FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — Former New England Revolution star Taylor Twellman said Friday that the Major League Soccer team ignored his symptoms of multiple concussions, even sending him back on the field after he said "I have a concussion" following the hit that eventually forced him to retire.
The keynote speaker at a conference on brain trauma, Twellman said the trainer instead asked him his name, the score of the game and to count backward from 100 before telling him he doesn't have a concussion and sending him back into the game.
"It's horrifying," said Chris Nowinski, a founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, which raises public awareness of head injuries.
Revolution spokeswoman Lizz Summers said the team had no comment.
"I'm appalled. I'm angry," said Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler who retired after a series of concussions. "I thought I had it bad with my concussions, but at least people were trying. ... My God! For him to say he had a concussion and be told that he doesn't because he could count backward from 100 is absurd."
A five-time MLS All-Star who was the league MVP in 2005, Twellman scored 101 goals in eight years and also had six goals in 30 appearances with the U.S. national team. He said he has been diagnosed with five concussions, so he knew he'd sustained one in 2008 when he went for the ball and was punched in the head by Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Steve Cronin.
But the team's trainer cleared him to return after a cursory exam. Later, Twellman said, he took a shot that was 10 feet wide of the net and began celebrating because he thought he had scored a goal.
He was seeing double.
"For a professional sports trainer to be blowing off these symptoms was despicable," Nowinski said. "It feels like a violation of their ethics. I hope he's considering suing."
Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon who is co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University's School of Medicine, would not comment on the quality of Twellman's treatment. He said Major League Soccer – like most leagues – has improved its handling of concussions since 2008.
"There's a lot more known about the management of concussions in 2011 than in 2008," Cantu said.
Twellman noted that he was injured during a home game in Foxborough, just down the road from where Cantu is researching brain trauma. He saw a half-dozen other neurologists before his concussions were properly diagnosed.
"If the star player in MLS is 18.5 miles away from the top concussion doctor and doesn't see him for 19 months, there's a problem," Twellman said. "Imagine if there's a kid in Billings, Montana."
Speaking to a crowd of several hundred people at the conference sponsored by the BU medical school, many of them doctors and athletic trainers there to learn about managing concussions, Twellman said he spent nine months in a dark room, unable to watch TV or walk his dog, and was nauseous every day for two years.
"I was completely helpless," he said, "and when I say 'completely helpless,' I mean you can't look at your cellphone without seeing three of them."
Doctors told him he had everything from diabetes to the flu to "post situational depression" – ostensibly because he was upset the team had refused a $2.5 million transfer offer from a team in England. He saw seven different neurologists in all, tried acupuncture, and took antidepressants but said they only made him feel worse.
He played in only 16 games in 2008 and only two the next season; as late as 2009 the team was listing him with a neck injury. He said he got himself ready for his final game, on June 7, 2009, by taking four Vicodin, three Excedrin and "shotgunning a Budweiser"; he entered as a second-half substitute because he could only manage to play for 45 minutes at a time and scored two goals.
His teammates wondered why he did not celebrate.
"My head was as soft as a sponge," Twellman said. "I knew deep down I was done."