Everything was going Matt Carroll’s way on April 12, 2008. Fresh off an All-Ivy junior season in midfield for the Dartmouth men’s soccer team, he had returned to campus to enjoy the spring season with his team after a productive internship in New York City.
In one split second, it all changed.
That day, he was playing in the final 10 minutes of a game at New Hampshire when a UNH defender turned and fired the ball in an attempt to clear it. At close range, Carroll tried to duck but the ball hit him square in the right temple, sending him to the ground. Known for his toughness, it was little surprise that he got up and finished the game.
But those 10 minutes – and the months leading up to them – would soon become a blur for Carroll.
“I came off the field and saw [teammate] Daniel Keat and, so he tells me, I was asking him ‘What season is it? Where are we? Who are we playing?” said Carroll.
Head coach Jeff Cook recalls the moment as well: “He was asking me where we were and he was very disoriented. It was frightening and disturbing to have someone you know so well standing there healthy physically, but unable to remember one moment to the next.”
Carroll has no recollection of the events himself. UNH athletic trainers cleared Carroll to make the trip back to Hanover and Cook accompanied him during a night’s stay at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. Wracked with memory loss and blinding headaches, Carroll spent the next week and a half at Dartmouth’s infirmary, Dick’s House, while doctors kept a close watch over him. His coaches and teammates were concerned as well, and Cook recalls the team making constant visits, since Carroll would forget they had been there as soon as they left.
Following the stay at Dick’s House, he took a few days at home in North Andover, Mass., before returning to school. He only lasted two days before the headaches became too much and he went back home for another two-week period. Despite his pain, amnesia and four weeks of missed classes, Carroll chose to return to Dartmouth to finish out the term.
“At first I wanted to just take incompletes,” admitted Carroll. “But after talking to Professor Dave Kang [a Dartmouth volunteer coach] and my other two professors, I decided to try. They were all extremely helpful and kind to me and gave me until the last possible minute to get my work done.”
It was no walk in the park for the government major, who had to study for exams on material he could not remember learning. “The first couple of weeks were difficult,” said Carroll. “I used a lot of notecards and things to study but it was just hard getting over it all.” The efforts paid off, however, keeping him on track academically and on pace to
graduate with his class.
* * *
Diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, Carroll also had to make a critical decision about his soccer career.
“At an appointment in the spring, my doctor told us that he didn’t know of any doctor, including himself, that would allow me to play again under his authority,” he explained.
There were significant risk factors for severe brain damage should he take another impact to the head. His parents did not recommend a return to the field but allowed the 21-year-old to make his own decision, as did Cook. Given the severity of his accident and other concussions in the past, Carroll decided to give up the game.
Hanging up the cleats in the spring might have been a lot easier for the senior co-captain at that time than it is now. Even with the recurring light sensitivity, headaches and memory loss – he’s a Giants fan who can’t remember their Super Bowl victory – he longs to be back on the field with his teammates. The five-foot-seven fireplug had played in all but one game for Dartmouth in his first three seasons, participating in 52 matches with 33 starts.
Though he has been relegated to the sidelines, Carroll is as valuable to the Big Green now as he was on the field. As a player-coach, Carroll serves as an intuitive link between the coaching staff and the Dartmouth players. He attends every practice, game and team event, biding his time working with the goalkeepers, setting up drills at practice and even giving tips to Coach Cook.
“Coach will call me over during the game to ask me how I think things are going and if I see anything different or if we should make any changes,” said Carroll. “But I get pretty animated on the sideline so most of the time he is also telling me to keep my cool.”
For Carroll, it’s an opportunity to stay involved with his team while giving back to a program and coach that have done so much for him. He cites Cook among one of his greatest teachers and supporters throughout his recovery.
Cook feels fortunate to still have “Coach Carroll” on the sidelines and in the locker room with his team. “He’s a buzz of energy, so much personality and so much life,” said Cook. “It’s a reminder to all of us how special it is to compete in intercollegiate athletics and be part of a team. He has lost the playing side but has held onto the team aspect and done a brilliant job of being a captain and leader.”
One of the most popular players on the team and around campus, Carroll’s efforts are not lost on his teammates either. “Matt would never admit it but it has got to be extremely hard for him to sit on the side and watch,” said roommate and co-captain Sean Milligan ’09. “His attitude and participation have been remarkable, but I honestly didn’t expect anything less because that’s just the type of person he is.”
As the Big Green hunts for an Ivy Championship and NCAA Tournament bid, the outcome of this season is as important to Carroll as it is to any of the Dartmouth players. “I remember as a freshman I didn’t really understand the seniors being so desperate to win, but now I feel that sense of urgency,” said Carroll. “The way we are playing though and with everyone having fun ... I think everything’s going to be all right.”
He is just five months removed from the head trauma that left him in a hospital bed. Back with his team and on track to earn an Ivy League degree, it looks like everything’s going to be more than just all right for Matt Carroll.