Justin Morneau plunged into the darkness about eight months after the first news broke about the damaging effects of hockey concussions, via the late-2009 discovery of the degenerative brain disease in former NHL player Reggie Fleming.
Morneau, the Minnesota Twins first baseman, suffered a concussion at the Rogers Centre on July 7, 2010, when he took a knee to the head in a play at second base from Jays infielder John McDonald. He missed the rest of that season and returned to play the following April, also in Toronto, but hadn't fully recovered and logged only 69 games in 2011.
This spring, he enters the last year of his contract symptom-free from concussion and eagerly anticipating a full season. Morneau, of New Westminster, B.C., recalls sitting at home at the prime of his career frustratingly waiting for his head to get right, being unable to help the team, wondering when he would be able to return and in what condition.
"It's a weird thing," he says. "Anyone I've talked to who's been through it, the symptoms and the triggers are different. It's so difficult to figure out." A hockey player as a youth and enthusiastic follower of the sport today, he understands concussion well enough now to warn against the "old-school mentality" in hockey, that approach where kids are encouraged to shake off the cobwebs. He appreciates the testosterone-charged feeling of laying on a good, clean hit, while at the same time pointing out that in youth hockey one player may outweigh another by a huge margin, creating a dangerous situation and an atmosphere of intimidation.
"It comes down to parents," he says. "Dads need to teach their kids about respecting the other team because you never know when you're going to be on the other side of it. There's always going to be someone faster, always someone bigger, always someone stronger."
As he struggled through his own recovery, news came in March of 2011 that deceased NHL forward Bob Probert had been afflicted by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, today known commonly as CTE. Zdeno Chara's hit on Montreal's Max Pacioretty caused blue-chip corporations to demand the NHL take action on headshots. That summer, as Morneau staved off relapse, hockey players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak unexpectedly died, triggering speculation that their deaths had been somehow related to head injuries sustained while playing hockey. Morneau works in the same city where Boogaard had spent the better part of his career, and where he died from a drug overdose. Autopsy later showed CTE in Boogaard's brain.
"There are so many things we don't understand about the brain," he said. "It's amazing what I've learned, and I know one one-thousandth of what doctors know, and the doctors say they have so far to go in their research."
Today, Morneau and catcher Joe Mauer are heading into their 10th season together, stationed next to one another in the Twins clubhouse, Morneau's new shipment of Sam Bat's maple sticks propped up on a bench between them. While Mauer is on a long-term deal and endorsing a new contract for his mate, the Twins haven't been willing to discuss a contract extension to this point, at least publicly. While the Twins may be poised to bounce back from back-to-back last-place finishes in the American League Central, they remain in the midst of a rebuild, fanning speculation that Morneau may be dealt away mid-season. Earlier this spring, he got blogs buzzing with the suggestion that the Toronto Blue Jays would be a favoured destination in that case, but since then has emphasized his loyalty to the Twins.
"It is what it is," he said, after hitting a home run against the Blue Jays on Sunday.
Concussion has taught him to appreciate each day because you never know what's around the bend. Earning $14-million (all currency U.S.) this season, Morneau has also been hampered by neck, foot, knee and wrist injuries. He missed 28 games last season while approaching the form that made him a four-time all-star and 2006 AL most valuable player, batting .267 with 19 home runs and 77 runs batted in. This spring, he's averaging .283 with a .590 slugging percentage in 40 plate appearances, with three home runs, three doubles and 11 RBI.
He turns 32 in May, with plenty of baseball left in him. Two years ago, he wasn't so sure of that.