They are forever known as the 99ers, those unforgettable women who won the World Cup more than two decades ago. They authored one of the most important, influential and inspirational stories in the history of American women’s sports.
It’s a story that couldn’t have been written without goalkeeper Briana Scurry. Even though the lasting and defining image of that victory is the Cup-clinching penalty kick by Brandi Chastain, it was the daring save by Scurry just before that made it possible.
Once upon a time, she saved the US women’s national team.
Years later, she had to find a way to save herself.
And that journey, the one that took years to complete, the one that saw her emerge from a traumatic brain injury, from the depths of depression that came with it, from financial ruin and loss of purpose that led to suicidal thoughts, is the one she has authored now. Scurry’s memoir “My Greatest Save,” written with longtime sportswriter Wayne Coffey, puts her on the front lines of many important conversations.
“I think what has connected the most is what I call the ‘only’ thing, the entirety of me,” the 50-year-old Scurry said in a wide-ranging phone interview last week. “The only openly gay woman on the team, the only black player with a substantial position, that’s really resonating with people. It’s always been true obviously but it wasn’t always something I talked about.”
Bold and brave, filled with wit and candor, Scurry shines light on topics once hidden or shrouded in silence. Her lived experiences on the personal and professional fronts make for a riveting read (available in print https://www.briscurry.com or in her own voice on audible.com), the story of how an athletically gifted youngest child of a large Minneapolis family landed a soccer scholarship at UMass, made such an impression on the coach who recruited her that Jim Rudy was moved to use every connection he had to get her on the national team despite no history of high-level club or youth play, who would anchor that team to two Olympic gold medals as well as the transformative World Cup championship.
The story didn’t end there, however, not after Scurry sustained a devastating concussion in what would turn out to be her last professional game. A knee to the temple caused every debilitating symptom you can imagine, cost her every penny she had to doctors and insurance payments, saw her sell off those Olympic medals just to pay the rent, saw her eventually get the right treatment (a surgery called occipital nerve release) and meet the right woman (she and her wife Chryssa Zizos married in 2018), and ultimately moved her to share it all in the hopes of helping others facing a similar plight.
“The choice that I made to be an advocate for mental health, [traumatic brain injuries] in particular and all that entails, it chose me,” she said. “I had a concussion, which led to a three-year long odyssey, issues with everything, the basket of physical symptoms but also willing to talk about the emotional side. That’s what was missing in the conversation. In 2014-15, when TBI really started its advocacy, football players talked about the physical symptoms but not the emotional ones. They’re doing strange things, shootings, killing themselves, that’s the emotional part.
“I started talking about that. I wanted to paint a new face on TBI mental health and concussions. I read an interview that talked about 50 percent of women who play soccer at a high level will suffer with a concussion. That’s crazy. I had so many issues with doctors, treatments, misdiagnoses. I’m a two-time gold medalist and world champion. If I had all this trouble I can only imagine what it was like for others. When I started doing these talks, I had to be honest. There’s no shame in me telling people how I felt. It took a long time to include the suicide piece. That was still too hot. But talking about being depressed, anxiety, all these other pieces were important to share.”
The conversation has filled her soul.
“I am so grateful and appreciative that I got out of that hole I was in,” she said. “I feel it as part of my legacy and my duty to talk about it. If I can connect with someone when I do my public speaking, inspirational speeches, that matters so much. In my preparation before I do it, I say ‘Let me reach the one person that needs to hear what I have to say.’ They may be afraid, hurting, masking it, going through their day trying not to be sad, let me get through to that person, and let them know they’re not alone.”
Once upon a time, Scurry was so comfortable in that alone space, standing on the goal line facing down the opposition. She built a Hall of Fame career with this combination of preternatural calm, intense preparation, confidence and skill. Though so often the ‘only,’ as she put it, she was always part of the whole as well, living a life built more on what she had in common with teammates and fans than what made her different. That is the connection that carries her now, and she’s never been more inspiring.
“My current near goal I’ve had, and I haven’t had a goal like this in a long time, is to be a New York Times best-selling author,” she says with a laugh. “I want that so badly. I feel so strongly about my journey and my story and how much it can help, more than I could do when I was on the pitch. I just really love connecting with people.”