Mikaela Kraus was just moving into the heart of the recruiting phase of her prep soccer career when she suffered an unsettling injury scare.
Early in her sophomore season at Cathedral Catholic in San Diego, Kraus went after a 50-50 ball in the air with the sort of routine aggressive fearlessness that always piques the interest of Division I coaches.
This time, though, something went awry. When Kraus went airborne her forehead collided not with the ball, but with the onrushing forehead of an opposing player.
Afterward, Kraus felt as if she treated the injury with proper due diligence by the time she returned to the pitch weeks later. Yet when a similar play resulted in a hard crash to the turf and a relapse of Kraus' groggy symptoms, the future University of Colorado recruit understood the need to recover from concussion No. 2 with greater caution.
It is a career sequence well in Kraus' past, yet one that made an experiment conducted by CU and its Division I soccer peers in Colorado this past spring a little more personal.
"That definitely was a bit of a shock," Kraus said. "I think with the first one, I didn't know how big a deal a concussion is. I think I took a month off, but I didn't really research it or study what had happened or anything like that. The second time it happened I realized I have to be careful and understand what's happening and what can happen in the long run.
"I definitely recovered from the second one differently. I took a lot more mental tests and baseline tests. I definitely did the second one way differently and took a lot more precautions."
With the long-term impact of head injuries the center of ever-increasing conversation among all sports, CU soccer coach Danny Sanchez is a pioneer of sorts regarding the issue in his sport.
Prior to his time at CU, Sanchez gradually eliminated headers off long-range kicks and goalie punts during his practices while leading the program at the University of Wyoming. Sanchez has continued that practice through his first four seasons in Boulder.
This spring, Sanchez wanted to take an additional step in curbing young soccer players' exposure to possible head injuries. After analyzing a game last fall between the Buffaloes and the University of Denver, it was determined that 94 percent of the 40 goal kicks taken by the two sides ended in headers near, and often past, midfield. Not only are players' foreheads colliding with a ball that has gathered momentum through 60 to 70 yards in the air, but each instance creates the sort of mid-air free-for-all that led to Kraus' first head-on-head concussion years ago.
Enlisting help from the programs at DU, Colorado College, Northern Colorado and Air Force, each one of the Buffs' spring games were played under modified rules that eliminated clearing kicks and punts by the goalies. Moreover, after each game players from both sides were asked to fill out an anonymous survey detailing their thoughts and reactions to the modified rules.
"How I look at it is, if you can minimize the impact throughout the year and it doesn't really affect the game, why wouldn't you do it?" Sanchez said. "I think, big picture, you don't really change the game. But if you look at 20 games versus a 100 practices, that's really a lot more of what you do besides competitions. I think a lot of people are interested and a lot of coaches are supportive because they deal with it. That's the way it's going. Why can't the University of Colorado be out on the forefront?"
Like football, the big-picture impact of head injuries in soccer has gained a bigger spotlight in recent years.
A decade ago Taylor Twellman was one of the brightest stars of American soccer, but his career began an abrupt fade after a concussion late in the 2008 Major League Soccer season that ultimately ended in an early retirement. Current Colorado Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni battled post-concussion issues during the latter stages of his playing career, and at the youth level the American Youth Soccer Organization outlawed all headers for leagues featuring 13-year old players and younger more than a year ago.
It also is becoming apparent female soccer players are at greater risk for head injuries than their male counterparts. In a study conducted by professors at CU-Denver and published last year in JAMA Pediatrics, female high school soccer players incurred headers at a rate of 4.5 per 10,000 exposures, versus 2.78 for males.
Yet that same study highlighted how soccer concussions occur more frequently via the sort of head-to-head trauma suffered six years ago by Kraus than on the long-range headers banned during CU's spring games. In that light, the data from the postgame surveys compiled by CU clinical professor Kathryn Hardin hardly was surprising or revelatory. For instance, players with a history of concussions proved more cognizant of the injury's long-term affects, while the players generally were split on whether they liked or disliked the modified spring rules.
However, the point of the experiment was less about pioneering a rules change that isn't going to happen than highlighting the myriad ways teams can limit their players' exposure to potential head injuries outside the arena of competition.
In that regard, Sanchez considers the experiment a success.
"It was kind of what we thought it would be because coaches look at the big picture," Sanchez said. "The big-picture on the Colorado side is that there is a way to minimize exposure. The game is the game. But at our level you can limit the exposure in training and spring games. Hopefully ideas like that will continue to trickle down to the youth level."