The summer of 2018 had been a whirlwind of excitement and activity. United had just signed Wayne Rooney, a bona fide international star who put the Major League Soccer team in newspaper headlines around the world. The organization had cut the ribbon on a much-anticipated stadium, Audi Field, and was poised to usher in a new era as one of the league’s cornerstone franchises.
“I remember thinking right before the opener, like, this may be the best year of my life,” Simpson said.
Just before that first game, as Simpson was preparing to go on air, a long aluminum railing cover fell from the seating area overhead and came crashing down. The team told reporters Simpson was struck in the head and was off the night’s broadcast. The incident created a minor social media stir before Rooney and his teammates took center stage, delivering an exciting victory to a raucous sellout crowd.
Simpson says she doesn’t remember any of it.
July 14 marked the two-year anniversary of the accident, and Simpson is still struggling through her recovery while also locked in a legal battle with United and its insurance company over workers’ compensation. Simpson, 34, says she suffered a head injury that profoundly changed everything. She since has had two surgeries as she tries to emerge from the fog.
The insurance company sent Simpson to a doctor who said she was never struck in the head that day at Audi Field. And even though her treating physicians were certain Simpson had suffered a concussion and was debilitated, the insurance company stopped paying her workers’ compensation in September — 14 months after the accident but before Simpson says she is close to being fully recovered.
“They’re fighting this tooth and nail at this point,” said her attorney, David Schloss. “Certainly, they’re entitled to do that. We’re surprised they’d choose to do that in this case.”
Even though the team is named in the labor complaint Simpson filed, United contends the matter is really between Simpson and Great Divide Insurance.
“D.C. United is not party to the workers’ compensation matter and the club is not adverse to Ms. Simpson,” the team said in a statement. “It’s our hope that the final outcome is just and we wish Ms. Simpson the best for her health and happiness.”
Schloss asserts that the team is an “equal party” and that it had the authority to instruct the insurance company to act differently. He says United could have nixed the independent medical review and ensured Simpson continued to receive workers’ compensation benefits.
A spokesperson for Great Divide Insurance declined to comment, citing a company policy against publicly discussing any claims.
The entire affair highlights the murky nature of traumatic brain injuries, where doctors can have conflicting diagnoses, symptoms can feel pronounced one day and invisible the next, and there’s no clear recovery timeline.
Simpson said she has experienced numbness and pain in her extremities, headaches, vision troubles, nausea, fatigue, balance issues and memory problems. “I remember more from being a 15-year-old than I do from the last two years of my life,” she said.
A history of injuries
By her count, Simpson, a lifelong soccer player, has suffered seven or eight concussions. The first occurred when she was a high school junior, when the undersized goalkeeper dived and hit her head on the ground. The migraines lasted about nine months, she recalled — “all day, every day.”
“I eventually learned to live with it. And it just became white noise in my life,” she said.
She suffered another as a member of the University of Maryland soccer team that left her unconscious. “Ten seconds? 30? I really don’t know,” she said.
Doctors told Simpson her competitive days were over, but she stayed around the game, suffering still more playing in an adult recreation league and even one coaching.
Numerous studies have highlighted the risks of brain injuries in soccer, particularly among female athletes. One, led by researchers from Northwestern University and Wake Forest University, found more high school girls suffer concussions playing soccer than boys do on the football field, and another out of Michigan State highlighted the way genders are affected differently by head injuries, with women and girls often taking longer to recover.
Simpson eventually turned to journalism as her ticket back into the soccer world she loved so much. She enrolled in a graduate program at Maryland and was hired by United in 2015. She wore several hats in her three years with the club, eventually overseeing marketing, communications and digital media, in addition to her on-camera role on game day.
She helped plan festivities surrounding the team’s last match at RFK Stadium, organizing an alumni reunion that brought back luminaries such as Hristo Stoitchkov, Bruce Arena and Freddy Adu. In the days before her wedding in Spain, she was on the phone helping coordinate the Rooney announcement. And she spent months helping to strategize and plan for the opening of Audi Field. She has a hard hat and a commemorative shovel from the groundbreaking on display in her Alexandria home.
Simpson married Nathan Getty on May 26, 2018, and the weeks that followed were consumed by preparations for the new stadium. “It was a little tough to be newlyweds with somebody working 14-hour days, seven days a week,” Getty said. “But I was very proud of her.”
The pivotal moment
Simpson was at the stadium until around midnight the day before the first game getting things ready. Crews were putting the final touches on the stadium, going through a checklist to obtain a temporary certificate of occupancy.
Getty dropped Simpson off at Audi Field the next day around noon, eight hours before the match was set to begin. Simpson had just finished taping an interview with former player Jaime Moreno, one of the franchise’s most celebrated stars, and was near an outdoor set at field level about 15 minutes before the pregame show was scheduled to begin.
She was juggling text messages, and her broadcast partners, Dave Johnson and Devon McTavish, were just a couple of feet away.
“Then, all of a sudden, I just hear this clanging,” she said.
She doesn’t have any recollection of the strip of metal hitting her. The aluminum cap had covered a railing about 15 to 20 feet above and had apparently become detached. Simpson believes it was about 12 feet long and weighed 40 pounds.
What exactly happened next is the subject of debate. The Washington Post reviewed video of the incident. It shows the railing falling near the right side of Simpson’s head. The action unfolds quickly and, given the camera angle, it’s difficult to discern the nature of any impact.
In the video, Simpson immediately crouches. Johnson and McTavish check on her. She never drops her phone, but after 40 seconds she stumbles backward and nearly collapses. McTavish helps brace her. And a minute after the railing fell, Simpson is holding her head as she is helped to a seat.
Neither Johnson nor McTavish was made available by United to comment on the incident. One person who was there that day said Simpson “was really dazed and kind of out of it.”
“She was conscious, but you could tell she was really stunned,” said the person, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the incident and requested anonymity. “We had to fight with her to leave. She wanted to stay. ”
Getty was nearby and, though he didn’t see the railing strike his wife, he rushed to her side when it became clear what had happened. He recalls holding her hand and looking at Simpson as she said to him, “Where’s my husband?”
“I didn’t know it was him,” she said recently through tears.
Simpson said she barely could leave the couch for weeks afterward. She couldn’t keep any food down, had trouble seeing out of her right eye and was in constant pain. Getty covered the front window with a blanket to keep the living room as dark as possible.
Simpson said she was having trouble speaking and couldn’t remember how to make coffee. The couple moved two weeks later, and Simpson said she has no recollection of packing or unpacking or settling into their new home.
According to medical notes from one of her treating physicians from around that time, Simpson had suffered a concussion, and the “related cognitive, physical, emotional and social difficulties are resulting in periodic depressed mood and anxiety that further exacerbate her physical symptoms. Another physician wrote “concussion without loss of consciousness” in listing Simpson’s ailments and symptoms in his medical notes.
But after viewing the video of the incident, Great Divide Insurance reached a different conclusion. In February 2019 — 71/2 months after the accident — the company sent Simpson to a neurosurgeon for an independent medical examination, and he found “a lack of evidence to support cerebral concussion or postconcussive syndrome.” Schloss, Simpson’s attorney, said the insurance company relied on a spinal specialist, not a concussion expert, and his opinion runs counter to what all of her treating physicians said.
The surgeon said Simpson probably was struck in the shoulder and her symptoms were unrelated to the accident. He relied heavily on the video in making his determination, according to his notes, reviewing it frame by frame and in slow motion.
“It is completely unlikely based on this film that she actually sustained a head strike,” he wrote. “While she has a slight flinch corresponding with the sound of the railing coming loose, she does not flinch as it goes by her head or move in reaction to a head strike stimulus. Instead, her movement secondary to the trauma occurs when the railing hits her shoulder. I am convinced that there was absolutely no head strike.”
United declined to comment on the specifics of Simpson’s case, saying in a statement: “The workers’ compensation matter is directed by the insurance carrier and its designated counsel and is not within D.C. United’s control. It is our understanding that the insurance company arranged for Ms. Simpson to be examined by a medical expert as part of the workers’ compensation process and based on the medical expert’s findings, the insurance company discontinued Ms. Simpson’s workers’ compensation benefits.”
Simpson has an administrative hearing in her workers’ compensation case scheduled for December.
Johns Hopkins specialists recently recommended inpatient rehabilitation, which means Simpson’s expenses are mounting. The accident caused nerve damage that has required two surgeries, she said, and the couple has spent more than $80,000 with the aid of a medical loan.
On a mission
Two years in, the symptoms are like a constant companion. Simpson said she will forget why she is in a grocery store and become unsure how to get out. She is scared to drive. She is having to relearn Spanish, in which she was once fluent. The smallest tasks exhaust her, reading is difficult, and electronic screens are blinding. She keeps a nausea pill in her wallet, and so does Getty whenever they leave the house. She uses sticky notes to remind her of simple tasks and forgets to close cabinets, turn off lights and shut off the stove.
“It’s stuff that you hear about your 85-year-old grandmother doing. And it’s scary,” she said.
Simpson gets choked up talking about the sacrifices her husband has made to serve as a caretaker, and talking about how their time as newlyweds was marred by the accident and her recovery.
“And that’s hard because, you know, these are moments that you can’t take back,” she said.
She got a Coton de Tulear puppy to aid with her recovery, spends time in the garden and finds that some days are better than others.
Since her first concussion as a high school goalkeeper, she has faced questions about the veracity of the injury. Even loved ones at times struggle to understand the severity of a wound they can’t see.
“There’s just always this scrutiny of, you know, if I can’t see it, if there’s not an X-ray that proves it, then what’s real?” she said.
Simpson would love to return to the pro sports world someday, but for now she is starting to see value in sharing her story. She is launching a nonprofit called the Champion Comeback Foundation and wants to provide resources for others recovering from brain injuries. Getty is also hopeful the foundation can provide a support network for caregivers, the family and friends who tend to those who have suffered brain injuries.
For weeks, she had been dreading the two-year anniversary of the accident, but she began to embrace it as a “second birthday,” as she called it, and a chance to start anew.
“Over the last few weeks, really, I’m no longer waiting for that magic moment where I wake up and everything’s back to normal,” she said. “It’s all about training my brain so I can do the things I used to do cognitively.”
Simpson recently agreed to donate her brain to researchers at Boston University, and even as her recovery slowly moves along, creating the foundation — finally planning for something — has buoyed her spirits.
“I really want to be a catalyst for providing awareness in these situations, because it’s real and it’s scary,” she said. “And knowing that I could have died has put life in perspective. And I just want to live. I just want to live and do good through this because I was given a chance — whereas, you know, a half-inch over, I probably would not be here.”