GROTON — A little more than a year after she found herself struggling to carry on coherent conversations with friends and family, Sarah Lepsevich strode confidently to the front of the gymnasium and delivered a speech about concussions to a sea of high school students
Lepsevich, a Franklin resident and a senior at Montrose School in Medfield, and former New England Revolution forward Taylor Twellman helped the MIAA kick off its second Concussion Awareness week at Groton-Dunstable on Monday.
As part of the program, some 86,000 varsity athletes under the MIAA’s jurisdiction will receive orange wristbands and identification cards from Twellman’s nonprofit concussion awareness organization, ThinkTaylor. Coaches across the state also will have discussions with their student-athletes about the dangers of head injuries and the warning signs.
“Last year, we were approached by Taylor with this idea to be the first people in the country to do this concussion awareness week,” MIAA associate executive director Richard Pearson said. “I think over the past year we’ve really kind of sharpened it a little bit, and this is what you’ve got in the second year now.”
Twellman, Major League Soccer’s most valuable player in 2005, was the league’s most prolific scorer from 2002-08, when a series of head injuries put an abrupt end to his career.
He left soccer disenchanted with the state of the concussion rehabilitation apparatus. Every specialist he visited, it seemed, had a different diagnosis.
“There are too many individuals that many people look at as experts, and I couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone,” Twellman said. “One person said I was going to die at 40. Someone else said I didn’t have a concussion but that I was just depressed about not being able to go play in England.” (The Revolution and Major League Soccer had engaged in transfer negotiations with Preston North End of England’s second division, but ultimately backed out.)
Six years later, in 2014, without the medical resources and outlets afforded to a top-tier professional athlete, Lepsevich faced similar frustrations.
During a soccer game in September, as part of a wall protecting the goal from a free kick, she took a shot to the right side of her head, fell and smashed the other side of her head on the turf. It happened so quickly she hadn’t had a chance to react.
The first thing Lepsevich remembers is her ears ringing.
“You know in boxing those bells? That just went off in my head,” she said, “and I was very groggy, my eyes kind of going in and out.”
Her teammates ran to her aid and asked, “Sarah, Sarah, are you OK?”
She said yes, picked herself up, and stayed in the game. Ten months later, she often needed help walking. After visiting a carousel of doctors with conflicting opinions, she was finally told she could never play soccer again.
Lepsevich rehabilitated her brain and body — she says she’s at 80 percent now — and has hooked up with ThinkTaylor to bring her message of concussion awareness to other high school students, like she did Monday.
“It’s different to hear a peer talking to you, someone your age,” she said. “It’s never just a concussion. You think, ‘It hits the head, it’s not that big of a deal.’
“But I had no idea it was going to lead to me not walking or talking. If you do have a concussion or get hit in the head, you should come out of the game immediately. Go to the doctors. Don’t go back in the game. Please do not be stupid.”
Griffin Connolly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.