Before history in Seattle, Sky Blue's Conheeney lost three years to concussions

Jane Gershovich, ISI Photos (Courtesy Sky Blue FC)

Once a Virginia Tech standout, Kelly Conheeney was sidelined from soccer for 43 months. Now she's back, recognizing her need to keep playing the sport. Scott French reports:

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There was no more joyful moment during the NWSL's opening weekend than Kelly Conheeney celebrating her nifty heel-volley score, the winning goal in Sky Blue FC's historic 2-1 road upset over the Seattle Reign.

The look on her face was priceless, all shock and awe, mixed with disbelief that it was real: that she was back doing the thing she loved most; that moment was more than a dream. It was as if she'd netted a World Cup winner, except given the last three-and-a-half years of Conheeney’s life, Sunday’s goal may have been more important.

I was the kind of athlete that you don't want to sit out for anything. Getting hit in the head, it kind of tests how tough you are. 'OK, I'm going to get back up.' I was kind of a reckless player."

- Kelly Conheeney

That life, she says, had always been “soccer, soccer, soccer, soccer, soccer,” and she knew very young where it was going to take her. Conheeney would star in college, then turn pro, play a little overseas and make her name in whatever pro league happened to rule the roost at home.

She followed that path, too, from glories as a youth player in New Jersey to Virginia Tech, where her commitment and intensity set the standard for the program completing a rise from competitive nobodies to national powerhouse. She created, won balls in midfield, battled ceaselessly. She was the player every coach wants.

Concussions took that all away from her. Before coming off the bench on Sunday, Conheeney hadn't played a real match since August 2012, the start of her senior season in Blacksburg. After failing to see progress in more than a year, she’d given up hope.

Now she was back, for real.

“I always dreamed of playing professionally and thought my career would take me overseas, to the NWSL, and I never got that far,” Conheeney, who made Sky Blue's roster during an open tryout three weeks after doctors cleared her to play, told FourFourTwo. “There were a lot of emotions. I was very emotional -- I hadn't played a 90-minute game in front of a lot of people [for a long time] ...

“[It’d] been three years and seven months. Just stepping on the field, it took awhile to get my feet underneath me.”

She did well. No, she did better than that.

“You know what? She was fearless,” first-year Sky Blue coach Christy Holly said. “I think the thing about Kelly is she's so happy to be able to play again that she's so exuberant and so full of energy every day … when she was given the opportunity against Seattle, it was like she had been there for years.”

Conheeney, ultimately, was the difference. In the 67th minute, she crashed the far post as Taylor Lytle collected a ball on the right byline and chipped it over Reign goalkeeper Hope Solo. The U.S. national team star got her fingertips to the ball, redirecting it a step behind the onrushing Conheeney, who twisted her right leg behind her to make contact with her heel.

You could see the talent underneath the rust ... we got her in camp, and everyday in camp she got a little bit better. She was just shaking off the cobwebs and showing what she's all about."

- Christy Holly

Sky Blue, coming off an eighth-place finish, held on for the upset, handing the Reign -- winner of the last two Supporters Shields – the first lost at their Memorial Stadium home.

Conheeney “couldn't believe it actually went in,” but there have been a other can't-believe moments since she started considering a comeback last summer. She found a team, worked on her fitness, consulted doctors and found herself in a March tryout for Sky Blue, her hometown club.

It didn't start well.

“I almost got cut,” she said. “The first day, I just didn't play well. Like I wasn't there, and I was nervous, and I didn't play like myself, and I was lucky to get the callback the next day.”

Holly, who kidded Conheeney about that after Sunday's game, says that first-day performance was “terrible.”

“But you could see the talent underneath the rust,” he said. “And then the second day, things were a little bit more consistent, and then we got her in camp, and everyday in camp she got a little bit better. She was just shaking off the cobwebs and showing what she's all about.”

Holly, who started six NWSL debutants, says he was “intrigued” by Conheeney, but that he couldn't see her ceiling.

“She gives us quite a few things as a player,” he said. “She's very versatile, so she can play across the midfield with comfort in any one of the positions … She's very, very comfortable on the ball in tight positions, she's got a great engine, and she has a great eye for the goal. She can create and can hit a ball from distance. She really is quite a special player.”

Since her youth-soccer days, Conheeney has had a reputation for fearlessness on the field. She was a warrior, not the least bit afraid to stick her head into places she shouldn't, something that gave her an edge. There was a toll, though. She'd suffered a concussion in high school and figures several more, undiagnosed, followed.

I didn't think anything was going to stop me or get in my way, but once it affected my daily living, that's when I knew that it was more of an issue ..."

- Kelly Conheeney

“I was the kind of athlete, and a lot of people can relate to this, that you don't want to sit out for anything,” she said. “So getting hit in the head, it kind of tests how tough you are. 'OK, I'm going to get back up.' I was kind of a reckless player -- I was known for that. Like, 'She's not coming out, she's staying in there. She'll get hit and she'll get right back up.' ”

It provided a false sense that nothing could go wrong, and nothing seemed to through her junior year at Virginia Tech. She'd been vital to the Hokies since stepping onto campus, starting all 68 matches, posting 26 goals and 21 assists. She already was the program's career all-time leader in points and game-winning goals, marks that held until last fall. Her goals had beaten North Carolina and won the first two NCAA tournament games as the Hokies, in her third year, reached the Sweet 16 for the first time.

Conheeney went north the summer before her senior season and helped the Ottawa Fury win the W-League championship -- she converted the decisive penalty kick to beat L.A.'s Pali Blues in the final – and, as defensive midfielder, headed a lot of long balls in midfield. On the drive back to Blacksburg, she “started feeling weird, started feeling, like, not myself.”

The headaches and grogginess would subside, but a diving header against Richmond in Virginia Tech's second game of the season “is really what set it off.”

She played again the following weekend, assisting on two goals in a victory at Nebraska, then stopped. The headaches were getting bad.

“I thought I would feel better sooner than I did ...,” Conheeney said. “Basically, my career ended. I was eligible for a redshirt, so I stayed at Virginia Tech, and I was never able [to come back. The school's doctors] didn't allow me to go back, because I had lingering headaches and lingering symptoms for quite a while.

“I didn't think anything was going to stop me or get in my way, but once it affected my daily living, that's when I knew that it was more of an issue ...”

She was extremely sensitive to light and noise, and the headaches became debilitating. She slept as many as 18 hours a day and “didn't want to be around people, didn't want to join the social scene, kind of wanted to keep to myself.”

“I just didn't feel 'there,' ” she said. “I couldn't focus, and critical thinking, I just wasn't that sharp. I had only one class to take [during her fifth year, to complete a communications degree], but I didn't do well in the class. I didn't want to be there, I didn't want to have to use my brain and think as hard as I had to to do the work.”

After college, she joined Coaches Across Continents, a group that uses sport to provide education and empower lives in Third World countries, spending a year coaching soccer in Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. She found it was “the only thing that could have replaced soccer and made me as happy as I could have been during that time.”

Conheeney also dug into research on concussions, learning everything she could about how to treat and manage them. Her symptoms had dissipated, and when she returned home last August, she caught the soccer bug again and began training, casually at first, with Taz Kambi's U-17 girls team at World Class FC, one of New Jersey's finest youth clubs.

“I just kind of trained here and there on my own, getting back to form,” she said. “I lifted [weights] and ran and did tons of stuff on my own, and then played with the team. It wasn't consistent, wasn't every single day, but I played and trained with them when I wanted to, and then I started to get more serous about it [in late fall].”

Conheeney had sought out doctors, and she contacted the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's concussion program, the nation's most respected. She underwent tests and consultations, and on Feb. 17, she was cleared to return to the field.

Three weeks later, she was intriguing Holly.

“It's all happened so fast,” she said. “Before concussions, I couldn't think about not playing. I had accepted before going to Pittsburgh Medical Center, if they tell me I can't ever play again, I'm going to be OK with that. That's kind of my outlook on it now; I'm taking in every single moment of everything.

“I'm being really smart about what I do going forward and how I feel, and I'm just so aware. I know my body and I know the risks I'm taking, but I also know that I'm OK. I know it's not life or death, that kind of thing, where a couple of years ago I thought that was what I was facing.”

It's about managing the symptoms, she says, understanding what it is her head and body are telling her. Always being aware.

“If I'm completely honest, I'm more passionate about the game than I am about anything in my life. It's such an internal need to play and to compete, and at some point, you have to be completely honest about where it's taking you and how far you're going to go for it. I think some people go to far.

“But I'm really aware of these things now. I hope it doesn't come to that. I know now that I will walk away before it actually does anything to me that I look back and say I wish I had done something differently.”

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Scott French is a Los Angeles-based reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.