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

·4 min read

Briana Scurry walked into the auditorium at Wayzata High School on Wednesday night, and a tall man hugged her, saying, "Welcome home."

The man was Chad Chastain. His sister is Brandi Chastain, whose shootout kick won the 1999 World Cup. His wife is Erin Chastain, the Gophers soccer coach and a Wayzata alum.

Shortly before Brandi Chastain scored and flexed and became a symbol of women's sports, Scurry made a remarkable diving save in the shootout against China, a bookend moment to Chastain's that is often forgotten.

Years later, despite becoming one of the greatest goalkeepers in American history, winning two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup, Scurry would find herself largely forgotten. Depressed, broke, concussed and suicidal, Scurry would live alone in a studio apartment in New Jersey and pawn her medals to pay for food and rent, "struggling in my own depths of hell."

Scurry grew up in a blue-collar family in Dayton, Minn., playing boys' tackle football and hoping to become an NFL cornerback. "I loved to hit," she said.

This week she returned to her home state to promote her book, "My Greatest Save," and her upcoming documentary, titled "The Only." Wednesday night, she spoke to the Fusion Soccer Club, telling a story of achievement, despair and transcendence.

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

She can speak to the power of sport as a driver of personal growth, having turned a strong high school career into a scholarship at the University of Massachusetts and a career that took her all over the world.

She can speak to the vulnerabilities of even our greatest athletes.

The book is an autobiography as told to acclaimed sportswriter Wayne Coffey, who also wrote "The Boys of Winter," a remarkably deep exploration of the U.S. men's hockey gold medal under Herb Brooks in Lake Placid. Scurry bluntly details the challenges of being a Black, openly gay athlete, and of the concussion that ended her career.

She was playing in the Women's Professional Soccer League, for the Washington Freedom, when she was kicked in the side of the head. She would never play competitive soccer again. A concussion left her in unrelenting pain. "I self-medicated with vodka and Vicodin," she said in an interview on Wednesday. "Which is not a great idea, but I couldn't function."

Too proud to ask her old USWNT teammates for help, she would walk to a nearby waterfall and contemplate leaping.

"When I started thinking about 'how' I would do it, that's when I knew I was in trouble," she said. "I would get to the edge of the waterfalls, and I would stand there and stare. I couldn't swim. So I knew if I went in, I would not come out.

"Then I thought of my mother, battling Alzheimer's at the time. I had a vision of her sitting on her bed, being notified by the police that her baby was gone. That got me off the edge, literally."

The title of her book refers to saving herself. She needed help to do so.

Because her concussion occurred while she was an employee, she filed for workers' compensation. She writes in great detail about an insurance company failing to make timely payments, leaving her desperate.

Her life was about to change in an unimaginable way. Her old girlfriend, Naomi Gonzales, had started a company and attracted the interest of Chryssa Zizos, who ran her own public relations firm.

Gonzales told Zizos about Scurry's plight. Zizos threatened to launch a media campaign to tell Scurry's story, in part to shame the insurance company into fulfilling its obligations. Zizos helped Scurry recover her medals, and with insurance money flowing, Scurry could finally afford the expensive surgery that immediately relieved her symptoms.

Overnight, she regained the confidence and ambition of the great athlete she had been.

"The lifeline comes, and I'm off and running," she said.

You could say Scurry's story features a happy ending, but it's more of a happy current reality. She and Zizos are married and living in northern Virginia. Unable to perform well as a television soccer analyst for ESPN when dealing with her concussions symptoms, she is returning to the broadcast booth for the World Cup qualifiers. She is working as an inspirational speaker, and she's again group-texting with her former USWNT teammates.

Wednesday night, her speech was preceded by a video clip of her World Cup save in 1999. She and the crowd filling the auditorium reacted like it was happening in real time. Later, a little girl held up the Wheaties box from 1999 featuring Scurry's image.

Somehow, a child from Dayton made it to the soccer Hall of Fame, and emerged from the depths of depression to build what she calls "a great life.'

"I feel like a bamboo tree," she said. "I've grown all of these root systems, and now they're coming out of the ground."