By Steve Sears
30-year-old Kevin Saum could’ve let the depression, the sadness, keep him down, but he didn’t. Instead, he found a way to give back, therefore enabling his life and the lives of others to move forward in inspiration.
“I like that you said TRANSITION, because unfortunately that is how most athletes view the end of their careers,” says Saum with emphasis. “I am a firm believer that they only way to get beyond the identity loss and depression is through action. Athletes need to stop looking at retirement as a transition and need to start looking at it as a transformation.”
Saum credits the above mindset to Vince Ruiz, who was a guest on Saum’s Hands ‘N Tales podcast (WHY IT’S A TRANSFORMATION, NOT A TRANSITION TO LIFE AFTER SPORTS, headsntales.org/blog/153). Saum started Heads ‘N Tales, a companion blog and podcast (but in truth so much more) after graduating from Georgetown with a master’s degree in sports industry management with hopes of raising concussion awareness and improving sports safety. “I personally got beyond it by starting the podcast and seeking answers and advice from people who have found success after retirement or are experts on the subject (taking action).”
The ”it” is the significant backstory to this, and therein lies a lesson as well. On October 5, 2007, Saum suffered a traumatic brain injury called Second Impact Syndrome (SIS) during a West Morris Central High School football game. After experiencing severe headaches and not fully recovering from an initial concussion, Saum hid his symptoms from his coaches and the school’s athletic trainer and again ventured out onto the playing field to engage the game he loved. After a second impact and collapsing into a grand mal seizure on the field in full view of the frightened spectators, Saum was air lifted to the hospital. While there, he received an emergency craniotomy to relieve the pressure on his brain, which was due to swelling from the SIS and a subdural hematoma, when blood collects between the tissue layers surrounding the brain. In addition, he also suffered an infection and an allergic reaction post-hospitalization.
Per the Heads ‘N Tales website, “SIS has a 50% mortality rate and nearly 100% morbidity rate,” but Saum is fortunate to have survived with full cognitive and physical abilities and be in good health. “I have interviewed a couple of other athletes who suffered the same injury and are also doing well. We are the minority in that regard.” Although it rendered him unable any longer to play football, Saum flipped the coin from loss and melancholy to positivity. He explains. “My intro to each podcast states, ‘You can’t always control what happens to you in sports or in life, but you can always control your response, this is my response after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a high school football game and I hope it leaves you feeling both inspired and informed.’”
It has. There are 156 episodes still (and will always be) available on Saum’s website and iTunes. Some of the interviewee player names may sound familiar: Shawn Springs, Kevin Turley, Eric LeGrand, just to name a few. And the platform is not limited to just athletes. Saum and his team have it all covered. “All of these episodes,” he says, “are athletes or sports health experts sharing their stories of perseverance or knowledge that I believe are timeless. With many athletes being forced to retire due to COVID-19, their experience is very similar to those who experience career ending injuries like mine. There are 156 examples on my website of how to persevere when life throws you a curve ball.”
Saum says the making of the podcasts was challenging, especially early on. “There was a huge learning curve to developing the podcast, but learning a new skill is the best medicine/catalyst for transformation! I cringe listening to my first 20-30 interviews, but it is awesome to hear the transformation in my production, questions and listening skills from episode 1 to episode 156.”
Saum fully realizes his good fortune. “Amazingly I have no noticeable residual side effects from my injury today and I am extremely grateful for that, as most kids who suffer my injury are not as lucky.”