Concussion symptoms linger for former soccer star Alecko Eskandarian as he returns to school at Virginia

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 8:29 AM

CHARLOTTESVILLE - On the last day of the Early African History course at the University of Virginia this summer, a student built up the courage to approach classmate Alecko Eskandarian and tell him that he had been her favorite player when she attended Cavaliers soccer matches.

"She was 8 years old when she watched me play," he said, smiling. "Man, I felt so old."

Eskandarian, 28, is a full-time student again, resuming course work almost eight years after departing Charlottesville to pursue a pro career that was derailed by a series of concussions.

Some on campus recognize him or his distinctive name through soccer - as Virginia's season scoring record holder and national player of the year, as the first overall draft pick by D.C. United and MVP of the 2004 MLS Cup. Others know him through pop culture - as celebrity Kim Kardashian's blind date on reality TV a few weeks ago.

But for Eskandarian, his return to school is also defined by a much more serious issue - the lingering effects of the concussions he suffered during his playing days.

On pace to earn a degree in anthropology in the spring, Eskandarian is taking five classes this semester, including an independent study exploring why soccer's popularity in the United States lags behind much of the world.

He is also an unpaid assistant coach for the reigning NCAA champion Cavaliers. His daily routine is the same as the players': class, practice, homework. Team captain Greg Monaco, a junior defender, is in Eskandarian's American culture class; on a recent bus trip to and from Duke, they discussed project ideas.

The return to an academic climate was a needed change for Eskandarian, who had spent 21/2 years with the two MLS clubs in Los Angeles and was living steps from the beach.

"It's a fantasy life, but the older that I have gotten, all of that stuff becomes minute," he said. "The most important thing to me was my health and my mental health. It was important to get away and refocus on things I can do, which is go to class and get back to my roots."

'My own doctor now'

Eskandarian reluctantly stepped away from soccer last winter after the second serious head injury of his well-traveled MLS career. In July 2009, shortly after joining the Los Angeles Galaxy, he was hit in the face by a ball kicked at close distance by an AC Milan player. "It felt like an uppercut," he said.

The force broke his nose, but more troubling, triggered concussion symptoms that had faded since his first comeback from a 10-month layoff in 2005-06. The headaches, migraines and neck pains were back. A new issue also surfaced: vertigo.

His nose healed; his head did not. Doctors wouldn't clear him to play.

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