My daughter flew toward the ball, her neck outstretched, as graceful and ferocious as a Canada goose. Someone else's daughter hurtled, goose-like, toward her. A sickening craaaccck as skull met skull.
I suppose Claire was lucky. Within a few minutes, her face and forehead wore a blazing imprint of the other girl's head. She complained that she could not see out of one eye. "The referee looks like Voldemort."
Yes, lucky. It was as if her concussion on the soccer field that day was made visible. We had been sitting on the bench together, waiting to see how she felt. Now, it was impossible to deny, minimize, ignore. Impossible to put her back out on the field that day. (It would be hard to call the other girl lucky. Her nose was broken, and she was taken to the hospital.)
Claire is tough. A 13-year-old girl, blond and beautiful, and as unwilling as any pro athlete - Sidney Crosby, to name one - to take herself out of a game. Yup, I'm a little proud. Maybe just proud enough to be stupid with her health, under different circumstances.
Risk my daughter's brain, for a game? Would any capable parent do such a thing?
They do. All the time. In a study led by sports doctor Paul Echlin of London, Ont., independent physicians and neutral observers monitored two junior hockey teams with players 16 to 21 years old. During the 52 games they observed at rinkside, they diagnosed 21 concussions. That is seven times the highest rate ever recorded for hockey.
Those physicians found concussions because they looked for them, and because they knew what to look for. And yet a coach, a team executive and even several parents balked at keeping concussed players out of the lineup. And this was a fourth-tier league.
"During the playoffs," Dr. Echlin writes, "Coach B's son suffered an apparent third concussion of the season. ... Nevertheless, Coach B's son was permitted to play the rest of the game without the suggested medical evaluation."
I'm no Coach B, no crazed stage parent, but what did I know about concussions? I'm a little bit haunted by what might have happened. Would I have let Claire return to the game if (like Sidney Crosby, mashed in the head last month at the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh) there had been no giant welt and no Voldemort? And what if I hadn't been there that day? Would she now be brain-injured like Sidney?
'The damage is cumulative'
Claire's head hurt. We drove - interminably - from the exurban tournament to a city hospital. In the emergency ward, a drug addict seated next to Claire threw up. We switched seats, cuddled and talked about the Blue Jays' pennant chances.
At last, a doctor was available. No CT scan, she said. The radiation can damage the growing brain. Claire's sore eye appeared to be fine. The doctor handed me a sheet from ThinkFirst, neurosurgeon Charles Tator's group, setting out the stages a concussed athlete needs to go through before returning to play.
The first concussion isn't usually a big worry, she said. "It's the second one you need to worry about. The damage is cumulative."
And Claire wanted to play again. Not just soccer. Everything.
Hockey season was about to begin. And football tryouts at her middle school. (There's a girls' touch football team.) And, three weeks away, practices for the fall-winter indoor soccer season.
She's an athlete. An athlete plays until the final bell. To ask, "Are you okay, do you want to go back in," is to place the burden of choice on the wrong shoulders. If Sidney Crosby could be so wrong about returning to play, what is the likelihood Claire would make the right decision for herself?
No parent should leave that choice to the child. In what other important sphere are children or teens routinely permitted that autonomy? Would you like to stay out until midnight, Claire? Get together with someone you met over the Internet?
I tried to talk to her about the damage done by repeated concussions. Her rebuttals were unyielding and uninformed. (And she wants to be a doctor!) It should not be a young person's job to safeguard her own brain health. It's the parent's.
It's a hard knock life
Am I being a wimp? In William Wellman's classic film The Happy Years, set in 1896, prep-school boys play tackle football without equipment. A wedge of blockers steamrolls the diminutive hero. He's unconscious briefly, but his teammates drag him to his feet and he crouches for the next play. People were tough in those days, I thought. It didn't hurt anyone. But then I remembered - people died all the time in football back then. Those flying masses or wedges were homicidal. In 1905, 18 people were killed playing football in the United States. President Theodore Roosevelt demanded something be done, and the game changed.
It feels a bit like 1896 to me. Two years ago, the brain of a dead hockey player, Reggie Fleming, was scanned and showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that leads to dementia. In football, players at the University of North Carolina receive an average of 950 hits to the head in a season of games and practices. What lifelong traumas are we setting up our best and bravest athletes for? Even some teenage athletes are suffering cognitive problems or sensitivity to light and sound.
I took my daughter to her pediatrician to ask for a medical clearance before she returned to play. Yes, she could return, no problem at all, the doctor said. On the other hand, a second concussion would be bad. Is that a conundrum or a paradox? Whatever it is, it was difficult to square. In the end, I decided to limit Claire to two sports at a time. Soccer would have to wait until football season was over.
I have a neighbour who played professional hockey in Europe. You'd have a fight, he said, be knocked out, and come back for the next period. He laughed about it. It hadn't hurt him. Hahaha. I know a coach of the local learn-to-play hockey program whose grown son suffered eight concussions in youth hockey. "The doctor said one more and he could be a vegetable," the coach told me. Hahaha.
My daughter is playing soccer again. One day last month, her teammate aimed a corner kick for the front of the net, and once again Claire flew through the air, neck outstretched like a goose … the goalie rushed out … Claire's head struck the ball, artfully, beautifully, and she scored, and the other parents cheered wildly.
I did too.
Sean Fine is an editorial writer for The Globe and Mail.