By Kevin Saum
In Steve Job’s commencement address to the class of 2005 at Stanford University, he made a profound statement which impacted me greatly. While speaking about his road to success, he stated, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.” This quote describes the events in my life, which have led me to become an advocate for concussion awareness.
In practice, the morning after our game versus Livingston High School, I began to experience excruciating headaches. These headaches were unlike any I ever had before. While running at practice, it felt as though my brain was bouncing inside my skull. As a two-way starter at fullback and linebacker, I liked to think I was a physical player, but I was avoiding contact in practice and voluntarily took zero’s to sit out in gym class in the days leading up to our next game, because my head was hurting so badly. At that time, concussion awareness was just beginning to pick up momentum and I was extremely uneducated about the injury. I was under the impression, that if I was not knocked unconscious, vomiting, nauseous, and had no memory problems, my headaches could not be the result of a concussion. Also, as a senior captain, I was afraid to tell my coaches and our athletic trainer about my headaches. At seventeen years old, my main mission in life was try to win a state championship with my team and for my coach to think I was tough. Sitting out of practice and missing our next game because of a headache was certainly not going to help my cause. Therefore, that option was out of the question.
On the day of our next game, I did participate in gym class. However, while running around the track for our warm up, I ‘jokingly’ mentioned to some friends that I was probably going to die that night in the game. I said this because of the excruciating headache I was still experiencing. Nevertheless, I swallowed four Advil, and ran out onto the football field for what turned out to be the very last time.
It was an eerily foggy Friday night in October 2007 that ultimately led me to where I am today. It was a night when my hopes and dreams as a seventeen-year-old high school senior instantly became physically unattainable. At the end of the first quarter, while reaching for the goal line, I received a blow to the side of my head, which left me with blurred vision. I talked myself into thinking that it was just sweat that had gotten into my eyes. Despite not being able to see, on the next play, I jumped over the goal line for a touchdown (both pictured below). The adrenalin rush after the touchdown provided temporary relief to my throbbing head.
In this game I was also playing safety on defense. This was because I had been playing with a strained rotator cuff and separated right shoulder for weeks. There was literally no way I could make a painless tackle with out drop kicking the ball carrier. Not surprisingly, I missed an open field tackle in the next defensive series, which led to a touchdown. Time to make up for my mistake and score another touchdown, right? Fate had a different idea. Just before the end of the first half, I ran the ball off right tackle, and immediately an unblocked defender wrapped his arms around my legs. Just as I was about to hit the ground, I looked up to see a white shoulder pad coming straight at my head. Upon impact my head slammed into the turf, and I jumped up to see why the referee had not thrown a flag for a late hit. However, my concern for the penalty quickly subsided when I realized that I could no longer feel my legs, and the pain in my head had become so excruciating I could not even think. I was helped to the sidelines by my teammates, and then collapsed and went into a grand mal seizure. I was then airlifted to a local trauma center, where I was diagnosed with second impact syndrome (severe brain swelling after an impact to an already concussed brain) and a Subdural Hematoma (brain bleed). I was given only a 50% chance of survival and endured two head surgeries to relieve the pressure on my brain. Moments before my first surgery the doctor came into my room and told me that I would never set foot on a football field again and play the game I had dedicated so much effort to for 10 years of my life.
Kevin’s Story On CBS News During Superbowl 2010 Coverage
At that time, I could not understand why something like this would happen to me. Almost six years after that night, it is now clear to me how the dots connect. If I had never suffered that life-threatening injury, my life would be immensely different. In the months following my injury, I felt lost and uncertain of my future. Eventually, I chose to attend Rutgers University because it was a highly respected academic institution. My first year of college was a struggle. Football was the single aspect of my life that I was most passionate about, and it was now missing. I struggled in my classes not due to a lack of effort, but due to a lack of interest, clear goals, and passion.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I knew I needed to get football back in my life in some manner. That year I was hired as a student manager for the Rutgers football team, and this is when my life began to turn around. I enjoyed going to practice every day and feeling that I was a part of the team. It was as close as I could get to playing, and I knew I had to pursue a career in sports because it is what I am most passionate about. Also during this time, I began telling my story and educating other athletes on the importance of concussion awareness. I did this through guest lectures in courses at Rutgers, speaking at local high schools, and even being interviewed on national television by CBS during the week of the Super Bowl in 2010. At this point, I knew my injury had happened for a reason. I was given a platform to tell my story and keep other athletes from making the same dangerous mistake of playing with a concussion. My interest was sparked, my passion was revived, and my career goals were now clear.
During this time, Tom Farrey, an investigative journalist for ESPN covered an E:60 story on Preston Plevretes. Preston also suffered from second impact syndrome, but unfortunately, he experienced many more complications from the injury than I did. Preston struggles to eat, walk, and talk after his injury. I was deeply impacted and inspired by Preston, especially by his determination to have his story heard so other athletes would not make the same mistake that we made. At the end of the segment, they showed Preston attending speech therapy sessions. He was doing this to accomplish one of his goals, which was to speak publicly about the dangers of playing with a concussion. Tom Farrey asked Preston, “What is the hardest part of all this for you”? Preston replied, “Waking up everyday, and knowing I can’t do all the things that I want to do”. Teary eyed after watching the episode, everything began to make sense. Other than not being able to play football anymore, I am still able to do everything I did before my injury. I knew I had to be Preston’s voice. I saw how much he struggled and how great of an impact he was making on the lives of athletes. The same drive, passion, and work ethic I had on the football field was then translated to my new goal of making football, and all sports for that matter, safer for athletes of all ages.