(Editor’s note: Today, we begin a month long look at concussions in sports and how they are affecting athletes.)
The temperature was approximately 43 degrees, with wind gusts whipping the normally lazy flags at the University of Virginia’s Davenport Field. Afton Mountain loomed far in the background, and the sun played hide-and-seek among the clouds on this brisk afternoon. There certainly had been more comfortable conditions for playing baseball.
The overcast afternoon paled, though, in comparison to the dark clouds forming in the back of Matt Dauby’s mind. A third baseman on the Hokies’ baseball squad, he recognized the all-too-familiar signs and he desperately hoped that no UVA batter would lace one to him at his third base spot.
Unfortunately, a sharply hit grounder, one off the bat of Nate Irving, came right toward him with two outs and runners on base in the bottom of the seventh inning. The fear practically blinded him. He nearly never saw the ball, as it skipped into left field. The go-ahead run raced home, and the Hokies wound up losing 7-4 to the then-No. 1-ranked Cavaliers.
Dauby, charged with an error on the play, wanted to hide. He was a finely tuned athlete, a starter in the ACC. But the panic was just paralyzing – and embarrassing.
He and his teammates got on the bus. He sat in his seat and retreated into his own secluded world, which had turned into a dark place. “I knew something was wrong and that I had to get help,” Dauby said.
The team arrived back on campus at 9:30 that evening. Dauby told his teammates that he was going to go out with a girl.
He instead hopped in his car and drove nine straight hours to his hometown of Carmel, Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis. He wasn’t sure if he would return.
Depression. Anxiety disorders. Panic attacks. Mental illness. Most Americans shrug off these terms, but the statistics show a burgeoning problem. According to the National Network of Depression Centers, one in five Americans will be impacted by mental illnesses during their lifetimes and as many Americans die from suicide as from breast cancer.
Mental illnesses do not discriminate, as many high-profile stories attest. Examples include Junior Seau, a former San Diego Chargers linebacker, and Mike Flanagan, a former pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles. Both ended their lives, though for differing reasons.
Dauby’s struggles with panic attacks, anxiety and depression originated because of concussions. He suffered three in high school, including two while playing basketball.
The Mayo Clinic defines post-concussion syndrome as a “complex disorder in which various symptoms – such as headaches and dizziness – last for weeks and sometimes months after the injury that caused the concussion.” The symptoms occur usually within the first seven to 10 days and go away within three months, but they can persist for longer.
Matt Dauby was struggling physically and academically, as the cumulative effect of the blows kept him from focusing. His doctors kept him from playing baseball his sophomore season and basketball during his junior year.
Shortly after the diagnosis, Steve Dauby took his son to see Dr. Micky Collins, an internationally renowned expert in sports-related concussions based at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, on three or four different occasions. Collins agreed with the diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome, but decided to clear Dauby to play baseball in the spring of his junior year – provided he took his medication daily.
The symptoms subsided somewhat, as Matt returned to the baseball field. He ultimately became a Division I prospect, receiving offers from most of the schools in Indiana and several outside of the state.
The Virginia Tech staff, led by Pete Hughes at the time, saw him at a baseball tournament in Atlanta. They liked what they saw and invited him for an official visit.
He committed after receiving a scholarship offer. Everything went well for Dauby during his freshman season in 2013. He played in 39 games, starting 21 of them, and he made good grades. Things were looking upward.
But the side effects returned.
Steve Dauby noticed when he traveled to LSU to watch Matt and the Hokies play. He saw his son at the team hotel before the game and he almost told Virginia Tech coach Pat Mason, who had taken over for Hughes, not to play Matt. During warm-ups, Matt locked himself in the dugout bathroom and started crying. He told no one on the team.
“But 30 minutes from one of the coolest opportunities of my baseball career, I was crying my eyes out, wondering what was wrong with me and praying that the feelings I were having would be gone the next day, just like I did every night.”
Dauby pulled himself together enough to play in the game. He committed two errors.
The stress of being a shortstop in the ACC combined with the stress of taking high-level accounting classes only made the situation worse. He had tried a new medication, but that, too, wasn’t helping.
He still tried to play and there were pockets of excellence. He notched two doubles and two runs against Delaware and three hits and a homer against UMass Lowell. He had two hits against VCU.
But his struggle with anxiety and panic attacks became apparent at the start of ACC play. He played all three games of the Clemson series, but Mason noticed something was amiss.
Dauby did not play the first two games of that UVA series, but Mason inserted him into the starting lineup for the finale. Steve Dauby watched that game on television and knew exactly what was transpiring.
After the game ended, he called his son.
“That was the last straw,” Steve said. “I told him, ‘We’re done. You need to come home.’”
Matt Dauby methodically drove through the night after that UVA game. He was driving home in hopes of driving toward a better future.
He arrived in Carmel shortly before dawn. His parents immediately called Mason and left a message. Mason returned the message a couple of hours later, expressing relief that Dauby was at home, offering support and resolutely assuring them that Dauby’s place within the Virginia Tech baseball program would not change.
During that week in Carmel, nearly every one of his teammates called or sent a text message. Mason had informed the team that Dauby needed to step away from baseball for a while to take care of some personal matters, but he never got into specifics. When asked, he told people that Dauby was out with a hamstring injury, unapologetically lying to protect Dauby’s privacy.
Dauby spent the rest of that spring going to classes, studying and visiting regularly with Bennett, who became his “Blacksburg” therapist. He worked on mental exercises and meditation, attempting to train himself to think differently.
In fact, 2014 marked the longest year of his life. He wasn’t sure if he would ever see the baseball diamond again.
The results of months of therapy started to pay off in the fall. Dauby returned to campus and met periodically with Bennett. He continued with his relaxation techniques and mental exercises. He even consulted with Horn on occasion. He started feeling better and his demeanor reflected that, as he became a more positive person. He focused on his academics, and his grades improved.
There remained one question to answer, as he traversed this return path toward happiness – what to do about baseball?
He always wanted to come back. He liked the sport, obviously, but like most athletes at any level, he enjoyed the daily interaction with his teammates and missed that just as much. As he improved mentally, he decided to ask Mason if he could re-join the Tech team.
Dauby, though, struggled on the field in the fall of 2014. Missing the majority of the Hokies’ season the previous spring and subsequent summer league action kept him from sharpening his skills.
He and Mason had a frank conversation after the fall season ended, and Mason offered to make him a part of the coaching staff just to keep him around the team and the game.
Dauby thought about Mason’s offer. He thought about transferring and going to a smaller school, one with fewer distractions and less pressure. But he stuck it out and kept grinding, working to get back to the player he once was. He only played in 18 games as a junior in 2015, but he felt himself turning a corner – as a player, but more importantly, with his life.
His comeback took a huge step forward this past season, as Dauby earned the starting job at second base and started 59 of the Hokies’ 61 games. He hit .255, with three homers and 17 RBI.
The Virginia Tech baseball team opened fall practice on September 16 and Dauby took to the field feeling better than he had in years. He returns for his fifth season – the NCAA granted a medical hardship waiver because of his bout with post-concussion syndrome.
Follow-up visits to doctors have been positive. They have no concerns.
Matt Dauby grows more comfortable every day. He is excited about the upcoming season and his team – one that he says possesses a lot of the similarities of the 2013 NCAA regional squad. He also gets excited when talking about graduating next May with his degrees in accounting and marketing.
More importantly, he’s excited about sharing his story in hopes of making a difference in someone’s life.