Montclair State University women’s lacrosse attack Rhiannon Brown, one of the teams’ best-conditioned players, could not understand why preparing for 2019 was such a struggle. Brown was often out of breath during practices, even after completing a drill or two. Walking from one dorm building to another became difficult.
“It felt as if my lungs were collapsing,” Brown said.
Even so, Brown was convinced these symptoms were just the normal wear and tear of an athlete getting back into shape. This was until Brown felt a sharp pain in her shoulder during practice. It was not a muscle strain or a knot.
Athletic trainer Robert Lindenbaum sent Brown for medical tests and after about five hours of X-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans and blood work, Brown received her diagnosis. She had a pulmonary embolism, a life-threatening condition.
A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot gets lodged in an artery in the lung, blocking blood flow to part of the lung. Her doctor explained that the birth control pills she was taking at the time caused her body to form blood clots.
Brown would have to go on blood thinners to help break up the clots, which effectively ended her sophomore season because the medication could cause her to bruise. It also created a severe risk of internal bleeding.
Being away from the field due to a condition that was out of her control was devastating for Brown. She was coming off a freshman campaign in which she was an Honorable Mention All-New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) selection, and her sights were set on another successful season.
Some days were tougher than others.
“There were some days where I [questioned] why I was still here,” Brown said. “This is the sport that I love and I can’t even go out and play it, but I’m sitting here watching all of my friends do it. It came down to me keeping a positive mentality.”
While she could not contribute on the field, Brown had the support of her teammates, family and friends to help her through one of the roughest points in her life. In particular, there were three other players who helped Brown get through the year. All were out for the season with conditions atypical from the usual sprains, broken bones or torn ligaments athletes endure.
Along with Brown, junior midfielder Morgan Connon, junior midfielder Tristin Konen and sophomore attack Kaitlyn Acrede were amongst that group. All wanted to be back on the field with their teammates, but they found other ways to help their team.
“If there was an award for the loudest sideline in the NJAC, I think we would’ve won that hands down,” Connon said. “We cheered and yelled our hearts out because we wanted to put our energy somewhere in a positive way. We knew that if we were out on the field, we’d also want to have a loud sideline.”
Connon suffered from a rare condition called cubital tunnel syndrome. This caused the ulnar nerve in her elbow to inflame, which gave her numbness and severe pain in her elbow and forearm. She mentioned that having Brown and the rest of that group together on the sidelines helped her immeasurably.
“Having them by my side made it a lot easier because I don’t think any of us could’ve gone all last year alone on the sideline,” Connon said. “We were all there for each other to pick up the pieces and put a smile on each other’s faces.”
Brown trained throughout the summer and fall of 2019 in preparation for a comeback for the 2020 season. There were some setbacks during Brown’s recovery process, including a sprained ankle that pushed her recovery time back by two months due to the blood thinners. However, Brown remained relentless in her training, eventually being cleared to return to full contact for the 2020 season.
Going into the first game this season against Farmingdale State College, Brown admitted that she was nervous. It was her first taste of competition since the diagnosis, but she knew she had to remain focused.
Poetically, Brown would nail the first goal of the game at the 27:24 mark of the first half, leading to an emotional celebration and hugs from several of her teammates.
“When I ran over to her [after she scored], I had tears in my eyes because it made me so happy to see her happy,” Connon said. “Scoring that first goal, I know it meant so much to her, but it also meant so much to [Acrede], [Konen] and myself because that’s the moment when we realized we were all finally back and able to do what we loved every day with each other.”
For Brown, the moment had a deeper significance.
“As soon as I scored that first goal, a wave of emotions just hit me all at once,” Brown said. “I never thought I’d be back here again.”
Brown did not stop there. She finished the game with three goals and four assists in the 16-4 victory against the Rams. She earned NJAC Player of the Week honors for her inspired performance.
Now, Brown has to face another roadblock in her road to redemption: the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the spread of COVID-19 throughout the country, the NJAC and NCAA canceled all remaining spring sports competitions, effectively ending the team’s season after only four games.
“It was a punch in the gut hearing how everything was canceled because I worked so hard to get back for it to be ripped away,” Brown said.
With one more year left, potentially two if she comes back for a fifth year, Brown is continuing to stay optimistic despite having two seasons of lacrosse ripped away from her.
“Senior year is what you’ve been working so hard for all along,” Brown said. “While I’m in it, I have to leave everything out on the field and play like it’s your last because you really never know when it might be.”