BRIANA SCURRY has been watching the World Cup every chance she gets, fitting games into a busy schedule that includes motivational speaking engagements, promoting concussion awareness and working with America SCORES, a soccer-focused nonprofit youth foundation operating in 13 cities around the country, for which she is the national spokesperson. Soccer gave her everything—and it also very nearly took it all away. "This is probably the most exciting World Cup I've ever watched," she says. And Scurry knows about World Cup excitement.
Scurry—Bri to her friends—remembers the moment, 15 years ago, when she and her U.S. teammates realized how intense the 1999 Women's World Cup was going to be. "Our first game going to Giants Stadium, there was a lot of traffic; we were like, Oh, no, we're going to be late for the game. And then we realized it was traffic for our game. Holy cow. People had painted faces, signs, they were waving at the bus, and we were waving back at them like little kids. That's when it became a reality.
"Coming out of that tunnel, the camera flashes and the cheering, like a crescendo, it overtakes the space. Everyone was willing us to win, 79,000 people. And your heart's fluttering, and you want to do well, because they're there to see you. [Some of us] started crying, some of us were laughing—it was overwhelming. And then we had to get down to the business of actually winning the game."
The U.S. beat Denmark 3--0—one of Scurry's 71 career shutouts for the national team—the beginning of a delirious run through the tournament that ended in an eruption of joy at a sold-out Rose Bowl. A crowd of 90,185, a record for a women's sporting event, turned out to see the 5--4 victory over China in a penalty-kick shootout.
The list of Scurry's achievements is long—from 1989 All-America at Anoka High in Dayton, Minn., to 1993 national collegiate goalkeeper of the year for UMass to World Cup champion in '99 to Olympic gold medalist in '96 and 2004. During her U.S. career, from 1994 to 2008, she was 133-12-14. "No one has ever played better than that for the USA," Tony DiCicco, the national-team coach from 1994 to '99, told The Washington Post last year. "She was the best in the world."
Scurry, 42, grew up about 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis, the youngest of nine kids. ("An oops baby," she says.) She took to just about every sport she tried, but she didn't play soccer until she was 12, when she went out for the boys' team because it was the only one around. The coach made her a keeper, thinking she'd be safe there.
"I made this little sign when I was 12 or 13 that said, ATLANTA 1996 I HAVE A DREAM," she says. "I didn't know what sport I would be playing, but I knew I was going to be doing something." It was at UMass that coach Jim Rudy told her she was good enough to play on the national team.
For a player with career highs like Scurry's, retirement would surely have been an adjustment whenever it arrived. But no one could have known just how big that adjustment would be.
THE CONCUSSION that ended Scurry's career—that plunged her into a more than three-year fight for her mental and physical health and that eventually gave her a new sense of purpose—was not her first. In a national-team practice in 2006, a hard shot bounced off the post and hit her in the forehead; she sat out a day. The next concussion came a year or so later, she thinks, during a U.S. practice, when she collided with forward Abby Wambach. Just a minor thing.
In April 2010, Scurry's club team in the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer League, the Washington Freedom, was visiting Philadelphia. "I was coming out for a routine low ball to my left," says Scurry. "I bent down to pick it up. I never saw the forward coming from my right. She's trying to stick her toe in front of the ball to tip it past me, and she ends up crashing her knee into the side of my head."
Scurry thinks she blacked out for only a moment. The first half was almost over, so she stayed in the game until she heard the whistle. "I started walking to the bench, slowly, at an angle," she says. "The trainer runs out and says, 'Are you O.K.?' I said, 'No, I'm not O.K.' "
Doctors told her she just needed to rest, but as weeks ticked by with no improvement, Scurry realized her career was done. Intense, painful headaches made concentration, socializing and activities as simple as writing and walking a struggle. "I felt this really intense disconnect from everything," she says. "I was trying to express it, to get people to understand what I was feeling, but it was hard to put it into words."
To her friends, Scurry's problems were evident. "She had been one of the most intense players in the sport," says Naomi Rodriguez, who met Scurry as a massage therapist for the U.S. in 2004 and was her roommate for several years. "The speed and athleticism Bri had were unbelievable.... And she would do these unbelievable workouts, hours longer than what was required." But after the injury, Rodriguez says, Scurry "might sleep 16, 18 hours a day, because she was in so much pain."
Scurry's symptoms made working—as Washington's GM (a position she'd taken upon retirement) and as a studio analyst for ESPN during the 2011 Women's World Cup—nearly impossible. "After a while I started to get depressed," says Scurry. "My brain chemistry had changed.... My mind was broken."
Finally, in February 2013, she found Kevin Crutchfield, a neurologist at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. He describes himself as a specialist who treats diseases that alter the brain's chemical and electrical processes. A concussion, he explains, is really "a collection of symptoms" that often, as he discovered in Scurry's case, includes neck injuries. Crutchfield, who works with the Ravens, the Orioles and D.C. United, concluded that Scurry had suffered damage to the occipital nerve, which runs from the spine up the neck to the back of the head. "[If] it can take an Olympic gold medalist nearly three years to find the right doctor," says Scurry, "I can only imagine how long it might take someone else."
Crutchfield advised Scurry to try steroids to reduce the swelling around her pinched and irritated nerve, and then to have an operation to free her occipital nerve from the muscle with which it had become entangled. Scurry, who is single, moved from New Jersey to Washington to be close to her doctors.
Crutchfield's diagnosis was the first step toward Scurry's reclaiming a normal life. And she took the second when she was waiting to have surgery. While reading up on concussions in sports, Scurry saw a study that found that 50% of girls who play soccer will suffer at least one. She'd had no idea that head injuries were such an issue in her sport. For reasons that are not yet fully understood, females are more susceptible than males, and girls' soccer trails only football and boys' hockey as the leading cause of concussions in high school athletes.
Scurry had always planned to work with kids after she retired. Now she saw a way to help young athletes, and to give herself a new goal. "How can I make this into a positive?" she recalls thinking. "Let me see if I can be a face for [this issue]. It's not just football, it's not just hockey, it's my sport."
Most serious concussions don't occur when players head the ball but instead when they take a blow to the head, often from an elbow, a head, a knee or a goalpost. "Injuries are going to happen," says Scurry, "but you can always have awareness and recovery—if everyone knows what to look for, you get the right treatment, the sooner the better." Scurry testified about concussions in front of Congress in March 2014, and has made a point of talking publicly about her experiences.
Last October, Ivica Ducic, a plastic and nerve surgeon who was then at Georgetown, performed Scurry's occipital nerve release surgery. It was a success: After 3½ long years the pain in her head subsided. Though she is dramatically better than she was a year ago, Scurry's concentration, focus and balance are still not what they were. "We're working to trying to get me back, not to a normal range, but to my range," says Scurry.
She looks as if she could still play, but only recently has Scurry gotten the O.K. to return to a real exercise routine—up to 30 minutes on a stationary bike and then, if she doesn't feel dizzy or foggy, some weightlifting. Every week she goes to vestibular process therapy, where she works to improve her balance. She keeps her activity level manageable: one challenging thing a day.
AT AN event for the Illinois Youth Soccer Association last month, Scurry was asked to name her favorite career highlight. It wasn't 1999 that came back to her.
Going into the 2004 Athens Olympics, the USWNT's core was getting older—Mia Hamm was 32, Julie Foudy was 33, Brandy Chastain was 35. On Father's Day that year Scurry's dad, Ernest, passed away at 75. He had been suffering from kidney failure, prostate cancer and heart problems, and Scurry returned home to Minnesota to visit whenever her hectic travel schedule allowed. She was able to be there when he died. "Two months later," she says, "I played the best soccer I've ever played in my life. I was making these saves against Brazil [in the final] that were like The Matrix—I didn't know how I got there, but I got there. And I was on the podium just bawling because I knew my dad was with me. The peak of ecstasy and sadness at the same time."
She often gets asked: After all this, if she could go back and do it all again, would she change anything?
"Emphatically, no," says Scurry. "I achieved a dream that I wanted since I was a kid, winning a gold medal. Twice. Soccer has been very good to me. I made my livelihood from it. I played my passion every day. I had the gift of not only being successful when I played but inspiring millions of people—my teams have done that. I wouldn't trade that for the world." ¬±