[Q&A: JIMMY CONRAD] In this first installment taken from interviews with former USA defender Jimmy Conrad, he talks about the process that
last week led him to announce his retirement at age 34, in his 13th MLS season.
SOCCER AMERICA: You started and scored in the first game of the season, then suffered a concussion in the second game (March 26) yet played the full 90 minutes. Once that concussion was diagnosed, how long did it take for the realization to set in that your career might be ending?
JIMMY CONRAD: I had a pretty good headache for about 2 ½ months after the injury. After a month, I was like, ‘Jeez, is this thing ever going to go away? What do I have to do to get this to subside?’ The conversations were starting then and I wanted to see how long it would take for it to subside before I made any kind of decision. I didn’t want it to be based on emotion, I wanted it to be based on common sense and talking to people who know that concussions are all about.
About 2 ½ months in I started to feel better but I’d still get headaches from time to time. It was just enough of a reminder of what I was going to put myself back into if I decided to be a hero, to go out there and reach for some glory that may or may not exist, that might only be in my head.
SA: During this period, how much training were you able to do? What activities would cause you the most difficulties?
JC: Some days I would be OK. I was never allowed any contact stuff, but I’d be OK for the most part and I have it way over Taylor Twellman, who can’t get his heart rate up. Sometimes I’d have sensitivity to light and I never knew when it might happen.
I had an issue with that in an adidas store in Santa Monica. The way the fluorescent light reflected off the bright concrete floor gave me a headache for a couple of hours and it didn’t feel good. That was at about the 2 ½-month mark when I had kind of gotten over the everyday headaches and was starting to feel better, feeling good. I actually got my first real bout of nausea. You don’t really know what the trigger is. So it’s kind of weird.
SA: Concussions are being regarded much more dangerous than they used to be yet there’s very little reliable data on their short-term and long-term effects. What feedback did you get from your doctors?
JC: They just don’t know much about it yet. Research is just starting to get into the long-term effects of brain damage, those little small ones that add up. The doctor couldn’t tell me what’s going to happen or what my life’s going to look like in 10, 15 or 20 years, and that’s a scary proposition.
SA: In the past few years, concussions have forced Taylor Twellman, Alecko Eskandarian and Josh Gros, among other MLS players, to retire. How much conversation did you have with them about their conditions?
JC: I talked to Bryan Namoff and Taylor to compare symptoms. We don’t have the same things but it’s nice to commiserate with somebody, to know that they have this invisible pain that no one can really quantify. That makes it difficult maybe for coaches and teammates to understand; you look fine and you’re talking fine but you still have these issues that aren’t safe at all.
SA: Were there any undiagnosed concussions in your medical history that came to light once they started recurring? You mentioned you've had six.
JC: I didn’t have any for the first 10 years [of my pro career]. Then they came in quick succession. The really bad one was Panama in the  Gold Cup, and then they started to come pretty quick.
Obviously, I am being forced out. So the decision was mine even if it wasn’t my decision, but I’m at peace given all the information I was getting. If I didn’t have concussions, I’d still be out there playing for 10 more years and break Preki’s record, for being the oldest field player  ever.
SA: I thought you meant his scoring records.
JC: No, that would take about 75 years.
SA: Would it have been a lot harder to walk away if you were younger and your career was just getting started?
JC: If it was earlier in my career, if I was 24 or 25, the decision would have been a little bit harder. You feel you have so much more to do, so much more to offer, like Josh Gros and Alecko. That would be harder. But in my career I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do, so that makes it a little bit easier.
SA: So as difficult as this must be, the upside is those long months of doubt and worry about your playing career are over.
JC: There’s no more gray area, there’s no more possibility of playing again. As sad as it may be on some level, and it is, it’s exciting to know that there’s no looking back, there’s no turning around and saying, “I wish I could have done this or the other.’
There’s no more second-guessing. It’s done and I can get on with whatever Phase II is going to be, which is still very much up in the air.
In the next installment, Conrad talks about his new career working as a Chivas USA assistant coach and the team’s academy program, which is undergoing significant changes, as well as his own soccer camp and possible ventures into broadcasting.