If you follow hockey – or, for that matter, other contact sports – you’ve no doubt read or heard some athletes’ harrowing accounts of dealing with concussions. Heck, Sidney Crosby’s extended ordeal did as much to raise awareness of that type of frightening and frustrating brain injury as just about anything else.
A conversation with former Penguins forward Joe Vitale this week underscored the reality that every one of those stories represents a valiant human struggle. He was gracious enough to share his experience – the unvarnished horror of months upon months of agony, and the unwavering joy of getting his life back.
“All the concussion stuff you hear about, it’s real – the dark rooms, you can’t be around people, you can’t be around light. Everything affects you. It’s as real as it gets,” Vitale said from St. Louis, his hometown and where he is starting over with his wife, Brianna, and their three young children.
Vitale, 32, was drafted by the Penguins six rounds after Crosby in 2005 and, after four years at Northeastern, developed into an NHL player.
He was a fourth-liner, not a star. He was a gregarious guy who brought energy and a physical edge. He would stand up for his teammates but was certainly not in the goon or tough-guy mold. In 163 games over four seasons, beginning in 2010-11, he had eight goals, 35 points and 115 penalty minutes, plus another 23 playoff games.
He signed a three-year deal as a free agent with the Arizona Coyotes in the 2014 offseason and played in a career-high 70 games his first season in the desert.
In His Own Words
Then came Oct. 17, 2015, a game against Boston in the young season. Vitale explained the moments that became the end of his NHL career, a fight with defenseman Kevan Miller:
“Hockey is a rough sport,” Vitale said. “I was playing pretty rough that game. He challenged me. Someone was going after Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and he was our best player. So I had to do something.
“I stepped in. Miller, he challenged me. We went at it for a while. It was a good scrap. His jersey ripped. I didn’t have much of a grip. He cleaned me up so good at the end. He broke my orbital floor (around) my eye. The temple broke. The floor broke. My whole eye just dropped down. I couldn’t see out of my left eye. I felt like my contact shook loose, so I was trying to grab my contact and my eye was just dropped.
“When he hit me at the end, it felt like a bomb went off. My whole face went numb. My ears were ringing. I’ve never been in a war or battle, but it felt like a grenade just went off in my left ear.
“I went to the (penalty) box and that was it. I felt horrible. Queasy. Oliver Ekman-Larsson was in there with me and asked me if I was all right. He clearly saw that I wasn’t. He called the ref and the trainer. They stopped the game.
“Honestly, all I can remember was that I didn’t even have the energy to talk to anyone to say that I needed help. That’s how hurt I was. If Oliver wasn’t in the box with me at the time, I probably would have sat there until I was allowed to go out, and then I would have kept sitting there. I was that far gone. I knew immediately something was very, very different about this injury.”
If you must, you can watch the fight here, courtesy of hockeyfights.com:
Up until the fight with Miller which changed everything, Vitale admits he got “dinged quite a bit in my career,” particularly, he recalled, in a preseason fight with Columbus’ James Wisniewski while he was with the Penguins.
Yes, he got caught up in the culture of toughing it out.
“Nothing was broken, so you just sweep it under the rug and keep going,” he said.
That was no longer possible after that October night. Vitale still has vision problems in his left eye, particularly in trying to track things that move horizontally, so he now wears glasses with a special prism-like left lens.
For more than two years after that night, Vitale’s life was hell.
Again, no one can tell it like him:
“Some really bad days. I didn’t sleep very well. My day would start at, like, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., just waking up and not being able to fall back asleep. You try to fall back asleep and then you spend hours in your room in the dark. Your mind starts running and running.
“And then when you get out of bed, for the longest time I would go from lying in bed to sitting up, and everything goes black. The vision around your eyes just kind of closes up and you’ve got to grab the wall to make sure you don’t fall over.
“You try to enjoy a little bit of your life with your wife and kids, but noises and light aggravate you. You get impatient and you go isolate yourself again just to keep your head from feeling like it’s going to explode. Then you have the guilt from isolating yourself – ‘I don’t have any social life. My wife’s worried about me. I hardly see my kids anymore.’ You’re miserable.
“Then you try to get the energy to go see a doctor, and they kind of tell you the same thing – we think this is the issue, but the brain is complicated and we don’t really have the answers. So then you are constantly going to people who are doing their best – not saying they are bad doctors – but the brain IS complicated and you don’t have any solid answers or know when you’re going to get better. You don’t know if you’re ever going to get better, and all these things start going through your head. You’re trying to figure it all out.
“You can’t remember conversations with your wife the next day, and you see the frustration in her face. You just don’t know if you’re going to be OK again. Priorities start to come in, like, am I ever going to be a good father again for my kids? Depression. Depression sets in hard. It’s a real thing. I was extremely, extremely depressed, lonely, isolated.”
It did get better.
In Part Two, an empathetic Sidney Crosby steps up to help.