Living after a concussion

Michael Carlucci

Former Rams goalkeeper Michael Carlucci suffered a concussion a year ago and hasn’t played competitive soccer to this day. (Dasha Zolota / Ryersonian Staff)

Michael Carlucci is 20 years old. Carlucci was a soccer goalie. He was because he no longer is – or better yet, he can’t be. A concussion cut his playing days short and it’s been a year since Carlucci could play in net.

Concussions are considered an epidemic in football. Yet in soccer, they’re overlooked, an afterthought.

It’s a story like Carlucci’s that brings us to the bigger issue of concussions, specifically in soccer. After all, how can you sustain a concussion in a “non-contact” sport?

Carlucci was a goalie for the Ryerson Rams, but only for one year.

It was Aug. 16, 2013. The Rams were in Syracuse for a pre-season tournament when Carlucci entered the second half of the game. He went up for a ball and was hit in the head by what he said felt like an elbow.

There were no immediate symptoms. Dizziness became an issue as the game progressed, but nothing Carlucci thought was serious. It wasn’t until the whistle blew a few minutes later that Carlucci’s head started spinning.

Carlucci then headed to the bench.

“I was walking towards our physiotherapist and he’s like, ‘are you OK?’ I’m like, ‘yeah, what’s wrong?’ and he’s like, ‘well you’re not walking straight.’”

Later that night, as Carlucci’s symptoms progressed, they finally diagnosed him with a concussion.

It’s been over a year since his brain was rattled inside his skull and he described the recovery process as “hell.”

Carlucci was ordered to stay in a dark room with no distractions. He couldn’t do rudimentary things like sleep or go to class. The only time he would leave the silent darkness of his apartment was to get groceries.

“Being in the city with all the noises and lights, it was too much for me to deal with,” said Carlucci. “Being in my room for weeks on end… It caused me to get into a state of depression.”

An RTA student who is heavily involved with music, both personally and for his program, Carlucci had to stop listening for a while. The concussion took away two things he loves – music and soccer.

Over a year later, he no longer needs to spend day after day sitting in a dark room. He can go to class. He can listen to music. He can exercise without symptoms. He can run and play pickup soccer and be a member of a soccer team.

This year, Ryerson took him on as a goalie trainer for the women’s soccer team.

But playing goalie is never going to happen again. Not with the diving and the jumping and the potential risk it brings. Not when Carlucci still gets symptoms, such as his neck shaking too quickly.

Fourteen months later and the concussion-like symptoms can last for a week. Irritability, dizziness, tightness and pressure around the head are things he is still living with for the foreseeable future.

Soccer is not a collision sport like football or hockey. You’re not out for blood. But there’s contact all the time. Players fall, take elbows and butt heads. They constantly have to hit the soccer ball with their heads in order to make a play.

“It’s the accidental 50-50 header or getting hit in the head with the ball,” said Ryerson’s head athletic therapist, Jerome Camacho. “It’s not a direct, on purpose kind of thing.”

According to PBS, youth soccer sent 10,000 U.S. kids to hospitals last year with possible concussions. The problem with soccer is concussions are almost like collateral damage.

In football, they’ve started penalizing and fining players for leading with their head or hitting a defenceless player. But in soccer, there aren’t many rule changes that can be made, aside from removing headers from the game. They’re unavoidable accidents.

There’s also the issue that the science behind concussions is still largely unknown. Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez, the authors of Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game, examined concussions and noted the difference between low-impact hits and high-impact hits is a mystery.

For example, is heading a soccer ball 10 times lightly the equivalent to getting elbowed in the head once? The cumulative effects of low-impact hits are still being studied.

Doctors don’t know if they can lead to a concussion, especially since symptoms will be harder to read than if there was a high-impact collision.

Camacho mentions helmets, but says they don’t make much of an impact, if any, in soccer. They’re usually just a thin headband, which doesn’t protect the top of the head or the brain from moving within the skull.

“There’s no guarantee that any kind of head gear will protect you,” says Camacho, pointing specifically to soccer headgear. “It’s a false sense of security.”

For both Camacho and Carlucci, knowledge and precaution is the best way to protect athletes from severe damage.

Ryerson’s concussion protocol pulls any athlete from a game if a possible concussion is sustained. The player is then put through gradual testing and isn’t allowed to return until the doctor has cleared him or her.

Carlucci’s biggest piece of advice is to be aware of the dangers and never overlook any possible symptoms.

“Be mindful that it could happen, but don’t let that prevent you from playing to your full ability,” says Carlucci. “If it does happen, take precaution right away, don’t take it lightly.”

In sports, injuries are going to happen. That’s a given. But in a world where it’s impossible to keep everyone safe, it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

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