Concussion ends the career of Merrick Thomson; Does lacrosse have a head trauma issue?

After a second season on the shelf in the NLL, Merrick Thomson has decided to retire from pro lacrosse. (Photo: Dave Sanders)
After a second season on the shelf in the NLL, Merrick Thomson has decided to retire from pro lacrosse. (Photo: Dave Sanders)

“I will not be returning to the box or field again as a player. I am retired.”

With that sentence in an email, IL Indoor learned that the game of lacrosse has lost one of its brightest young stars because of a concussion suffered almost two years ago.

“I do miss playing in both leagues and my teammates from the Wings and the Nationals,” Merrick Thomson wrote, “but no sport or amount of money is worth risking your health especially with the head shots that we take playing lacrosse.”

Thomson isn’t complaining. “It’s a man’s game,” he says, and he is content with what he achieved in his short career and with where he is now in his life. But he has strong words for the caretakers of the game he loves. His sentiments are echoed by other players who have dealt with or are still dealing with the traumatic effects of what Thomson calls “the worst injury an athlete can get,” including Ken Montour and Tracey Kelusky.

We’ve gotta get through that old-school mentality.”

Thomson was a collegiate star at University of Albany. He was named an All-American and is sixth in career goals, just four behind the legendary Gary Gait. He was the second overall pick in the 2007 NLL draft and in 30 games with Philadelphia had 124 points and 129 loose balls. He was MLL’s leading goal-scorer in 2009 and was expected to be a key contributor on Canada’s 2010 World Field Lacrosse Championships team.

Instead, that ‘09 season has turned out to be Thomson’s swan song as a player. He was 25 years old when he played his last game. As he says, “there’s other things besides lacrosse in life.”

“My decision came down to a couple of things,” Thomson says. “One is my health and that’s the most important thing. Two, lacrosse is a weekend thing for most guys and I’m not living off that, I’m living off my degree and my education. I have to use my brain to provide for myself. And three is just my overall well-being. I don’t want to put myself through what I went through again.”

Thomson says his post-concussion symptoms were “nothing very extreme but very consistent and long-going.” He cites being unable to concentrate, feeling very light-headed and unable to focus. His daily life is back to normal now and he wants to keep it that way.

He has been running the new post-graduate lacrosse program at the Hill Academy in Vaughn, Ontario since September. He believes the program is a valuable resource for student-athletes who may be late bloomers or need some help balancing the demands of lacrosse and school to prepare for university. “After I’d worked here for a couple of months I realized my calling was now helping other kids.” That calling factored in to his decision to retire, as he says he didn’t want to risk his job and his ability to be there for his players.

Thomson says coaching has been a way for him to heal, as much for the emotional trauma of the injury as the physical side. He is content with his life and at peace with his decision to leave the playing side of the game. But he is far from satisfied with the way brain injuries are being dealt with in lacrosse.

“It needs to be addressed,” he says. “A lot of guys need to be educated about it. I definitely wasn’t aware of half the stuff that goes on with regards to a concussion and what it means to be concussed, what the proper time is to be recovered. Usually people say you sit out a week and you’ll be fine, but you won’t. It should be two to three weeks, and then you need to go through pretty strenuous tests. We’ve gotta get through that old-school mentality that a concussion is just a little shake of the cobwebs. It’s a really serious issue.”

Thomson says the league needs to address the issue, as does the Professional Lacrosse Players Association. He also puts the onus on the players themselves. He wants to hear star players “step up and say enough is enough, we need to address it and we need to protect our players.”

“There’s guys out there that look for head shots that are still in the league, and I don’t think the league disciplines guys thoroughly,” Thomson adds. He also cites equipment as an issue, saying “I don’t think the helmets that we wear are the most protective things we could be using.”

He doesn’t have a problem with the physical nature of the sport, saying it’s a man’s game and you have to get to the middle. Sometimes cross-checks will slip off the shoulder and make contact with the head, but Thomson says “it’s the deliberate shots that are really taking guys out of the game. Unfortunately, some of the key offensive guys in the game, Dan Carey, Tracey Kelusky, myself, they get keyed up on. Some of the guys aren’t able to stop us so they’re looking to take us out another way.”

“The league needs to take a stand. Suspensions are one thing. I think they need to take away guys’ pay if it’s deliberate.”

Not to say I wasn’t there, but I wasn’t there.”

Bandits vet Tracey Kelusky has missed significant time in recent seasons due to concussion related issues. (Larry Palumbo)
Bandits vet Tracey Kelusky has missed significant time in recent seasons due to concussion related issues. (Larry Palumbo)

Kelusky is even more direct in his assessment. “It’s fantastic that leagues are starting to pay attention to head contact, but punishment needs to be much more severe than it is now, I think. It needs to be completely removed from the game.”

He says there are players who think that if they can take a star player out of the game and give their team a better chance to win, they’ll do it. “That’s a late 70s, early 80s mentality and it needs to go away from sports entirely because there’s no place for it, that’s for sure.”

He says the league needs to step in and lay down the law. “A guy hits you and he gets a one-game suspension but you’re possibly thinking about a career being done. But further than that, you’re thinking about you don’t have time to spend with your family or you don’t have the memories that you wanna have. I think people really need to take a hard look at that. It’s not just about taking a guy out for a game or maybe a series, but really ruining a guy’s livelihood and changing what he’s about.”

Kelusky had a diagnosed concussion in college and a major one in 2007. At that time, his wife was pregnant with their son, who will be three in May. “That first year of my son’s life was tough for me, cause that’s when I had my concussion,” he says. “I was going through the battles of the concussion. Not to say I wasn’t there, but I wasn’t there. There are parts of it where I remember and parts where I just don’t recall as good as I probably should.”

During our phone conversation, Kelusky was briefly distracted by his son, who could be heard quite clearly in the background. Kelusky took obvious delight in being able to enjoy watching his son play, and “at the end of the day I want to be there for my son. I want to be able to play catch with my son. I want to be able to remember my life.”

The Bandits star and former Roughnecks captain says he’s not sure how many concussions he has suffered, going back to his days in junior hockey and throughout his lacrosse career. He points out that it’s obvious when you look at him that he’s broken his nose several times and he’s read that every time you break your nose you suffer a concussion.

An important thing to keep in mind, he says, is that with concussions “one plus one doesn’t necessarily equal two.” The cumulative nature of the injuries is disquieting. He does point out, though, that his understanding of the research that’s been done suggests that just because you’ve had a concussion doesn’t mean you’re more susceptible to having more. “As long as you’ve made that recovery and the brain has stopped swelling and the bleeding, just because I’ve had them doesn’t mean that I’m a mush-head, so to speak, or that I have a soft head.”

The physical side is only one component to the recovery from a concussion, however. Kelusky says his doctor told him that his worrying about whether he would recover was a major factor in how well he was able to recover.

“They told me, ‘You are going to get better, you will play again.’ That was huge for me,” because one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with a concussion for pro athletes is that you can’t attack rehab like you would with a torn ACL or separated shoulder. Kelusky’s doctors told him it was important for him to turn off the television, avoid his computer screen and only drive when he really needed to.

There is a major emotional and spiritual element to a concussion that prevents you from engaging in your normal daily activities. That side of the concussion story is always on the mind of another player who has not returned to the game or to his day job over a year after his injury, and who will miss this year’s World Indoor Lacrosse Championships because of it.

I feel like I’m between worlds, like I’m not really present.”

Former Goalie of the Year Kenny Montour has been forced to sit the 2011 season and likely the WILC too. (Buffalo Bandits)
Former Goalie of the Year Kenny Montour has been forced to sit the 2011 season and likely the WILC too. (Buffalo Bandits)

2009 NLL goalie of the year Ken Montour’s concussion didn’t even come from a shot to the head. He was run over by Toronto’s Drew Petkoff as the Rock defender broke in on goal on a transition breakaway. Montour says he was looking down for the ball in his feet and saw Petkoff in his peripheral vision but didn’t think Petkoff would run him over because there was no one around him and there was room for him to avoid the goalie. Montour says Petkoff’s shoulder hit him in the chest (although in the video it appears that it was probably his knee and not his shoulder) and that he received a whiplash concussion from the force of the blow.

Buffalo coach Darris Kilgour was furious, saying that players had been running their goalies all year and the league had done nothing to protect them. Montour’s Buffalo teammates immediately jumped Petkoff and a line brawl ensued. Whether or not Petkoff intended to run Montour over is difficult to tell from the video; what does seem clear is that the defender could have tried harder to avoid him. Petkoff did receive a major penalty for goaltender interference and a game misconduct. The replay of the collision starts at about the 1:25 mark of this video.

On another video of the ensuing melee, you hear a woman’s voice saying “Montour’s down”. Be warned if you are going to watch this video: the image of Montour lying inert in his goal while the other players and referees tangle in the corner are disturbing. Amazingly, Montour got up and finished the game. He didn’t feel the effects of the concussion until Monday morning when he was going to work.

“I felt fine for days,” he says. “It wasn’t till Monday morning I started to feel off. I was working as a teacher in a special needs classroom and I noticed I was a little bit off, like slow and I felt dizzy. When it was recess time, I was pushing the little guy that I worked with on the swing. I was trying to push him and I was missing him. I couldn’t figure it out. I went and saw my principal and told her I wasn’t feeling right.”

Montour left work that day and hasn’t returned since. “The uncertainty of my life is a big thing right now. I’m having to deal with the fact that I’m not working and I’m not in lacrosse. All the things that I knew to be normal were changed in a split second.”

He says he has experienced a real sense of loss with which he struggles daily. “It’s a very humbling thing to have pretty much your whole life taken away from you. I feel like I’m between worlds, like I’m not really present. I think I’m better now where I can be present for most things, but it’s like there’s always a cloud over my spirit. My spirit is wounded.”

“This is a sensitive issue for me,” he says. “I want to be around lacrosse. It’s good medicine to be around the guys,” but he finds it difficult to spend too much time around the team while he can’t really be a part of it. Speaking of medicine, Montour points out that he is using a primarily herbal and traditional approach to his healing, rather than using Western medicine.

He says since his spirit is wounded, he is using a spiritual approach to returning it to where it needs to be. Montour wasn’t comfortable saying exactly what he is doing. “It would be almost a breach of trust to tell what I’m doing.” He says he would, however, share what he is doing if other players suffering from concussions came to him.

On the positive side, Montour says it has been a wake-up call for him regarding his health and lifestyle. “I didn’t have the best diet before, maybe I was getting carried away with eating improperly. I realize now that my health is the most important thing and I try to take care of myself the best way I can. I’ve gotten close with my family because they’ve really helped me through it.”

There is a lot of negative, though. “It’s brought out a lot of negative thoughts and feelings, like anger. That’s part of the concussion. It pulls out all your negativity, because your brain is frustrated. It’s trying to heal itself and it can’t”

Montour says he has been working out a lot to get himself into better physical condition and trying to do a lot of self-healing to deal with the frustration of inactivity and a feeling of low self-worth. “It’s beyond wins and losses; this is life stuff.”

The Bandits organization, and especially Kilgour, have been “100% supportive,” Montour says, even though they didn’t have to be. He had words of praise for the training and medical staff and his teammates, all of whom have helped him through his ordeal and made him continue to feel like a part of the team.

“I’m fighting the good fight,” Montour says. “There’s hope. For me, there’s hope on making the full recovery and you can’t put a price on that. It’s happening. I can feel it happening. Not as quickly as I want it to, obviously, but I’m still pretty happy with the progress I’m making through the year. It’s been a very challenging time for me. In the end, I’m going to be a better person for going through it.”

Despite Montour’s positive approach, it has been incredibly difficult for him and has virtually cost him a year of his life. All of that may have been avoided had an opposing player chosen to avoid the goalie to protect a colleague rather than charging into him to gain a competitive advantage. That is not meant as an indictment of Drew Petkoff specifically. It is worth noting that the 15 minutes in penalties he received for the incident were half of his total for the 2010 season and that he has only four PIM this year. He is not a dirty player.

Rather, it is a part of the sports culture that is at issue. Running the goalie is an element of game strategy, especially between such heated rivals as the Rock and Bandits. That an honourable player such as Drew Petkoff would, in the instant that he is driving to the net, choose to run through the goalie rather than make an extra effort to avoid him, shows that respect for opponents’ safety is not enough of a priority for professional athletes.

It was only recently that Dan Carey was able to return to full-time lacrosse after concussion issues. (Photo: Michael Martin)
It was only recently that Dan Carey was able to return to full-time lacrosse after concussion issues. (Photo: Michael Martin)

That is the motivation behind Ken Montour speaking to me for this article. He is a very private man who doesn’t really like to talk about himself and did not relish discussing his injury. However, he says, “If someone reads your article and instead of hitting someone in the head or cross-checking someone in the neck and giving them a concussion, maybe they’ll back off. If it helps one person to not have a concussion then it’s all worth it.”

This issue resonates for me in part because of something that happened surrounding another of the sport’s great players who has lost a big chunk of his career to concussions. Dan Carey missed the entire 2008 MSL season and most of the ‘09 NLL season after a concussion. He had been the MVP of the 2006 Mann Cup and won a gold medal with Canada at the ‘07 world championships. He is a beloved player in both Peterborough and Denver.

Carey returned to the Lakers lineup in the summer of 2009 and had a good year, finishing in the top 10 in league scoring. He wasn’t the same player for much of the year, though, playing a more peripheral game and not going as often to the front of the net where his stick skills made him such a dangerous goal scorer. As the season moved into the playoffs, though, he was returning to himself.

Carey said much of the change to his game was because he had lost so much conditioning while he was recovering. He’s not a big man and he felt he lacked the strength to effectively play a more aggressive game. As the season moved into the playoffs, though, and Peterborough met the Six Nations Chiefs in the MSL semi-finals, Carey was rounding back into form. He had 15 points in six playoff games and was looking like his old self.

In game two of the Six Nations series, Carey was carrying the ball behind the Chiefs’ net. He made a move to avoid Sid Smith bearing down on him, which allowed Billy Dee Smith to catch up from behind and land a cross-check to the back of his head. Ironically, Montour was the Chiefs backup goalie against the Lakers and Billy Dee Smith was one of the first players to come to his defence in the Toronto-Buffalo game.

A huge melee followed the incident, and Carey didn’t return to the game. I was doing colour commentary for the Lakers home games on television, so I travelled with them to Six Nations for road games in the playoffs. It was unclear whether Carey would play in game three. He took warmup with the team and the coaches told me it wasn’t decided yet whether he’d be able to go. I had to get some equipment for my camera from the team bus and the shortest route to the bus was through the Lakers’ change room.

Walking through, I inadvertently intruded on an intensely personal moment for Carey. He was sitting alone on a bench in the room. His head was in his hands. As I walked past he looked up at me, his eyes red and puffy. I apologized and moved quickly to the back door. I lingered in the bus in hopes of not disturbing him again when I returned. He was gone when I passed back through, but I had seen enough.

The sight of such a proud and successful athlete reduced to tears because he couldn’t play, and knew it could be a long time before he played again, was moving and disturbing. There was much speculation that Carey would never play again, although as NLL fans know he did return part-way through this season after missing all of 2010 for both the Mammoth and Lakers.

Montour has not yet returned and will miss the 2011 World Championships. It’s uncertain when he will play again. Merrick Thomson will never return to the field or box.

More importantly, Thomson, Kelusky, Montour, Carey and many other players have missed important parts of their lives, and many athletes who suffer concussions will never be the same. Their injuries didn’t have to happen. Fewer players would receive concussions if rules were enforced more stringently and supplementary discipline was increased dramatically.

The root of the problem, though, is the culture of the sport. It’s a tough game, and that is a large part of its appeal. No one wants to change that. But we need to change core attitudes. We need players to respect each other, to recognize that people’s lives are more important than wins and losses, to think before they do something that could irreparably damage an opponent.

It’s time for change.

Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at stamplax@hotmail.com.

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