Ten Squads, Ten Stories is a series that concentrates on one team in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), highlighting a player or theme. This installment features the Kelly Conheeney, who made her long-awaited return to the field for Sky Blue FC after being away from the game since 2012 due to post-concussion symptoms.
I needed to be completely honest with myself and I came to the realization that while soccer is such a big part of my life, I want to be able to have a life, I want to be able to have kids and get to play with my kids without worrying of having issues like dementia in the picture. — Kelly Conheeney
3 years, 7 months, 22 days
That was how long ago Kelly Conheeney played in a competitive soccer game. It was August 26, 2012, to be exact. And it was her fourth game of her junior year at Virginia Tech.
Since then, it’s been a long battle back for the 25-year-old, who has fought through the effects of concussions and the resulting post-concussion symptoms. Doctors told Conheeney there wasn’t a realistic chance she would play competitive soccer again. So instead of playing professional soccer after she graduated, Conheeney spent time traveling across the world coaching and teaching kids the sport she loved.
Little by little, the post-concussion symptoms started going away. The fire to play that still burned inside of Conheeney, however, did not. It fueled her belief that there was a chance — maybe — to get back onto the field and fulfill her dream of playing professional soccer.
“She wanted to do this,” said Sky Blue FC head coach Christy Holly. “No one was telling her that she had to do this, she wanted to be there, and it shows quite an amount of courage and bravery to get herself back into the spotlight.”
Fast forward to Sunday, April 17, 2016, when a new-look Sky Blue FC squared off against the two-time NWSL Supporters Shield Champions Seattle Reign FC. In the starting XI for Sky Blue was Conheeney, her first match since August 2012.
“Not going to lie, I was so nervous,” said Conheeney. “I just haven’t played a real game in so long. I played in preseason games. I played 45 minutes in those games, but I didn’t know how much how much I was going to play, especially in the attacking midfield role, where I played in college. It was exciting but at the same time I was nervous because I’ve never played a professional game before.”
You wouldn’t know the nerves were there, especially when she darted to the back post in the 67th minute and finished off a cross from Taylor Lytle, a flashback to the days in which she set the career points-scoring record at Virginia Tech. The goal gave Sky Blue a 2-1 lead, an advantage the team would hold on to and hand the Reign their first loss at home since the 2013 season.
For Conheeney, it was the moment she knew she had finally made it back to the game she loves.
Thinking It Was Over
“About my fifth game into my senior year [in 2012], they took me out because I headed the ball once and got dizzy. And after that, I just never came back.”
This came after a long summer of soccer in which Conheeney played for the Ottawa Fury in their 2012 USL W-League Championship campaign. She went straight from her spring season at Virginia Tech to Ottawa, where she practiced and played every day for roughly three months during the summer, and then drove back a few days before the start of Tech’s preseason.
It was while playing in a defensive midfield role with the Fury, a role in which Conheeney was often called upon to win balls out of the air in front of the back line, that concussion symptoms started to kick in. She felt groggy often during her time with the Fury and developed headaches on a consistent basis. However, Conheeney didn’t seek treatment from the team’s medical staff or doctors, and continued to play.
“It was my fault, I never brought it to the forefront, and I never made it an issue because we were in season,” she said. “I never made my concussions known; it’s on me because I never came forward. I wanted to play soccer and not sit out.”
The headaches not only kept coming but continued to get worse when she started back at Virginia Tech. After talking with her team’s trainer a few games in, it was determined that she would have to sit out. Originally, it was a couple of weeks, then the waiting period extended to a couple of months, then it turned into red-shirting the 2012 season so she could come back and play the following year.
The headaches persisted and while there were moments of progress in her attempts to get back on the field for 2013, there were also setbacks. In the end, there was no final season.
Although she was a part of the squad and dressed for every game, Conheeney stood on the sidelines for every game of the 2013 season, which turned out to be a historic one for the Hokies as they made the College Cup for the first time in program history. At that point, it was already in her mind that she would not come back.
“I wasn’t getting to that point where I could confidently say I could do it, I am 100 percent,” Conheeney said. “And [the trainers] said you can’t play if you still have headaches. At that point, I needed to be completely honest with myself and I came to the realization that while soccer is such a big part of my life, I want to be able to have a life, I want to be able to have kids and get to play with my kids without worrying of having issues like dementia in the picture.”
For Conheeney, who lives and breathes the game of soccer, taking soccer completely out her life isn’t that easy. While her playing days were thought to have been over, she decided to spend a year with Coaches Across Continents, an organization which specializes in sport for social impact and education primarily in third-world countries.
After graduating school, Conheeney traveled to 13 countries with the organization and fulfilled a life goal while still involved with the sport she loved.
“It was an incredible experience, I always wanted to travel the world after school and I got to use soccer in a different way.”
Cleared for Takeoff
Conheeney returned home in August 2015 and noticed that some of the lingering symptoms from her concussions had faded away. While with Coaches Across Continents, she had played soccer frequently but in a much less strenuous role than in her college days.
At home, Conheeney reflected on what would be the next chapter in her life. While the opportunity to travel around the world for the past year had been unforgettable, it had worn her down. Days and weeks continued to go by without setting any ideas in stone as to her future but one thing Conheeney did notice was the absence of headaches and concussion symptoms.
Maybe there was still a chance to play soccer again.
“I talked to my parents about this and I think I can do this. I’m symptom-free. What if we see a doctor and everything was fine. I can slowly get back into playing,” Conheeney said.
She had seen plenty of doctors and neurologists in the past who gave her differing opinions about her future but the answer was always the same: No more soccer. This time, though, she felt like the scenario had turned in her favor.
February 17, 2016. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Conheeney made the trip from New Jersey to western Pennsylvania to get one more opinion about the possibility of playing soccer again. A team of doctors consulted with her and ran tests. This time, the final diagnosis was different from the ones she had received in the past. The medical team told her that there were still vestibular issues in her head but no more cognitive issues. And if she gave it a little more time to work through the vestibular issues, those would clear up as well.
It was the first time since late 2012 that Conheeney had been medically cleared to play again.
“I spoke to Kelly prior [to the open tryout] and I’ve worked in New Jersey since 2006, so I was familiar with her name and what she could and couldn’t do,” said Holly.
“Obviously, the biggest thing was that she had been away from the game for quite sometime and she had faced a lot of challenges off the field. You have a player who has a serious pedigree and you know that she can still do it and right now, we feel good about her. There is also something about her mental strength, though, that stood out. The fact that she has had these challenges and that she has been away from the game for a long time, she just has this renewed passion about the game.”
After contacting Holly about registering for the Sky Blue FC’s open tryout, Conheeney had just a few weeks to get herself fully fit for the two-day trial in early March. While it was impossible to shake off all of the rust from three years away from competitive soccer in that time, Holly saw and believed there was still something there in the former Hokies start
“After the first day, I told myself that there is something about this girl that stands out,” Holly said. “She had one good moment and a few bad moments on that first day. But we got through the second day and she got a little bit better and then right to the last minute we were debating on who to bring into camp as we didn’t want to bring too many [open tryout] players into camp but there was no doubt in her talent. That tryout was to see how ready she was. And then, as she made her way through preseason, she just got better and better and better.”
It was inevitable to Holly that she was going to win a roster spot but even still, it took Conheeney by surprise when she was offered a contract days before the team flew out to Seattle.
“Everything’s been happening so fast, and I was talking to my Dad earlier and it just doesn’t even seem real that this all is happening,” she said. “I never could have imagined being in this position a couple of years ago when they told me I couldn’t play anymore.
Which brings us back to the goal that she scored against Seattle in week one.
It came off a ball that Taylor Lytle lofted to the back post. Reign goalkeeper Hope Solo got enough of it to redirect the ball away from the on-rushing Conheeney. It took a great piece of skill for her to re-adjust away from a diving header and to flick it with the back of her heel into the open net. In the process, she ended up crashing into the post, a play that was eerily similar to one from days’ past prior to the beginning of the concussion symptoms. Was it cliché that she scored in that fashion with almost reckless abandon?
“I actually didn’t crash into the post with my head and it looks a lot worse than it was,” Conheeney said while laughing. “I think I felt the post but I didn’t actually crash into it.”
Through all the moments of the past few months, Kelly Conheeney has had a roller-coaster ride: from believing she would not play soccer again to being cleared by doctors after three years to making a professional team to scoring on her debut. It’s an experience Conheeney will remember forever.
“It has been such an overwhelming feeling. I’ve been at the lowest point but now to be here playing again, it’s this whole new feeling of what am I playing for. It shows in how much you can get hit and stand up and be stronger.”