By Ridge Mahoney
The final 10 minutes of another good road result for Colorado in Columbus last weekend also brought a personal milestone for Pablo Mastroeni.
He got back on the field for the Rapids, which is far from the commonplace fact it once was. An MLS mainstay for more than a decade with 323 league appearances, he’s been barely visible for more than a year.
A long recovery from post-concussion problems limited him to 150 minutes in the 2012 season. For months, he stayed away from training and endured long, quiet hours alone, secluded from the loud noise or bright light that would trigger headaches, nausea, and anxiety. Without soccer to fill most of the day and deprived of family time to get away from the game, he turned to himself.
“Part of my thing was keeping a journal, and part of it was meditation, two things that allowed me to be more present,” he says. “All the while, I examined myself, and you start to realize there’s a lot of things you need to work on.
“When you’re caught up in the hustle-bustle of trying to do something with your career and your business life, there’s not a whole lot of time left to examine. Then you have wife and kids that are also pulling at you and you say, ‘Well I want to be a better father and husband as well.’ There’s a lot of examination that goes on when you’re away from the game.”
He believes he suffered his first concussion in 2011 during a late-season game against Real Salt Lake, and probably was re-injured twice, in a 2012 preseason game and then again in the season opener. He felt woozy, took one game off, then got back on the field against Philadelphia. He suffered fully body cramps.
“After the Philly game, my whole body seized up, and for the next two weeks I had this raging headache that wouldn’t go away,” he says. “It just kept going on. One week I had extreme insomnia. I couldn’t go to bed. I was taking all the sleeping meds, nothing would help. It was crazy. With all that going on, you’re irritable and miserable to be around. It’s been a tough battle to get through.”
MLS has adopted a concussion protocol by which a concussed athlete is basically tested and rested for as long as it takes for him to withstand vigorous exercise without ill effects. He undergoes therapy and takes cognitive tests to evaluate his recovery and determine when he can resume training. For Mastroeni, the cumulative effect of hits to the head, be they from hard-hit balls or sharp elbows or another skull was fear, plain and simple.
“The psychological stuff started having an impact on me,” he recalls. “About 12 weeks out, I was for the most part symptom-free, as far as the insomnia, the dizziness, all the classic symptoms were concerned. I did the protocol to come back probably in June/July, and I couldn’t get over the fear of getting hit in the head again, so I backed off. I went back out there again near the end of the summer and actually had a panic attack out there on the field.”
Coaching young players provided a sort of way station, to keep him in the game sans any competitive risks. Not until a postseason camp did the fears fade away, and fueled by the relief of finally being healthy he jumped into preseason with the zeal of a last-round SuperDraft pick. Yet more setbacks lay ahead. After getting a huge boost in his confidence by starting the 2013 opener and playing the full 90 minutes, hamstring and quadriceps injuries sent him back to the sidelines. At 36, rushing to get fit doesn’t work, so he’s allowed the process to play itself out. He’s learned the hard way that patience can’t be pushed.
“It’s hard to fathom why you have to sit out but as you go through it you realize there are a lot of good lessons to be learned and better learn them at the beginning than when it gets critical towards the end,” he says. “It’s so counterintuitive to the athlete’s brain, it doesn’t make sense to do that, because you’re told you’ve gotta get out there if you can run. You’re always going to play with pain, that’s something that all pro athletes accept: You’re going to play with pain, you’re never going to feel 100 percent.”
The general rules about recovering from injuries don’t apply to concussions. Brain trauma is as frightening as it sounds; a sharp impact or a severe whiplash can slam the brain against the inside of the skull. Unfortunately, no amount of training or conditioning can strengthen the skull. Athletes are as susceptible to brain injury as anyone else, and those who play contact sports are at greater risk.
He started preseason wearing a soft protective helmet, but soon discarded it.
"After one game, I realized it was going to be a crutch anyway and to convince myself I was 100 percent ready to play at this level, I just decided to play without a helmet,” says Mastroeni, who does advocate the wearing of helmets by young players if protection is needed. “Concussions are an inherent part of playing a game where you use your head.”
He joins a long list of Rapids players returning from injuries and facing some stiff competition for playing time. Coach Oscar Pareja has put out piecemeal squads yet by beating the Crew Colorado reached the .500 mark (4-4-3) for the first time this season. After starting out 0-3-2, the Rapids have won four of their last six.
“I’ve enjoyed working my way back into fitness, it’s something I haven’t done in a long time,” says the veteran of 65 U.S. appearances. “Seeing the game from this perspective definitely gives you respect for the guys that have been in the game a long time. Last year was a journey within a journey. It was a journey to recover and get well, but it was also a journey of self, trying to define who you are.”