Headaches

He sat up, held gingerly by a few hands from behind. Hearing voices from every direction, words registered, but nothing really made any sense.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” Joked one of the voices.

As the initial commotion died down, the small crowd began to disperse and turn their attention back to the game.  Mike seemed to be doing better; he could walk around and answer questions. Back on the field, the UVA rugby team had just scored another try, continuing to grow its commanding lead against UNC.

As the minutes ticked down in the second half, Mike tried to turn his to focus back on the game. Facing the field, the sun felt too harsh on his eyes, so he turned around to face the crowd. He slowly looked up and down, rolling his eyes as if trying to recalibrate them.  He sat back down.

“Do you know where we are? Who are we playing?” His teammate Bobby Lamm asked.

“I honestly have no idea,” Mike answered.

More minutes passed.

More questions.

Mike couldn’t remember what he had done the night before or what position he had been playing. On the sideline, players grew more alarmed.

Two hours later, Mike came to at UVA Medical Center. He was wearing a shirt and slip-on shoes that weren’t his.  He sat up, looked around for a few moments and began to cry.

——————————————————————————————————————————

 

Mike Van Slyke, a then-sophomore at the University of Virginia, had big plans for that weekend and for the rest of his fall 2015 semester.  Mike had hoped to kick off his Halloweekend with a few beers on the sideline after the game, in preparation for his fraternity’s Halloween party later that night. As president of Alpha Sigma Phi, he was on management duty for the party and had already planned out the elements of his samurai costume.

Mike grew up with a love of contact sports, playing Pee Wee football and joining local wrestling teams as while growing up outside Annapolis, Md. In High School, wrestling would ultimately earn him both a varsity letter and his first concussion.  When his first weeks of college arrived, Mike looked to get involved so he tried out for and made the rugby team. He didn’t know much about the game, but had thrown around a rugby ball a few times with his dad, who discovered the game after spending a year in New Zealand.

A year later, Mike was already a key part of UVA Rugby’s success. At 6’1 and 195 lbs., he was an intimidating flanker and a force to be reckoned with on the team’s forward pack.  Though he suffered a concussion halfway through his first season, he came back with a vengeance, determined to make a greater impact in his sophomore season.

As UVA’s October 31st matchup against UNC kicked off, Virginia took an early commanding lead of 12-0. Mike looked strong as ever, making tackles and supporting his teammates from the back of the scrum.  Fifteen minutes into the second half, UNC’s 8-man received the ball after a penalty. He was one of the few opposing players who had a noticeable size advantage on Mike.  Channeling every piece of advice about tackling he had learned from coaches in six years of playing football and rugby, Mike did exactly what he was supposed to do. He went low.

But his head was on the wrong side.

Half a second later, UVA’s Bobby O’Reilly came in from the left side just as Mike was extending his body into the tackle.

“My head was in front, so my head made contact with his knee and then Bobby’s shoulder made contact with me from the other side,” Van Slyke said, recounting the hit almost exactly two years later. “Bobby got up and rolled me over and later told me that my eyes were rolling around in my head.”

“I was just…out of it.”

Play continued as Mike laid motionless on the ground. By the time the game had stopped and trainers came out, Mike had regained consciousness. Surprising everyone, he jogged off the field on his own power minutes later, trying to prove that he was okay to both his teammates and himself.

Twenty minutes later, Bobby Lamm was asking Mike simple questions he could not answer while a few other players began ushering him to the parking lot. He hadn’t been able to identify his bag so Bobby grabbed clothes for him to borrow. Mike would spend the next three and a half hours recovering at the hospital. Unable to reign in his emotions, he oscillated between anger, confusion and sadness while Bobby tried to explain why they were there.

Two years later, Mike remembers none of it.  Two and a half hours of darkness from the moment of the hit until halfway through his hospital stay.  He left the hospital with just enough time to make it to the Halloween party. That night, amid the crowd of Halloween revelers stood Mike, a disheveled samurai with a foggy memory and no real intention of joining in the fun.

In the weeks that followed, Mike spent most of his time resting in his room in the rugby house.  He emailed all his professors before essentially dropping out of school for three weeks.  The rest of the semester was a struggle not just to do schoolwork, but to even get out of bed.

“I was really depressed, all the time honestly,” Van Slyke said.  “I got a horrible GPA that semester. And for almost a year afterwards, I couldn’t think like I used to be able to think. Mathematically and logically, a lot of things just didn’t click.”

In a split second, Mike’s life path had changed.  His academic setbacks ruined his hope of being accepted into UVA’s Commerce School, and he continued to struggle with emotional problems over a year later.

***

Like many college rugby players each year, Mike was left on his own to deal with the aftermath of his concussion. At the time, UVA’s rugby program had only a part-time head coach and no permanent athletic trainer, which only tells part of the story of the lack of resources available to players.

At colleges across America, men’s and women’s rugby players put their bodies on the line playing what may be the most dangerous collegiate sport in the country. In an extensive study by an Auckland University of Technology group, the number of catastrophic incidents in sports between 1975 and 2005 were examined. It found that rugby incidents worldwide caused 4.6 catastrophic injuries for every 100,000 players while football had 75 percent fewer, at 1.0.[1] Similarly, a 2016 American Sports Journal study concluded that overall injury rates were substantially higher in collegiate rugby compared with football.[2]

Studies like these reveal a discrepancy between the two sports, one of them the most profitable American college sport, and the other the fastest growing sport in America.  While football players and at-risk varsity athletes have access to a plethora of pre-concussion assessment resources and post-concussion management help, club rugby players are often left to their own devices to diagnose and treat their own concussions.

“This is more serious than I thought,” UVA scrum-half Steve Gerken said, days after experiencing his first concussion. “I’m kind of in the middle of it right now, and I’m having a lot tougher time than I expected.

“I think that schools should be taking a closer look at this.”

Two years after Mike’s injury, UVA’s rugby team has found a full-time head coach who is committed to making the game safer by teaching players how to tackle properly. But the team, like most college rugby clubs, is miles behind varsity football programs in terms of educational and safety resources when it comes to concussions.

For outsiders, rugby comes off as a game with all the violent hits of football, but without any pads or protection to speak of. The common retort to this misconception is that without pads, rugby players are smarter and more careful with their heads in contact, taught from youth to make shoulder contact and keep their heads out of tackles. Regardless of whether the game is safer, at the college club level, many rugby teams are not provided the same level of training and safety as varsity programs. There is a noticeable discrepancy in access to coaching staff, athletic trainers or team doctors.

For some colleges, rugby teams that operate on the fringe of college athletics present a significant threat to the university’s operations.  In October 2017, Kenyon College suspended its men’s and women’s rugby teams after they reported upwards of nine concussions in a year-long span, compared to five across all varsity sports. Often without any sort of coach or athletic trainer at games, Kenyon College’s rugby players were on their own when it came to learning the game and preventing injuries.

In the future, as football and contact sports in general enter greater scrutiny due to the growing concussion issue, colleges may find themselves faced with a decision. Will they intervene like in the case of Kenyon College and look to prevent concussions by taking the game away, or will they look to increase funding and resources available to make the game safer?

***

Mike’s story is one not often heard or told. Indeed, while varsity athletes are under a more watchful eye, universities may not even be aware of the struggle rugby players face after concussions. It is emblematic of a sport that is inherently dangerous by nature, possibly made less safe by a lack of resources.

Today, Mike is a senior who will soon graduate with a BS in economics. He’s battled through depression and finally feels like himself again.

“Playing rugby isn’t something I regret.” Van Slyke said. “I loved it.”

“At times like this, it would be great to have more resources to reach out to,” Gerken said. “We play a violent game just like football where this stuff is going to happen. It’s just a matter of how it is dealt with and managed.”

 

  1. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sports/sdut-rugby-head-injuries-safety-2016may16-story.html
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26786902

 

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