NORTH ANDOVER – Jackie Sullivan should have been on a sun-soaked soccer field filled with crisp autumn air late last October, competing for Merrimack College’s women’s soccer team as it was prepping for the Northeast-10 tournament and yet another run at a conference championship.
But just the sight of that sunlight would often times trigger headaches, so instead she would confine herself to her dark dorm room.
Sullivan, arguably one of the best air defenders in the nation at any level, had been diagnosed with a concussion, the first of her career, and for a period of time thought she had perhaps played her last soccer game.
“I didn’t know what to think,” said the former North Andover star. “I had a friend who had a concussion playing football back in high school, so he was one of my first calls. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through and the biggest reason was because I had to be away from my team. I’ve never experienced anything like (the symptoms) either. It was definitely scary.”
Loosely defined, a concussion is a minor brain injury. It occurs in most cases when the head is struck by an object, violently jarring the brain inside of the skull and hindering the ability to focus and be alert.
Sullivan had been hurt before. In fact, late in her sophomore year she bruised all of the ligaments on top of her foot, forcing her to miss the end of that season. But at least in that case, she was able to be around the field every day.
With the headaches unpredictable and sometimes debilitating, simply going to the field to watch a practice seemed like the most difficult of tasks.
“I really can’t even describe it,” she said. “Unless you’ve had one, there’s no way to really describe what it’s like. It throws your entire life off for a while.”
Sullivan didn’t just have to bear with the reality that, for at least a few months, soccer was out of the question, but she was obviously still expected to complete assignments and keep her grades up.
That was easier said than done.
“Focusing for a long period of time became very hard,” she said. “If I knew I was going to class and had to really focus on a test for an hour, that was almost torture. You could take some ibuprofen and it helped a little bit, but you don’t want to be walking around on drugs all the time, so I tried to avoid that as much as I could.”
Given Sullivan’s aggressive nature, especially heading balls in the air, concussions are definitely a risk. Now back on the field and symptom-free for her senior season, Merrimack head coach Gabe Mejail said he always tries to match Sullivan with the side of the opposition’s best striker.
“She’s a lockdown defender,” he said. “As far as balls in the air, there isn’t anyone better. She’s very aggressive and such a smart player, she doesn’t make mistakes. We definitely missed not having her toward the end of last year.”
The Warriors weren’t without just Sullivan. At the same time, talented junior Danielle Dion was out of the lineup with a knee injury. She had scored 10 goals in the first 14 games of the season.
“(Dion) is back this year as well, all healed up,” Mejail said.
Sullivan says she’s symptom free, but still found herself understandably hesitant at the start of preseason camp.
“Those first couple of balls in the air I hesitated,” she said, “but it didn’t last long. I’m definitely mindful of protecting myself now.”
As for her performance on the field, it couldn’t be better. Through two games, Sullivan is leading a defensive corps that has surrendered just one goal.
“Our goal as a group is to not allow a goal all season to another team’s strikers,” she said. “It’s ambitious, so we’ll see how we do, but that’s our goal.”
So far, so good.