Aileen Griffin recalls the date like a birthday or anniversary: Sept. 5, 2013, a Thursday.
Griffin, then a junior at Benet, was running in volleyball practice when her head caught a teammate’s shoulder as she bent down to touch the line.
A concussion was diagnosed, Griffin advised to take it easy over the weekend and gradually work her way back to volleyball when she was symptom-free for 24 hours.
She has not played since.
Her last match was the U-16 AAU national championship in the summer of 2013.
“Looking back, I guess I ended on a high note,” Griffin said, “but I never thought it would be the last full match I played.”
Concussions are often associated with collision sports like football, but girls in the high-velocity game of volleyball are hardly immune.
Former Benet player Lara Ontko had her collegiate career cut short because of recurring concussions; Brianne Riley, another Benet grad, wore a helmet and missed a good portion of her freshman year at Kansas concussion-related.
No two cases are identical, and multiple concussions may cause symptoms to linger. Griffin knows this all too well.
Griffin suffered her first concussion sophomore year, but returned after a week.
This time, symptoms continued. Sensitivity to noise at times kept her out of the gym to even watch practice. Griffin experienced difficulty concentrating, homework taking twice as long as normal. She had constant headaches and vertigo.
At state last year, Griffin wore sound-canceling headphones so she could sit on the bench and cheer on her friends and twin sister Dana.
“You feel so bad for her,” Benet coach Brad Baker said. “I just want her to do the normal things high school kids do. I’m not even talking about playing volleyball.”
Twice a week, Griffin goes for vestibular therapy at Athletico, doing ocular tracking and balancing activities.
Progressing forward, Griffin was cleared to return to light practice Super Bowl Sunday — but in a cruel twist on that same day she was hit on the same spot of the head by a volleyball while sitting on her club team’s bench. It set her back to square one; a few weeks ago at the Benet Invite a ball rattled her on the jaw during warmups, further provoking the symptoms.
“Her head is like a volleyball magnet,” said Bill Griffin, Aileen’s dad. “I’ve never seen a kid get whacked in the head like her. It’s one bad break after another.”
Through those trials, she’s learned the values of persistence and determination. She put even more effort into her school work, proving to herself and teachers she could overcome the disadvantage. She is her sister’s biggest cheerleader, even though it’s frustrating to see Dana excel while being stuck.
Still, she never considered turning her back on volleyball, which she started playing in the fifth grade.
“My love for the sport is unparalleled to anything else,” Griffin said. “I have such a great connection to all the girls.”
She’s still part of the team in body and spirit, if not on the floor. Griffin wears her uniform to matches, helps girls warm up and is introduced with the team. And she still holds out hope of a return, even for just a little bit.
“There is no guarantee, but I’ve been told it’s not impossible,” Griffin said. “I try to cling onto that as much as I can.”