By Kim Constantinesco
By all accounts, Kevin Saum shouldn’t be alive right now. That statement may sound dramatic, but it’s every bit true.
The 26-year-old from Long Valley, New Jersey was leveled with back-to-back concussions on the football field as a high school senior. His brain swelled so rapidly that he stopped breathing on the sideline and a helicopter had to quickly transport him to an operating room — a place most victims of second impact syndrome unfortunately don’t even make it to. That’s because the condition has a 50% fatality rate. Nearly every single person who does make it through is mentally handicapped for the rest of his or her life.
Saum is one of the lucky few walking and talking survivors of second impact syndrome, a rare phenomenon in which a second concussion occurs before the first one is properly healed. Most cases occur in young athletes because their brains are still developing and more vulnerable to trauma.
After his chilling accident, Saum was told by doctors he could never set foot on a football field again. At the time, it was devastating news for the talented college-bound linebacker and fullback. But, a decade later, Saum has taken that ghastly blow and turned it into something positive.
He’s the host of the Heads ‘N Tales Podcast, a two-year-old show filled with inspiring stories of athletes who have persevered, coming back from injury or illness to play their sport again, or who have found a new kind of success after their athletic careers are over. Saum also makes it a point to share the latest news and views in sports health and safety.
“I want my podcast to serve as a road map for success, to see how other people have overcome losing their identity as an athlete, whether it’s temporary or permanent,” Saum said. “I want to be a resource for athletes; to make those tough times easier for them because I know how hard it is.”
Hit After Hit
Although Saum played all the major sports while growing up, football was his go-to in high school. Of course, it’s a gladiator sport, one where players pride themselves on taking hits and playing through the pain. Saum says that’s likely what led to the severity of his injury.
“I think it had do with the culture of toughness in sports, and playing through injuries,” Saum said. “That stuff is so glorified in the media.”
During his freshman year of high school, Saum broke his collarbone. After hearing war stories of legendary high school players who came before him like “one player who won the 2001 state championship with a broken collarbone,” Saum felt like sitting out would be the weak thing to do.
Down the road, Saum learned the truth.
“That player broke his collarbone earlier in the season, but by the time he played in the state championship, it was already healed,” he said.
Still, he carried the “play through it” mentality with him throughout his high school career.
“I thought toughness was playing injured, and still being the biggest, strongest, fastest guy out there,” he said.
It was fall of his senior year and he separated his shoulder on the very field he broke his collarbone on. The first thing that came to his mind was, “I’m never coming off this field unless I’m on a stretcher.” So he continued to play, but tried not to hit with that shoulder. Ultimately, his head took on the task. That’s when he suffered his first concussion. He finished the game and didn’t experience any symptoms immediately after. However, the next day, the team was running sprints and he felt like his brain was bouncing around inside his head.
“It was the most excruciating headache I’d ever had,” Saum recalled. “The thing that made it uncommon was it never went away. All throughout the next week, I still had this severe headache and I was avoiding contact in practice.”
He didn’t tell anyone his head was hurting. Exactly one week after the initial concussion, he popped four Advil and suited up again. A couple of early hits to the head led to blurred vision. A few plays later, he scored a touchdown. On the next offensive series, he ran the ball and a defender wrapped up his legs while another defender came in at his head. It was a double wallop to the head caused by the direct hit from the defender and subsequently, Saum’s helmet slamming to the turf.
“I thought it was a late hit, so I stood up really quick to see why the ref didn’t throw a flag and when I stood up, I couldn’t feel my legs. That’s when I got really scared,” Saum said.
He went back to the huddle, but didn’t really understand what was going on when the play was called. A teammate helped him to the sideline and as Suzanne Barba, the team’s head athletic trainer, checked him out, all he could say was, “My brain hurts. I can’t feel my legs.”
Barba noticed he had a gaze in his eye and it was slanted toward the right. Thanks to being an experienced EMT, she recognized that was a symptom of a brain bleed, so she called for a helicopter.
“Once she did that, I had a grand mal seizure and stopped breathing,” Saum said. “She said she didn’t think I was going to make it.”
They transported him via ambulance to another field, where the helicopter could land more easily.
“Suzanne went in the ambulance with me and was breathing for me with a bag valve mask until I snapped out of it,” Saum said.
By the time the helicopter arrived, he was was cognitively “with it,” but his head still hurt. Once they got to the hospital, doctors couldn’t believe his level of awareness after all that had happened.
Brain scans told the true story, however. They revealed a subdural and subarachnoid hemotoma. Due to the swelling, he had a mid-line shift in his brain and had to be quickly operated on to relieve the pressure. So, he had a craniotomy, which involves drilling a hole in the skull. At the time, medical professions believed he had a 50% chance of making it through the night.
Walking A Different Path
Surgery went according to plan. However, an unexpected complication arose when the bone that covered the hole in Saum’s skull became infected. He woke up one day with the side of his head so swollen that doctors had to go back in and remove the bone. To this day, he still has a hole in his skull.
Remarkably, he was back in school six weeks after the life-threatening injury. By spring, he was out on the baseball diamond with full clearance from his doctors.
“That was a bright spot that helped distract me from the fact that I wasn’t going to play football ever again,” Saum said.
He went on to graduate with honors from Rutgers University, earning a degree in sport management, but struggled with depression for the four years he was there.
“It was rooted in trying to find my identity outside of football because that’s all I knew,” he said. “I wasn’t an athlete anymore. Seeing athletes walk around campus with all their gear, that’s what I pictured for myself. I felt like I had kind of failed in a way.”
To cope, Saum turned to CrossFit, a great physical outlet for him. He also turned his attention toward his favorite player of all-time, Tim Tebow.
“I really looked up to him, and loved how everyone doubted him and he would always prove them wrong,” Saum said. “He reminded me why I loved football…I probably watched the Everything in Between documentary 100 times. His peak of success was at some of my lowest points, so I looked to him for inspiration.”
Saum actually interned for the New York Jets, and had the opportunity to throw a few passes with Tebow before practice one day.
Discovering other ways to enjoy life and immersing himself into the sports world in a different capacity helped Saum transition out of football. In fact, after he finished at Rutgers, he went on to earn a Masters degree from Georgetown’s Sports Industry Management program. He even wrote his thesis on how to improve health and safety in the NFL.
Flipping The Coin
Saum’s Heads ‘N Tales podcast is all about shining a different kind of light on sports and athletes; a more vulnerable one, if you will.
“I started the podcast because I felt like there was never an outlet for athletes who have season-ending injuries or career-ending injuries. They’re kind of like the black sheep of the team,” Saum said. “I wanted to create an outlet for athletes to know they’re not alone in the feelings they have and so they can see how other athletes have coped. They can also consider finding a new purpose. In learning from other people, it’s honestly a way to heal myself, too.”
Past episodes have included military veterans who have lost limbs, health professionals with medical advice, and even former UCONN quarterback Casey Cochran, who retired from the game before making it to the NFL due to sustaining 13 concussions.
The message Saum wants to send to his listeners is clear.
“When you get thrown a curve ball and the thing you’ve dedicated your entire life to is taken away, my advice is to embrace those negative feelings. They’re normal,” Saum said. “Embrace the grieving process. Know that the sport comes to an end for everyone. It’s more about what you’re going to do now and finding a new purpose. You can still take what you learn from your sport and transfer those skills to other areas of your life.”
And those who take that path are about as tough as they come.