respect to Twellman for speaking candidly about this. He was always courageous on the field. He’s even more courageous off the field.

    Reply

  21. [...] Read the Q&A with Twellman here. Read Dropping Timber’s article on head injuries for soccer players here. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← 2010 MLS Cup [...]

    Reply

  22. [...] soccer player Taylor Twellman. For the (heartbreaking) concussion-specific piece of our talk, click here for Part [...]

    Reply

  23. [...] urge you to read this incredible interview with former New England Revolution striker Taylor Twellman. Twellman was forced to retire a few [...]

    Reply

  24. [...] Two soccer links: First, our friends at The Shin Guardian have a candid conversation with Taylor Twellman, including a lot about the concussions that shortened his [...]

    Reply

  25. Posted by Nutmeg on 2010/12/10 at 5:02 PM

    Very nice interview. I’ve had so much hope for Taylor when he was still a teenage player that someday he would surpass McBride’s legacy with the USMNT. Unfortunately, injuries cut short my hope. Wish you well, Taylor.

    P.S. Sorry to be an annoying a** but the article could have been proofread to correct those grammatical and spelling errors.

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2010/12/10 at 5:22 PM

      Our copywriter is on vacation and I’ve been battling migraines all week. Best excuses we have on this one. I’ll go over it again.

      Reply

  26. Posted by Dean on 2010/12/13 at 3:54 PM

    Great interview. I’ve been a fan of Taylor Twellman for quite some time.

    Reply

  27. [...] Taylor Twellman Interview: Part I, Part [...]

    Reply

  28. [...] A very candid interview of the effects of Twellman’s concussion [...]

    Reply

  29. Posted by Lauren on 2011/03/01 at 1:11 PM

    Taylor, what do you think about youth and high school players wearing head gear?

    Reply

  30. [...] MLS player Taylor Twellman’s said that his career ending concussions has aged him 20 years. (http://theshinguardian.com/2010/12/07/inside-taylor-twellmans-head-part-i/ ) That’s over 1/4th of the life expectancy of the United States. Stop and think about that for a [...]

    Reply

  31. [...] Former MLS player Taylor Twellman’s said that his career ending concussions has aged him 20 years. That’s over 1/4th of the life expectancy of the United States. Stop and think about that for a [...]

    Reply

  32. [...] mentioned The Shin Guardian back in October, but the boys have outdone themselves by posting an incredible interview with Taylor [...]

    Reply

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