In many ways, he felt a strong connection with his teammates, even though he had moved away and not played all year because of concussion-related issues that have haunted him for 18 months. In other ways, because the headaches and confusion weren’t ever going to allow him to resume his terrific career, he was drawn to the dozens of former players engaged in alumni events celebrating the end of United’s 22 seasons at RFK Stadium.
Rolfe mixed with active and retired players alike, wondering where he fit in.
“It was confusing. It was strange,” he said. “I had to clarify: Am I a part of the regular team or part of the legends?”
United decided for him, placing him in the latter group. It was, all along, where he knew he belonged and where he could finally come to terms, personally and professionally, with what he wanted to announce Thursday: He was retiring because of a brain injury.
“By being forced, in a way, to step aside and play a different role [that weekend at RFK], it provided some necessary closure and gave me a taste of what that would look like as a former player,” Rolfe, 34, said in an emotional, hour-long telephone interview in which he explained his decision to retire.
“It felt like I was stepping into a different group now. It was more beneficial for me to be treated like one of the former players instead of pretending like everything is okay.”
It has not been okay since April 30, 2016, when a Chicago Fire player inadvertently elbowed him on the right side of the nose, causing a concussion that sidelined him for the remainder of the season and prevented him from returning this year.
Off the field, “I am definitely better than I was a year ago,” he said. “I’m feeling more like myself.”
It’s a far cry from the terrifying experiences in 2016 when, following the injury, he became disoriented at the supermarket, recoiled at bright light, experienced rapid mood changes and struggled to read a book.
What has not changed much, though, is the inability to exercise at a high rate. He is able to take casual bike rides, jog on occasion and hike in the foothills and mountains around Denver, where he has lived most of the year.
But there continue to be setbacks: A recent weightlifting session involving head movement triggered symptoms that lasted 1 1/2 days.
“I am still trying to get through and understand the symptoms,” said Rolfe, who continues to see medical specialists. “It’s taken a big chunk out of my life and what brings joy to my life, which is being active and athletic. I have had to try to figure out some other things to fill that void and also figure out what I can do actively that is not going to make me feel like garbage for a week.”
Early this fall, he ceased workouts entirely for a month and “realized how I should feel and the clarity I should have mentally, the quality of sleep and reduction of anxiety,” Rolfe said. In those better moments, he thought about the possibility of resuming his soccer career.
“Even though I told myself it’s very unlikely I will play again,” he said, “there was still something in the back of my mind like, ‘I could probably still do it. I’m still pretty fit. I watch these games, I feel like I could help.’ ”
Deep down, though, he knew it was over.
The visit to Washington for the Oct. 22 finale provided closure.
“I was a little worried it was going to be painful and reopen some wounds,” he said. “I am so glad I came back for it. It was really important to take a step back that day and let D.C. United go on without me. I am at peace with it. I’ll be fine.”
Rolfe played eight seasons with Chicago — a spell interrupted for a two-year stretch in Denmark — and made 10 appearances with the U.S. national team. He was traded to United early in the 2014 season and played a key role in the club’s leap to first place following a three-win campaign the year before. In 2015, he scored 10 regular season goals — a team best and career high — and added one against New England in the playoffs. It turned out to be his final one.
Rolfe suffered the concussion in the ninth match of the 2016 season, his first head injury in 10 years. He entered concussion protocol and visited countless doctors, but as symptoms persisted, his focus turned from playing again to feeling normal again.
Last winter, hopes of joining the club at training camp in Florida were dashed by those same head issues. With a guaranteed contract, he remained on the roster, the No. 18 jersey his for the season. But he also began pivoting to life beyond soccer. He returned to the University of Dayton, near his home town of Kettering, Ohio, to complete his degree in finance, one that he began pursuing more than 16 years earlier. “Sixteen years and 299 days,” he said. “I counted.”
Rolfe has not decided whether to pursue finance as a career, saying he wants to “take this time to open some other doors that I didn’t have the time or energy to pursue while I was playing.”
For years, he has had a deep passion for organic farming, one that prompted off-day outings to volunteer at farms and farmers markets in Chicago, Washington and Denver. The physical labor involved, however, exacerbated the head problems. (He also continues having trouble with his left arm, the result of a fracture suffered late in the 2014 season.) He has thought about working as an advocate for small farms and nonprofits.
This fall, Rolfe has stayed connected to soccer as a volunteer assistant coach for the University of Denver women’s program.
Despite limitations, he said he is optimistic he will recover.
“There are ups and downs,” he said. “I find some gratitude in it, too. I am still able to do a lot of things that a lot of people with traumatic brain injuries can’t do. Things could be a lot worse for me because I experienced it first hand [last year]. I never, ever, ever want to feel that way ever again.”
Mental strength, forged in high-level sports, has helped in recovery.
“If I put it in a positive light, it’s a lot easier to cope and believe things are going to get better,” he said. “And if they don’t, I am going to be okay. I’ll be able to figure it out. I am strong enough. I will find things that bring me happiness and joy outside of things I can’t do anymore.”
Rolfe has leaned on, among others, Patrick Nyarko, his teammate in Chicago and Washington, and D.C. captain Steve Birnbaum for friendship and support. Both are dealing with concussion issues of their own; Nyarko missed the last three months of the season and Birnbaum suffered three in six months this year.
At the RFK farewell, he and Alecko Eskandarian shared experiences. Eskandarian is a former United forward whose career was cut short by concussions.
Those types of relationships, Rolfe said, is what he will cherish the most from his playing career.
“We feel safe enough to talk to each other at a deeper emotional level about things that bother us,” Rolfe said, “and that includes the concussions.”
Emotions were flowing Oct. 22 on East Capitol Street. Watching from the mezzanine level, he felt the power of the game wash over him when Paul Arriola scored for United late in the first half.
“Without even thinking about it, I get out of my chair and walk up to the front and put my hands on the railing. I’m above the whole supporters’ section. I leaned over and it felt like I had scored. It reminded me of scoring goals, and it’s the single best feeling I’ve ever had — the noise, the electricity, the fans waving their flags and jumping around.”
He said he then started to cry.
“It switched so quickly into the realization that that’s never going to happen for me again. It’s a unique feeling, that you’ve done something to make 40,000 people lose their minds and throw eight-dollar beers. That’s when it hit me — you’re done, man.”
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