Briana Scurry, the former U.S. women’s soccer great, has been to hell and back

MINNEAPOLIS — Briana Scurry walked into the auditorium at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, Minnesota on Wednesday night and a tall man hugged her and said, “Welcome home.”

The man was Chad Chastain. His sister is Brandi Chastain, whose penalty shootout won the 1999 World Cup. His wife is Erin Chastain, Minnesota Gophers football coach and Wayzata graduate.

Just before Brandi Chastain scored and tensed and became a symbol of women’s sport, Scurry made a remarkable save in the penalty shootout against China, a bookend moment for Chastain that is often forgotten.

Years later, although she became one of the greatest goalies in American history, winning two Olympic gold medals and a world championship, Scurry was largely forgotten. Depressed, broke, concussed, and suicidal, Scurry lived alone in a studio apartment in New Jersey, pawning her medals to pay for food and rent, “fighting in my own depths of hell.”

Raised in a working-class family in Dayton, Minnesota, Scurry played boys’ tackle football and hoped to be an NFL cornerback. “I loved batting,” she said.

She recently returned to her home state to promote her book My Greatest Save and upcoming documentary called The Only. Speaking to Fusion Soccer Club on Wednesday night, she shared a story of success, despair and transcendence.

She can speak about the importance of opportunity as she was born a year before Title IX passed 50 years ago.

She can speak of the power of sport as an engine for personal growth, having transformed a strong high school career into a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts and a career that has taken her around the world.

She can address the vulnerabilities of even our greatest athletes.

The book is an autobiography, as narrated by celebrated sportswriter Wayne Coffey, who also wrote The Boys of Winter, a remarkably in-depth exploration of Herb Brooks’ US men’s gold medal at Lake Placid. Scurry is blunt about the challenges of being a black, openly gay athlete and the concussion that ended her career.

She was playing for the Washington Freedom in the Women’s Professional Soccer League when she was kicked in the head. She would never play competitive soccer again. A concussion left her in excruciating pain. “I’ve been self-medicating with vodka and Vicodin,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “Which isn’t a great idea, but I couldn’t work it out.”

Too proud to ask her old USWNT teammates for help, she went to a nearby waterfall and considered jumping.

“Once I started thinking about how I was going to do it, I knew I was in trouble,” she said. “I got to the edge of the falls and stood there and stared. I couldn’t swim. So I knew if I went in, I wouldn’t come out.

“Then I thought about my mother, who was battling Alzheimer’s at the time. I had a vision of her sitting on her bed and being notified by the police that her baby was gone. That literally knocked me out.”

The title of her book refers to self-rescue. She needed help with that.

Since her concussion occurred while she was an employee, she applied for worker’s compensation insurance. She writes in great detail about an insurance company that fails to make their payments on time, leaving her in despair.

Her life would change in unimaginable ways. Her old friend Naomi Gonzales had started a company and attracted the interest of Chryssa Zizos, who ran her own PR firm.

Gonzales told Zizos of Scurry’s plight. Zizos threatened to launch a media campaign to tell Scurry’s story, in part to get the insurance company to honor its obligations. Zizos helped Scurry regain her medals, and with the insurance money flowing, Scurry was finally able to afford the expensive surgery, which immediately relieved her symptoms.

Overnight, she regained the confidence and ambition of the great athlete she once was.

“The lifeline comes and I run,” she said.

You could say that Scurry’s story has a happy ending, but it’s more of a happy current reality. She and Zizos are married and live in northern Virginia. As a TV soccer analyst for ESPN, she is unable to perform well due to her concussion symptoms and returns to the broadcast booth for the World Cup qualifiers. She works as an inspirational speaker and is again texting groups with her former USWNT teammates.

On Wednesday evening, her speech was preceded by a video clip of her World Cup rescue in 1999. She and the crowd that filled the auditorium reacted as if it were happening in real time. Later, a little girl held up the 1999 Wheaties box with Scurry’s picture on it.

Somehow, a kid from Dayton made it into the football hall of fame and emerged from the depths of the Depression to build what she calls “a great life.”

“I feel like a bamboo tree,” she said. “I grew all these root systems and now they’re coming out of the ground.”

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