It is a comeback that might not have been necessary a decade ago when we knew less.
It is a comeback that hopefully won't prove regrettable a decade down the road when we know more.
But at this moment, it is a comeback that Lori Chalupny earned the chance to make -- no matter how uneasy it might make some of us because of what we still don't know about the injury that necessitated it.
Proving yet again that 2014 will go down as a year of surprises from the women's national team (just ask Tom Sermanni), U.S. Soccer made major news out of what otherwise would have been a mundane roster release for the upcoming four-team tournament in Brasilia, Brazil. Instead of merely the same cast of characters we saw qualify for next summer's World Cup, with the addition of a few young players trying to catch the eye of the coaching staff, the roster includes Chalupny, a World Cup and Olympics veteran who earned the most recent of her 92 caps when she captained the team to a 1-0 win against Germany on that team's home turf in Augsburg on Oct. 29, 2009.
She hasn't played a minute for the United States since that game, although she has played a lot of soccer in the intervening five years, including a team-high 2,003 minutes for the Chicago Red Stars in the most recent National Women's Soccer League season. After a series of concussions that culminated prior to the national team's 2010 schedule, U.S. Soccer refused to clear Chalupny to continue playing for her country, and a specialist affiliated with the federation encouraged her to retire. Multiple independent doctors, on the other hand, cleared her to resume playing generally as early as the 2010 season with the Atlanta Beat in Women's Professional Soccer, but she remained excluded from the national team until she approached U.S. Soccer in August and sought a reevaluation.
Chalupny declined this week to say how many concussions she was diagnosed with in total, contending that it was difficult to pinpoint precisely what was and wasn't a concussion, but in an interview with the Washington Post in 2010 she put the number at "five or six" diagnosed injuries. She also this week said she had neither been diagnosed with nor suffered concussion-like symptoms since she last played for the national team -- despite enduring enough contact this past season to rank as the most-fouled player in NWSL (and committer of the sixth-most fouls).
"When everything happened a couple of years ago, I understood U.S. Soccer's position and I definitely appreciated that they were looking out for my best interests," Chalupny said of the original refusal to clear her. "Hearing the news was not easy to take, but I definitely understand U.S. Soccer's position. That being said, I feel great. I've been playing five years now in the pro leagues and I've had no symptoms and [am] just feeling good, so I thought it was time to contact U.S. Soccer and just see if I could be in consideration again for selection for the team."
Chalupny said that although there had been contact with U.S. Soccer over the past five years, and she had been thinking about how best to approach a return, August was the first time she went to U.S. Soccer about a reevaluation that might give her a chance to make the World Cup roster. Given that as far back as the Washington Post interview she appeared frustrated with the medical limbo in which she existed -- cleared in one uniform but not another -- that will be difficult for many to believe. At the same time, it's easy to imagine why someone whose years in exile just ended wouldn't be eager to tell stories of overtures unanswered, were that ever so. Whatever the case, Chalupny found an audience willing to hear her out in this instance, including U.S. Soccer chief medical officer Dr. George Chiampas.
"We obviously sat down with Lori and looked at her history previous to 2010 and since 2010 and, obviously, reached out to some of the experts in the United States that deal with these types of injuries, both externally as well as internally within United States Soccer," said Chiampas, who was named chief medical officer this year. "[We] made a collective decision with the information that we have, with Lori's best interests in mind. I think one of the biggest things is to assure that at this point, at this stage in her life, that neurocognitively that she is at baseline and she has been asymptomatic. And obviously all of those factors came into play with regard to the decision."
There is no reason the national team wouldn't have wanted a healthy Chalupny these past five years. She is the epitome of the image the national team chooses to project for the supporting cast around its stars, a tireless and talented worker on the field who is unlikely to generate negative headlines with words or deeds. Not clearing her to play wasn't some backdoor way to exercise a grudge or take care of a chemistry issue. That's not Chalupny. But whether from sincere medical conviction, muddled protocol, or both -- a riddle that bears further scrutiny if only for how cases like hers will be handled moving forward -- the federation concluded it wasn't comfortable with the risk involved.
In light of multiple examples from the 2014 men's World Cup of FIFA's inability or, worse still, unwillingness to act coherently with regard to head injuries, it is difficult to paint U.S. Soccer as the bad guys in the story for taking a more proactive position. This isn't the same as a college refusing to grant an athlete a scholarship release.
Nor is Chalupny, who contended she would not have continued playing had the other specialists she consulted echoed the advice to retire, at fault. Hers is still a story of perseverance, albeit a messier one to tell than it would be were she returning from a series of knee injuries. Even without the advantages that come with national team status, she went about her career and excelled the past five years. She was named to the NWSL's "Best XI" in the league's inaugural season and proved scarcely less productive in a more crowded awards race this season.
"This is an invite based on performance," United States coach Jill Ellis said. "This is not just an invite to invite Lori back in. I think she's been one of the best players in the league. For me, bringing her down to Brazil gives me a chance to get her, as soon as possible, into training with the team. What does she bring? I mean, she's got a sweet left foot, she's a tremendous competitor. Positionally, she's very versatile, and she's a very technical player. So I think she's a good fit for what we're looking for as far as our players that will come in and be impactful."
What makes the entire saga so difficult to sort out is that Chalupny might have been the victim of overzealousness in a sport that at all levels still operates with far too little zealousness when it comes to head injuries.
Last season saw three high-profile college players retire before the end of their senior seasons because of repeated concussions. Another standout, North Carolina defender Caitlin Ball, followed the same path this season. And those are just the players with profiles to make news when they walk away. There are tens of thousands of college soccer players across all divisions of NCAA, NAIA and junior colleges, some multiple of that playing high school and club, and some multiple still of that total in youth soccer. How many had to stop playing? How many more should?
One of those players who stepped away a season ago, former Virginia Tech standout Kelly Conheeney, said she felt like players were gradually becoming more aware of the risk, but her own experience is something heard time and time again from players who suffered concussions.
"In terms of how serious I thought concussions were growing up, I didn't really consider them as a huge injury because it wasn't keeping me out," Conheeney said. "I wasn't going to take myself out of the game. Somebody else -- or a broken bone or an injury that was noticeable to other people, that was going to take me out of the game."
Those words ought to be chilling. They ought to scare us, for the very reason echoed this week by Chalupny.
"It's unlike most other injuries," Chalupny said. "You know for sure if you have a broken foot, but this is something completely different."
Will and determination aren't enough to come back from brain injuries. Those traits alone aren't enough to triumph over muscles, bones and ligaments, either, but we do little lasting damage by convincing ourselves otherwise.
That's a message Chalupny now has a much bigger platform from which to share, a platform she hopefully chooses to use.
Not everyone can be her. It's not classically inspirational, but it's a lot more important.
"First and foremost, that concussions are nothing to be taken lightly," Chalupny said of her message. "And if you suspect that you've had a concussion to err on the side of caution. I think through this process that we've taken with the doctors and U.S. Soccer and myself, I think we have taken the necessary steps to make sure that I am healthy and able to compete. We didn't slip over anything. We didn't just rush back into playing."