Sitting on a train, traveling across the country, Chris Rolfe felt the physical and emotional symptoms of more than half a year slowly dim. His stress took a small reprieve and hid away in some corner of himself. He recalls looking out the window and simply enjoying his surroundings and the company of strangers around him. In that moment, he relished the chance of just being Chris.
Just being Chris was unfamiliar territory for the Flyer soccer star turned pro. Since April 2016, Rolfe has struggled to come to terms with a debilitating concussion that effectively changed the course of his soccer career.
His journey has taken him through frustration, denial and anger, and now acceptance has slowly found its way to him.
“There was this voice inside of me — probably the same one that turned me into the soccer player that I am — that said, ‘Get over it. Let’s go. What’s happened has happened and you can’t control any of that now, so let’s move forward, let’s make it better, and let’s do the best that we can do and make the most of what you’re given in the future,’” Rolfe said.
Although that future is uncertain, Rolfe’s determination is not.
Since he was 7, soccer has been Rolfe’s world. A Kettering, Ohio, native, he went to Kettering Fairmont High School where, in only three years, he set the goal-scoring record.
He played at the University of Dayton from 2001 to 2004, where he set the school record for career assists (25) and was named an NSCAA All-American. In 2010 he was inducted into the Ohio Soccer Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in college.
Rolfe was drafted his senior year in the third round of the 2005 MLS SuperDraft by Chicago Fire and scored 30 goals in his first four seasons with the club. He was the team’s leading scorer in 2005, 2008 and 2012 and was the league’s runner-up rookie of the year in 2005.
In 2014 he was traded to D.C. United, where he thrived and was the team’s leading scorer and MVP in 2015.
As many of his friends say, in 2016 Rolfe was probably in the best physical shape that he’d ever been in as a professional athlete.
The team’s general manager Dave Kasper released a statement in September 2015 saying, “His ability to create and score goals has been vital to the team, and he is among a group of important veteran leaders in the locker room.”
But during a rainy, wet Chicago day, his training, physicality and leadership skills would all be tested for the unforeseeable future.
During the 32nd minute of an April 2016 match against Chicago Fire, Rolfe was putting pressure on Fire player Rodrigo Ramos near midfield.
D.C. had been favored early in the game, but the opponent seemed amped up.
As Rolfe intensified his defensive pressure, Ramos inadvertently elbowed him in the nose. It was a rough hit, Rolfe admitted, but he remained in the game, the competitor that he is, never imagining the injury could be serious.
Then, during halftime, Rolfe started noticing differences in the light patterns on the field. And even though the ground started to feel like it was moving underneath him, he stayed on the field until he was subbed out in the 72nd minute due to obvious symptoms noticed by the D.C. staff.
When he got to the locker room, he knew something was wrong.
He wasn’t able to focus — as if in a fuzzy dream world.
Looking at the light was excruciating.
His head hurt.
After speaking with medical staff, Rolfe was diagnosed with a concussion and was out for the rest of the season.
In the months since, his symptoms have been constant companions: Headaches. Extreme light sensitivity. Unsteadiness.
He describes the effects in his left eye as “bolts of pain going through the back of my eye into my head and back into my temples.”
Days and months drag on.
“I noticed problems with everything I did,” Rolfe said, noting he had difficulty concentrating and found it hard to filter out external and peripheral stimuli and noise.
Rolfe said he initially didn’t realize the severity of his injury, having recovered from concussions in the past.
“I’m used to playing with pain,” Rolfe said. “We joke that the only day you feel great is the first day of preseason, and after that you’re hurt. So I’m used to dealing with that stuff.”
In 2006 he had two concussions five days apart, and in 2014 suffered a devastating arm injury. But this injury has been more long-lasting.
Rolfe said the symptoms were at their worst one week after the hit, after gradually increasing in severity over the first seven days. But it wasn’t until the initial symptoms began to subside in mid- to late summer 2016 that he realized he was in bad shape.
“I didn’t even realize how severe my symptoms were. There was a moment in June or July that it started to become a reality. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t leave the house. I would have to get a taxi, then keep my eyes closed in the backseat so I didn’t get sick when I got to where I was going,” he said.
In an emotional Washington Post article, he detailed going to the grocery store to buy an item but feeling overwhelmed by stimuli and struggling to find his product despite trips up and down the same aisle for several minutes.
As a professional athlete, Rolfe is a self-admitted overachiever and, although he was benched for the remainder of the 2016 season, he continued to work on the sidelines, going to practices, trying to work out and train. But in late September, Rolfe said he “hit a wall.”
Unlike past injuries, where training would help him get better, working out this time seemed only to exacerbate the symptoms.
“Whenever I tried to exercise, the symptoms would compound and become worse day by day,” Rolfe recalled. “If you try and strengthen your legs, you go to the gym, hit it hard and sure, your legs hurt, but you recover and get stronger. But it’s been the complete opposite with the brain and so it’s been counterintuitive to all of the rehab I’ve done for my career in the past.”
In November 2016, when D.C. United was knocked out of the playoffs, Rolfe decided he needed to get away.
He was tired of feeling bad. Tired of hurting. And tired of being stressed about recovery on an unknown timeline.
He made the decision to reset and booked himself a 22-day cross-country train trip — Chicago to San Francisco down to Los Angeles and back to Chicago.
There were stops in Denver; Aspen, Colorado; and Flagstaff, Arizona.
And in the last week of his trip, Rolfe began to feel normal — he didn’t think about the symptoms or the concussion and he was enjoying himself for the first time in eight months.
There were 10- to 12-mile hikes. For once, he said, he relented control of his surroundings and his symptoms seemed not to affect him as much.
“I had a train schedule, and I stuck to it. I let go of trying to have control of things for the most part and I just tried to enjoy being in that moment. I tried to enjoy the scenery and I enjoyed my meals with these random people who were sitting at the table with me in the dining car.
“I was not thinking about my head. Not worrying about what career was next. Not worrying if I was not going to play soccer ever again. Not worrying about what the fans thought about it or what my teammates thought.
“I was really able to get to the bare bottom of controlling my own life and letting go,” he said.
When the trip ended, the symptoms did return, but it didn’t matter as much because Rolfe had changed. And in that change, there has been personal growth and inspiration. His plans are simple: He says he wants to get his life back.
“It’s hard for me because I’m a goal setter and I like to know how to get from point A to point B. There have been plans, but I need to allow myself to be more fluid with what I do while I’m in rehab,” he said. “For me, it’s getting my life back, healing my head, returning to fitness and figuring out my soccer career.”
He notes that it’s also time for him to decide what comes next, since any athletic career has an expiration date. At 34, Rolfe acknowledges that even with a full recovery, he may only have a handful of years left in pro sports.
Although Rolfe kids when he says he doesn’t “have a lot of skills that translate to another occupation,” he has the traits that can make anyone successful.
“That’s the best thing about the competitive nature of what I’ve done and the team sport aspect of it,” he said. “I have a lot of great takeaways from what I’ve been doing.”
His determination is unquestionable. Always trying to improve, Rolfe has created what he calls “brain games.” Each morning, he recaps the day before: every detail, times he went places, people he was with, what they talked about, what he ate.
“I’m not sure what the science would say about that, but I believe it’s been beneficial,” he said. He also practices yoga and meditation along with physical therapy sessions.
While he wishes the injury never occurred, he finds goodness in everything that happens to him by acknowledging that the event has forced him to think about himself outside the soccer field. For now, he is officially on the 2017 D.C. United roster but cannot yet practice with the team.
His new journey may lead him to non-soccer options in the near future that would likely include work in financial planning and wealth management thanks to his new UD finance degree, which he received this May after putting his studies on hold in 2005.
“It’s forced me to take a look at who I am and what my identity is because, for 27 years now, I’ve been ‘Chris the soccer player,’ and if you want to go broader, ‘Chris the athlete,’” he said.
But ever the optimist, Rolfe is excited about his future, whatever that may be.
“It’s been great in that regard because I’ve now been forced to think deeper about who I am and the kind of person I want to be and what I now want to have define me,” he said.
And with a cautious but motivated smile, he added, “Now I have a chance to kind of dictate the next moniker to go along with who I am and what I’ll be known for going forward.”