CUMBERLAND — Sam Porter had plans to play soccer in college, maybe at the Division I level. His talent had attracted the attention of college coaches and merited invitations to recruitment camps.
All that changed 15 months ago, after the Greely High student suffered a concussion during a humanitarian effort in Central America.
When he returned home, Porter was confined to his bedroom during a 2½-month ordeal as he recuperated. A second concussion, then a third – both of which occurred while playing soccer last fall – convinced him to give up the sport.
“We were sitting at the kitchen table and he turned to me and said, ‘Mom, my soccer career is over,’” said his mother, Mary Porter. “(The concussions) forced him to deal with things in a grown-up way.”
“I can’t imagine how difficult a decision it was,” said his father, Jeff Porter. “It was a very responsible thing for an 18-year-old kid to do.”
Short- and long-term damage from concussions has been a growing concern from professional leagues to youth sports in the past decade. Earlier this year, the school board in Marshall, Texas – a state famous for its passion for football – voted to scrap tackle football in favor of flag football for its seventh-graders because of safety concerns.
Concussions more than doubled among high school athletes in the United States between 2005 and 2012, according to a study published by The American Journal of Sports Medicine. They account for nearly 15 percent of high school sports-related injuries. And high school athletes who have suffered a concussion are three to six times more likely to suffer another than those who haven’t.
Sam Porter traveled to Guatemala with friends during school vacation in February 2013 to volunteer at Safe Passage, an organization founded by Greely graduate Hanley Denning in 1999. What started out as a trip to help the children of Guatemala City ended up being a long and difficult convalescence from the effects of a concussion.
Safe Passage was started by Denning after she saw children working as scavengers at the Guatemala City garbage dump. Denning died in a car accident in 2007, but her dream continues.
“Kids at Safe Passage learn English-speaking skills so that they can have a better chance of being successful in life and overcoming their poverty,” Porter said. “They live in horrible conditions where gang fights are going on.”
Porter and his friends had a day off from Safe Passage when he suffered the concussion.
“We were walking around Antigua, Guatemala,” he said. “When I came out of lunch, I was talking to (a friend) and I wasn’t paying attention where I was going. They had a cement planter that jutted out from a wall. Being 6-foot-2, I ran right into it. I gave it a good whack.
“I didn’t know I suffered a concussion (at first). I came back to school and actually did pretty well in class, which is kind of amazing. But soon I started having headaches and realized something was up. I went to the doctor and was told I had a concussion.”
Porter had no idea what the next few months would bring. His ordeal was just beginning.
“For a month, I just lay in bed. There was nothing I could do. You’re supposed to eat and drink, but my stomach was upset. I was terrified so I would literally lay in bed in a dark room hours at a time. My parents would come home and wouldn’t talk to me because I had no energy. I was praying to God, ‘Please don’t let this be serious or life-threatening.’
“I knew with concussions you’re supposed to get better, but at the same time you don’t feel that way. It’s scary because you don’t know what’s going on.
“With a broken wrist, you know it’s six to eight weeks (to heal). With the head, you think you should be ready in four weeks. Four weeks goes by and you’re even worse. The whole time the room is spinning and people are blurry. My favorite time was night because it’s dark and everything is quiet.”
His world was confined to his bedroom. He lost touch with the outside world.
“I couldn’t talk to my friends because I had no energy,” he said.
“They had no idea what was going on with me and I had no idea what was going on with them.”
His friends visited him at home once when he started to feel better. Bailey Train, his best friend, came over to play card games and asked if he wanted to get outside. Porter remained cautious, looking for continued improvement every day.
“It was pretty tough, actually,” said teammate Alex McAdoo, who had accompanied Porter to Guatemala. “Sam is always so energetic with a smile on his face. He couldn’t go out much so we tried to be as supportive as much as we could to brighten his spirits.”
Porter finally returned to school in May. He had missed the entire third academic quarter and the start of the fourth. He had a lot of schoolwork to make up, but managed to make the honor roll. He also attempted to play baseball.
“Sam tried to work his way back on the baseball team,” said Derek Soule, the longtime Greely coach. “He just wasn’t there physically. It was difficult for him to focus on the ball.”
Porter still wasn’t out of the woods as the school year ended. “Even during the summer, I had concussion effects,” he said.
After passing impact testing administered by his school, Porter was cleared to play in August prior to the start of soccer season for his senior year. Maine has since passed a law requiring all schools to develop a policy for managing concussions. Athletes are tested at the beginning of each sports season to establish a baseline of their cognitive and motor skills. If a concussion is diagnosed, the student cannot return to competition until he or she can return to those baseline performances.
Porter had been scheduled to attend a soccer recruitment camp in April 2013 at Loyola Marymount in California and another one at Bryant University in Rhode Island, but didn’t feel well enough. Still, he had hopes of playing soccer at the Division II or III level.
Then he suffered another concussion. It occurred in the Rangers’ second game last fall, against Kennebunk. Porter went to head the ball in the goal and was punched in the head by the goalie trying to make a save.
Porter was cleared to return to action a couple of weeks later. Then, the day before Greely’s opening playoff game, he collided heads with a teammate in practice.
“Everything went white and I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “I immediately knew my soccer career was over. I wanted to cry, but I knew I couldn’t because I was a captain and had to be strong.”
Porter remembered what his doctor had told him about sustaining multiple concussions.
“Once you get three concussions, (with) the fourth concussion you could possibly have brain trauma for the rest of your life,” Porter said.
“That’s why I decided to quit. I still have a life ahead of me and I want to focus on that.”
Unable to play in the playoffs, Porter became the inspirational leader for the Rangers.
“Sam took on a new role,” his mother said. “He was sort of an extra player on the sideline and he embraced that role.”
With Porter cheering and urging on his teammates, the Rangers caught fire in the playoffs. Ben Kropp, a teammate, started the slogan “Win It For Porter,” which became a popular hashtag on Twitter. Greely captured the Class B state title.
“It was gut-wrenching watching Sam on the sideline,” Soule said. “He was an all-state soccer player who couldn’t play. But at the same time, it was inspiring. He was out there really encouraging his teammates.”
BIG BOOST FOR THE TEAM
Last December, Porter was given a clean bill of health. This spring, he has returned to the Greely baseball team. Porter plays third base (“The best defensive third baseman I’ve coached,” Soule said), serves occasionally as a relief pitcher and bats second for the Rangers.
“Physically, he’s a lot stronger,” Soule said. “He’s swinging the bat with a lot more confidence. His pitching velocity is back along with his breaking ball. Sam is a vocal leader and his presence on the field has given the team a big boost,” he said.
Porter said he feels fine now. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about the concussions.
“I’m a little apprehensive when I’m batting sometimes. I tagged someone out on the head and I was scared because I don’t want someone else to get a concussion. I know what it’s like to go through one and I immediately apologized. I think I freaked him out for apologizing.”
Porter said his personality has changed because of the concussions.
“I just think I’m a nicer person,” he said. “I’m more open-hearted.
“I used to think I was the top dog. I was going to get a college scholarship to play soccer. I might have been a little arrogant. There’s more to life than sports. All people have challenges in life. They have to go through the good and the bad. I’m no different.
“When I walk through the school’s hallways, I realize someone could be having a tough day. No one could tell I was messed up because outwardly I looked OK.”
Porter has been accepted at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where he said he hopes to study actuarial science.
Before that, he and his classmates who went to Guatemala are in the process of raising money for a memorial to Hanley Denning as part of their senior project.
“We’re making a bench in her memory,” Porter said. It will be placed on the Greely campus.
“We’re recognizing that she started an amazing foundation down there.”
Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at: