Chris Rolfe circled the Safeway’s frozen-food aisles. Once, twice. Colors, lights, the whirl of shoppers, the clickety-clack of carts bombarded the senses.
A third time around.
He had suffered a concussion less than a week earlier, the effects of an inadvertent elbow crashing into the right side of his nose during D.C. United’s MLS match at Chicago in late April.
Days had turned darker, fundamental tasks compromised.
He had come to his neighborhood grocery store in Alexandria for gluten-free cookie dough, among other items, but his aching brain wouldn’t allow him to organize his thoughts.
A fourth circle.
Confusion. Questions. Anxiety.
On his fifth loop, he recalled, “I just lost it. I was scared and overwhelmed. I realized something was really wrong with me. It made it real.”
United’s team MVP last year started the first nine games this season but has not played since. He won’t return to the field anytime soon, if ever.
The concussion, his first in 10 years and fifth over a 12-year career, has derailed both his livelihood and life.
In his first extended interview since suffering the injury, Rolfe described in vivid detail the daily trials and tribulations of recovering from a brain injury.
He is getting better, turning a corner, he said, “but still not in the clear, by any means.” At least once a week, he attends concussion rehabilitation sessions, which focus on balance and eye movement. He does similar drills on his own. He has begun light exercise both at home and at RFK Stadium.
Comfort comes from visiting a farmers’ market and tending to his backyard garden.
Resuming his soccer career, though, is far from his mind.
“As some of the symptoms have dulled a little bit, I’ve been able to restart my life,” said Rolfe, 33. “The first priority has to be getting my life back. I have to be able to feel normal. I have to be able to drive to the grocery store and go inside and come back out and feel normal. I have to be able to read a book. I have to be able to comprehend what I am reading.”
Asked if he has thought about retirement, he wrestles with emotions.
“I would be a liar and an idiot to tell you I haven’t thought about it long and hard.”
Concussions are part of soccer but seem to afflict United more than any other MLS team. In the last dozen years, they have curtailed the careers of Alecko Eskandarian, Josh Gros, Bryan Namoff, Devon McTavish and Davy Arnaud.
Patrick Nyarko, who joined United last winter, has suffered two concussions this season, increasing his total to six in eight years. He returned to action two weeks ago after a two-month layoff.
Rolfe’s injury occurred April 30 in Bridgeview, Ill., his first game at Toyota Park against his former team, the Chicago Fire, since moving to United in spring 2014.
In the 32nd minute, he was pressuring Rodrigo Ramos near midfield when the defender inadvertently elbowed him in the nose. Rolfe remained on his feet. Play continued. He reached to his face several times but remained in the flow of the game.
“It was a solid hit but nothing you would imagine would cause this kind of trouble,” he said. “I thought it can’t be that bad.”
In the locker room at halftime, he said, the contrast between light and dark was striking.
“That was when I knew something was up. It was almost like a dream – fuzzy,” he said. “I thought it was just a sight problem. I should have said something, but I didn’t.”
Competitive instincts nudged him back onto the field.
“There was a play I got the ball and tried to run at guys and just felt off-balance,” Rolfe said. “I felt the ground was moving. I should’ve asked to come out, but by the time I digested it, I was coming out anyway” in the 72nd minute – his typical departure period during the early stage of the season.
After the match, feeling wobbly and experiencing the same issues with light, he approached head athletic trainer Brian Goodstein. Goodstein summoned Chicago’s team doctor, who diagnosed a concussion.
In a statement, United said: “When Chris left the field in Chicago and made our athletic training staff aware of his symptoms, we immediately alerted the doctor on site, which is the first step of the concussion protocol. The physician on site administered the SCAT 3 test, which evaluates the player’s symptoms, cognitive functioning and balance, among other functions. The results of this evaluation are compared to the results of a prior baseline test to assist in the diagnosis of a concussion. Once Chris returned to D.C., he was evaluated again by team physicians, who have overseen his rehabilitation and recovery process.”
Rolfe said he took it easy that night at the team hotel and didn’t feel too bad the next morning. The team flew home. With two days off, Rolfe stayed in Chicago to visit friends. Rain kept the group inside Sunday. The sun returned the next morning.
“The light was so bright,” he said, “it was like stabbing pain in the back of my eyes.”
He borrowed a friend’s bike to ride four blocks for lunch with former teammate Gonzalo Segares.
“I noticed everything. I couldn’t concentrate on the road,” Rolfe said. “I couldn’t block anything out. I had no filter.”
Upon returning to Washington, he planned to report to RFK on Tuesday morning. As he steered his car onto an I-395 ramp, “I felt like there was a sandbag on the back of my neck,” he said. “It was so heavy, I couldn’t keep my eyes open.”
Slow-moving traffic helped him concentrate on the road. He arrived at the stadium “completely worn out and scared.” He went to see Goodstein, then took refuge in the darkened lounge outside Coach Ben Olsen’s office.
When he felt better, an intern drove him home. It was the last time he would visit RFK for weeks.
The team arranged appointments with specialists, MRI exams and concussion therapy.
“The first seven days, it continued to get worse and worse and worse,” he said. “And then it hit its peak and hung there for a month to six weeks.
“I couldn’t read. I couldn’t go for a walk. I couldn’t go in the sunlight. I couldn’t look out the window. I had my sunglasses on inside the house with the lights out during the day. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t ride my bike.”
Rolfe was in regular contact with doctors and team officials. He documented all of his symptoms, the good days and bad.
One weekend, he stayed at Nyarko’s place in Alexandria – it’s darker, he said – while Nyarko was on the road with United. In that game at Philadelphia, Nyarko suffered his second concussion of the season.
“We’ve talked a lot about the future and about awareness,” Nyarko said. “We made a pact to assure each other to not rush it and make sure we’ve healed. It kept me grounded and stopped me from pushing things, and I hope he approaches it the same way.”
In recent years, Rolfe has taken undergraduate courses online in an effort to complete his undergraduate degree in finance from the University of Dayton, where he played from 2001 to ’04.
The concussion forced him to drop one of two courses this summer. “I would read one paragraph four times,” he said, “and still not get it.” He’s been trying to get through a 14-page report and presentation. On Thursday, he emailed the professor to say he wouldn’t be able to complete them.
Rolfe watches United’s matches on TV, but until recently, the color contrasts and movement prevented him from viewing on a wide screen; he watched on his smartphone or laptop.
Absence from the team has compounded his heartache.
“I tend to beat myself up when I am not with the guys, especially if the team is not doing well,” Rolfe said of United, which is 5-8-7 with one victory in the past seven matches. “It has driven me to go back as quickly as possible. I can’t push this one.”
Concussions aren’t discernible injuries – years ago, Namoff called it “the invisible nightmare” — and Rolfe has sometimes struggled to explain the effects to friends and family.
“It’s nice there is greater awareness, so people understand it better,” he said. “They sympathize with me, but no one can really empathize unless they’ve gone through it.”
Last year, Arnaud was sidelined for months before shutting down a 14-year career and accepting a D.C. assistant coaching job.
“I couldn’t empathize with Davy,” Rolfe said. “I would say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to push through.’ I was naive. And now here I am.”