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U.S. soccer legend Briana Scurry opens up about head injury that changed her life

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Briana Scurry is one of the best women's soccer players in the history of her sport - a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a gay Black woman who blazed a trail for all those who came after her. Remember the 1999 World Cup? Her saves propelled the U.S. to their win over China. It's the kind of career that Scurry had wanted from as early as 8 years old.

BRIANA SCURRY: And then when I was a teenager, I made this little sign, and it said, Olympics 1996 - I have a dream. And I put that sign on my wall.

SUMMERS: That childhood dream became a reality in Atlanta. Then, 14 years later, she suffered an injury that ended her soccer career and changed her life. When I spoke with her about her new documentary, "The Only," we talked about her injury and what's happened since then. But first, Briana Scurry took us back to that first Olympics and walking through the tunnel for the opening ceremonies.

SCURRY: It was astonishing. I mean, I'm sure you've all seen those ceremonies, and it is truly a celebration. And it was just so exhilarating for me to find myself on that team at that time. Like, I just had basically planned it my whole life.

SUMMERS: I want to talk a little bit about the '99 World Cup. You had this huge save, and then Brandi Chastain kicked the game winning goal, and this is how she talked about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRANDI CHASTAIN: My kick is insignificant if she doesn't make a save.

SUMMERS: How did you see that moment? Tell us about it.

SCURRY: In my process of getting prepared to go through the penalty kick shootout, I completely focused on what it was I was supposed to do, which was save one. And so I really didn't focus anything else on what my teammates were doing because I had complete faith that they were going to be able to do their jobs, and they had faith that I would be able to do mine.

SUMMERS: The other thing that Saskia Webber, another teammate, points out in the documentary is, in her words, she says your save wasn't elevated enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE ONLY")

SASKIA WEBBER: I'll be blunt about it. Any other white goalkeeper that would have done that, like - it would have been totally different.

SUMMERS: Do you agree with her?

SCURRY: Oh, you know, for the longest time, I didn't want to believe that my skin color or my sexual orientation was ever seen as undesirable or an impediment for me to advance or to get sponsorship or partnerships with companies and corporations. But over time, I realized that that is exactly, unfortunately, what the case was. It saddened me because I was out there, you know, performing my best, representing my country, and growing the game with my teammates. And for the longest time, I didn't think it was about my skin color. To have been a trailblazer, to be able to get notoriety now, in my true story - I'm very excited for what is coming now and what's to come in the future.

SUMMERS: We've talked about the highs of your career. And I also want to talk about the lows. In 2010, you were playing in the women's professional soccer league, and in your first start for the Washington Freedom, you sustained a devastating concussion in a collision with an opposing player. How and when did you know that this was not just an injury that could sideline you for a season but that this was a career-ending moment?

SCURRY: If you were to go on YouTube and look up Briana Scurry head injury 2010, you could see a video of this exact moment. It doesn't look all that horrific.

SUMMERS: Yeah.

SCURRY: But the problem was she hit me in a side of my head with her knee, and I never saw her coming. And so I was very exposed. As soon as I stood up, I saw the names on the backs of the jerseys were blurry, and I started to tilt a little bit to the left as I was walking, and the ball was fuzzy and blurry. And a few minutes went by, and halftime whistle blew. And I walked off the pitch. Then my trainer came out to meet me, and she asked me, Bri, are you OK? And I said, no. I knew at that moment that this concussion was unlike any of the other ones I had experienced. I didn't realize that it was career-ending until a few months later when it just wasn't getting any better. And I realized at that moment that that was the end of my career.

SUMMERS: How would you describe pre-concussion Briana and post-concussion Briana?

SCURRY: Well, pre-concussion Briana was very confident, very self-secure, very brave, extremely focused and had an emotional intelligence and ability to truly focus on what needed to be done. Post-concussion Briana spiraled into the depths of suicidal thoughts and anguish and financial ruin. And fortunately for Briana today, I am more like the pre-concussion Briana than I ever have been. But it was the post-concussion Briana that got through that situation that made me stronger.

SUMMERS: So you have become an advocate for speaking out about concussions in soccer. What is your main message to the leagues about how to do better by their players?

SCURRY: Well, one of the most impactful things that the leagues can do right now is something called a head injury assessment. Rugby in Europe has this. It is a independent doctor that takes a player off the pitch into a quiet room for a 5- to 10-minute assessment and decides whether or not that player can continue.

SUMMERS: And if I can just ask what happens now, though, if those kind of independent assessments aren't happening?

SCURRY: Unfortunately, what happens now, because these women are - you know, they are passionate about their game. They're playing at a high level. They're playing for high stakes. They want to stay in the game. And even though they may have gotten knocked out for a short period of time in a game, doctors and coaches ask them for their opinion on a situation that they may not even be aware they had. They're going to say they want to play. And so you have to take that choice out of their hands and protect them in the way in which they deserve to be protected.

SUMMERS: And you mentioned there's a second thing that you'd like to see the leagues do. What was that?

SCURRY: So right now, head injury protection - there are certain inventions. There's a few players in the NWSL wearing the collar and the head injury protection headband, essentially. And I think these things should be mandated. I know right now the league doesn't do that. But I will say this; there was a time when shin guards were voluntary. And now they are mandatory, and they have been for decades, and nobody thinks twice about it. I think if the leagues would assess the impact of headgear and head injury assessment, I think they would be on the right side of protecting their players and showing that they care about them.

SUMMERS: Briana Scurry, thank you so much for joining us today.

SCURRY: Thanks so much for having me. Have a wonderful day, and I really appreciate that you are now part of my journey. So thank you for that.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Briana Scurry's memoir is called "My Greatest Save," and the documentary about her life, "The Only," is on Paramount+. And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or contact the Crisis Text Line. Text hello to 741741.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 12, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous headline and introduction to this interview misspelled Briana Scurry's first name as Brianna.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Sarah Handel