It was a crippling pain that sent Amber Brown to the darkness of her bedroom.
It happened on an inconspicuous play during volleyball practice: a teammate spiked the ball, striking Brown in the back of the head.
This was her sixth documented concussion.
The first concussion came at age six while on the ski hill. She also suffered concussions playing hockey, in a car accident, on the basketball court, and one playing a game called garbage ball.
The problem was serious enough that she saw a Calgary Flames’ team doctor who specialized in concussion. He advised her to give up contact sports.
Eventually she did, winding up on the volleyball court, both indoor and beach.
Through high school, Brown played at the indoor club level in Calgary, making a 90-minute trip from Three Hills to practice, and then returning home.
She came to Trinity Western University in 2008 and after her first couple of seasons, right when most players begin taking on a bigger role, the injury woes began.
Brown missed the 2010/11 season because of a dislocated kneecap and a torn MCL (medial collateral ligament) and suffered the concussion the following season.
She felt fine for a couple of days and kept practising, until headaches forced her off the court.
Brown began skipping class, spending time in the darkness of her bedroom, either curled up in a ball on the bed, or reading scriptures from her Bible.
“It was so frustrating, it was so weird,” Brown said.
“I could barely even go to school; I wouldn’t go to practices, so you don’t see your teammates, you don’t feel like you are part of the team.
“I just laid there.”
“I had a headache for five straight months and ringing in my ears every time I went to bed and when I woke up,” she said.
At one point, doctors told her she may never play again.
Brown remembers sitting in her car and crying upon hearing that news.
“It wasn’t a very good time in my life,” she admitted. “I was quite depressed, sad.
“After the last concussion, they said I developed post-concussion syndrome, so basically there are mental side effects and psychological and physical.”
Brown used her faith to get through the difficult times and also threw herself into her studies.
“My first two years, I like to say I majored in volleyball and in my second two, it was school,” she said with a laugh.
“So I decided that I wanted to help people my age get better at the sport I love.”
Brown went to work with a good friend, Maddy MacDonald, and the pair schemed ideas on how to make training in Vancouver better for elite beach volleyball players.
So Brown founded WestCoast Beach Volleyball as a way to help elite level players and as a way to make an impact on others.
It opened last year with 28 players — from either the college, university or just-graduated ranks — who would practice twice a week under the guidance of five coaches.
The 22-year-old Brown served as a coach/manager.
All the while she was doing this, Brown continued her rehabilitation.
She began working with Dan Bos, an Abbotsford sports physiotherapist.
Bos focused on strengthening the neck.
He found the problems stemmed from the alignment in her body, which was causing stress on her nervous system.
“When you stress the nervous system, it is like you are putting a vice grip on the brain and the spinal cord,” he explained.
“It is very difficult for the brain to function when it is being squeezed so you see things like headaches or trouble with memory or confusion or they are feeling lethargic, no energy.
“If there is a squeeze on the brain, that usually means the blood flow can’t filter out; it is getting trapped in there.
“That is why we see a lot of athletes, that when they exercise, their symptoms will get worse.”
The key is to fix the structural problems, to release the pressure so that the blood flow can filter out and the pressure is alleviated.
“The trick is to strengthen the neck to the point that it can handle stress,” Bos said.
“If you don’t strengthen a neck in a concussion patient, it is like they are a bobble-head doll and the brain goes through a lot of torquing and twisting activity inside the skull.”
While there was little progress at first, after three or four weeks, Brown began noticing a difference.
The headaches began to decrease in frequency and last May, she was cleared to play.
Brown works vigorously to strengthen her neck and still sees Bos once a month.
She still gets the occasional headache or ringing in her ears. But nothing like it was before.
She played in a pair of beach volleyball tournaments in Germany over the summer and had an offer to train with the Canadian beach national team this past year. That would have required her to move to Toronto and not only put her studies on hold, but also sacrifice her final season with the Spartans.
She returned to Langley, helping TWU win bronze at the national championships earlier this month.
“(Amber) is a spark plug,” said Spartans coach Ryan Hofer.
“She brings energy, great leadership, control and confidence to the floor.”
She will graduate this spring with a degree in business and will stay in Vancouver through the summer.
Brown is organizing a pro beach volleyball tournament for August — Beach 4 A Cause — where the competitors will chose a charity or cause of their liking and will split the prize money with whomever they select.
This is being organized through a directed studies course she is taking.
After this summer, Brown will likely head to Toronto and try out for the beach volleyball national team.
That doesn’t mean she will abandon her new business, which she hopes to also expand to Alberta.
“I just want to use beach volleyball as a ministry to give God glory and just give back because that is what it is about,” she said.
“It is more about the people than it is even about the game.”