Kelly Conheeney's painful price
For an athlete, it's a memory that will last a lifetime. For the teams gathered this weekend in Cary, N.C., for the College Cup, it's within reach, the moment when the final whistle blows and there are no more practices, no more games, no more opponents standing in the way of a championship. The only obstacle that remains in that moment is the grass that separates you from the celebration.
All four programs in Cary are attempting to win a title for the first time. Virginia Tech's Kelly Conheeney has been in that moment before, though. Not just as one among the rush of bodies sprinting across a field toward a point of celebration but at its epicenter. She had a championship resting on her foot during the summer of 2012.
In that year between the demise of Women's Professional Soccer and the launch of the National Women's Soccer League, the semiprofessional W-League championship match between the Ottawa Fury and the Pali Blues featured some of the best talent then playing in North America. After 90 minutes of regular time, two overtime periods and four rounds of a penalty shootout, Conheeney's kick finally clinched the title for the Fury. It was the last time she put the ball in the back of the net in a competitive game.
Conheeney will be on the sideline when Virginia Tech takes the field Friday against Florida State (ESPNU, 5 p.m. ET) in its first-ever College Cup. The fifth-year senior has been on hand all season, slipping into the familiar fall routines, packing a bag for a road trip or trying to get a little work done on the bus or plane. She is part of the team; she still puts on her jersey each game day. But when the whistle blows this weekend, one of the best players in the history of the program will stand and watch as she has for most of the past two seasons, ever since the headaches, dizziness and other post-concussion symptoms proved too much to ignore.
"For me, it's been like an emotional roller coaster," Conheeney said. "Just not being able to play with this team, knowing how far this team was going to get. It's probably the best team we've had here at Virginia Tech, so not being able to play with them is obviously heartbreaking.
"But I've gotten used to the fact that I won't be on the field. It is bittersweet, in a way, that this is going to be the end."
It is in its own way remarkable that Virginia Tech is here without Conheeney on the field. With essentially a season of eligibility left on the table, having played zero games this season and just four before a redshirt last fall, she is nonetheless the school's all-time leader in points. She amassed those 75 points through an array of skills that rank her second in assists and third in goals.
She isn't on the field these days, but the rise of women's soccer in Blacksburg coincides with the tenure of a player who in 2011 scored game-winning goals not only against mighty North Carolina but also in each of the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament to send the Hokies to the Sweet 16 for the second time -- and who scored the winner when they did it for the first time two years earlier.
"There's no question she's probably one of the most impactful players in the history of our program," Virginia Tech coach Chugger Adair said. "From where we were to where we are, she's been huge."
She casts a longer shadow than could be expected of someone who checks in at 5-foot-5. And if some came bigger, none came harder. She was an ideal fit for a program unceremoniously deposited a decade ago in the deep end of college soccer's best conference. She played like she had something to prove, and her body was a small price to pay for making that point.
"That's just the kind of player I am; I'm kind of reckless," Conheeney said. "I would go in for head balls, and I would go up for challenges with girls who are much taller than me. And I'd hit heads with people and hit the floor. But I'd just pop back up because that's every athlete's instinct is to just pop back up and play and get through it.
"I took it too far. It took a toll over time."
The headaches were a frequent companion over the years. Looking back now with more firsthand knowledge of the subject than she would care to possess, she counts at least four or five likely concussions during her career, although the only one that had been diagnosed before last year was one that forced her to sit out for a short time in high school. She said the neurologist in that case brought up the idea of giving up soccer. He might as well have suggested she give up getting out of bed in the morning. She didn't stop.
"It defined me over the years," Conheeney said of soccer. "I planned to play professionally overseas because I love traveling and I want to see the world and all of that. I hoped for soccer to be my passport to do those things. But when it was taken away from me, that's when I had to turn to other things."
The tipping point came on a diving header in Virginia Tech's second game a season ago against Richmond. She first started to feel out of sorts near the end of college soccer's spring exhibition season months earlier, but she went to Ottawa for summer league anyway. She met friends that only the game could provide -- it never hurts to know you have a place to stay in Norway if you need it -- and won a championship. But she also played a lot of soccer, much of it as a defensive midfielder, a position that offered more opportunities to put her head in harm's way to win a ball.
"It's definitely a concern for girls who always go for it," said Casey Ramirez, now with NWSL's Portland Thorns but then an Ottawa teammate. "And Kelly always goes for it."
Back in Blacksburg with only a few days of rest between summer and fall, she didn't feel like herself even before she went for the header against Richmond. It left her dizzy, but she didn't say anything. She popped back up, as always, and kept playing. It wasn't until a week later that she walked off the field after a game against Iowa State in Lincoln, Neb., and couldn't ignore the symptoms.
At first, the plan was to sit out for a week. A week became a month. Not long after that came the decision to sit out the season and preserve her final year of eligibility. All the while, an all too familiar but too infrequently told story played out off the field.
Conheeney stayed in her room and slept for hours on end. She was sensitive to light, antsy and high strung. She had to drop a class because she couldn't concentrate. The symptoms lessened as her time away from the field increased, but every time she tried to prove to herself and others that she was healed, putting herself through all the conditioning tests and drills she would need to pass to play again, the dizziness, fatigue and headaches would drift back over her.
As much as her ability to play soccer was compromised, so was her ability to be herself. She might have defined herself by soccer, but others did not.
"She is such a great person to be around," Ramirez said. "She has a huge personality, and she's always laughing and loud and goofy and just always a good time. ... She has such a big heart. She's one of the friendliest people I've met. And her heart definitely shows on the field; she's always trying to go 100 percent."
A few weeks into the fall, Conheeney considered what she could no longer reject.
"I finally accepted the fact that it was done for me," she said.
Like Stanford's Emily Oliver and Richmond's Becca Wann, repeated head injuries took Conheeney off the field well before her time. If data about the rate of head injuries are to be believed, those three are merely high-profile examples of a much larger phenomenon in the women's game. While there may be abstract awareness of the dangers of head injuries, there is also a competitive culture that looks the other way.
"I think people are becoming more aware, and I hope that research is done to help people in the future," Conheeney said. "But in terms of how serious I thought concussions were growing up, I didn't really consider them as a huge injury because it wasn't keeping me out. I wasn't going to take myself out of the game. Somebody else -- or a broken bone or an injury that was noticeable to other people, that was going to take me out of the game."
A parent in her hometown in New Jersey recently asked Conheeney to speak to a daughter who faced a similar dilemma. The message delivered is one that carries weight when it comes from someone like her.
"If I had just taken care of myself earlier, this could have been avoided," Conheeney said.
There is some sadness in the words but little bitterness.
Part of what helped her come to see a world beyond soccer over the past year was, as it turned out, seeing the world beyond. She spent part of her summer in the Dominican Republic with a Virginia Tech student group that as part of its curriculum worked with aid organizations and local youth. She would like to find a way to work with a nonprofit organization, to go back to a place like the Dominican Republic and perhaps use soccer to uplift and instruct. There really is, it turns out, more to life than playing soccer.
But first, there is one more weekend with her Hokies.
It was difficult at first to make the road trips with the team this season. Early on, she would get back to campus and call her father to say she couldn't do it -- she couldn't not play. Some part of her still held on to the idea that she might again play 90 minutes.
"As the trips have gone on, I've kind of been able to just enjoy my time with the team more," Conheeney said. "I'm just so happy to be with the girls. I don't have much time with them, and they're the best group of girls I've ever been around. This team is one of the most important things in my life. It's really made me who I am."
It has given her the memories that will last a lifetime, the kind of memories that the soccer community would do well this weekend to remember are worth protecting.