I think it was Al Bundy who once said something to the effect of, “the only time it’s ok for a man to cry is when a famous sports guy retires,” and I’ve held to that for most of my adult life. Whenever one of the greats decides to hang ‘em up, I have no problem getting a little choked up along with him and his family. Al Bundy said it’s ok.
On Wednesday, the greatest-ever American-born goalscorer held a press conference to announce his retirement. I tuned in expecting the waterworks to flow, but this time it was different. For 45 minutes we observed waiting for a wave of emotion but instead were treated to facts and hard truths.
Taylor Twellman, a star striker for Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution, had to call it a career at the ripe age of 30 because concussions robbed him of the ability to participate in physical activity of any sort.
His injury happened as he was scoring a goal. In an August 2008 game against the LA Galaxy, he jumped to head the ball into the net and goalkeeper Steve Cronin punched him in the base of the skull (attempting to punch the ball away) with full force. He suffered a concussion and whiplash from which he has yet to recover. He played the final eight minutes of that game and the final eight games of the season before sitting out the playoffs due to the onset of concussion-related problems. He played (and scored in) two more games in 2009 and missed all of the 2010 season. It was a cruel ending to the career of someone who would have stood amongst the giants of American soccer.
He finished his MLS career scoring 101 goals (only 3 of which were penalty kicks). He was the only player to hit the mark before age 30. He appeared United States 29 times from 2005 through 2007, scoring six goals. He surely would have retired as the all-time leading goal scorer MLS history had the injury not cost him his prime years.
In his conference, Twellman remained upbeat as he described his various attempts at treatment and the pain we all felt as his career succumbed to what Time Magazine calls the “invisible injury.”
Al Bundy and most of America hated soccer. “It’s for sisses,” he would say. But that was twenty years ago. In 2010 soccer bashing in this country is on the decline as interest by nearly every metric (attendance/sponsorhip/merchandise sales, etc.) increases. For the holdouts who question the toughness of the sport or its players, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl wrote:
“According to Dr. Robert Cantu, a concussions expert at the Boston University School of Medicine, soccer provides the third-highest number of his patients among professional athletes, behind only football and ice hockey. But unlike those sports, soccer has two big differences: Its players don’t wear helmets, and the pro and international games allow only three substitutions per match with no chance to return, putting pressure on teams to make hasty decisions to keep injured players on the field.”
So to all you Bundys out there, the next time you want to base your “soccer sucks” argument on the lack of physical play, spare a thought for Taylor Twellman. A warrior lost out on a his chance to cement his domestic legacy or to enjoy some lucrative years playing abroad because of a brain injury suffered on a clean play that was all part of the game.
“I hate the fact that my career has ended because of a brain injury but I have the chance to educate parents and children on concussions,” Twellman said.
And while he was saying goodbye and answering questions, he was smiling bravely and without regret. The coaches and administrators that followed him on the podium did the same. And so did I. Taylor Twellman gave me license to do so.