Giving up his lifelong passion was the most difficult decision Josh Leins ever had to make.
A series of concussions over the course of several years forced the Kelowna man to reluctantly leave his days on the soccer pitch behind for good.
A talented player coming up through Kelowna’s minor system, the last and most severe of several head injuries ultimately led to Leins’ retirement in 2010. During a game that summer for the Pacific Coast League’s Okanagan Challenge, while leaping for a ball, Leins took the full brunt of an opponent’s head square on his temple.
“I kind of knew that would be it for me,” said Leins, 27, now living and working in Calgary. “I couldn’t see out of one eye for about two hours and when that happens, you know something is really wrong. I took a month off and then finished the season, but I knew it was over.”
In light of Sidney Crosby’s concussion troubles of 2010, new research was just beginning to emerge on the dangers of the long-term effects on a concussed athlete who chooses to continue competing.
Following the season and armed with new information, Leins’ family doctor in Kelowna strongly advised him to retire. Despite his reluctance, Leins, who would have been heading into his third season with the University of Victoria Vikes, said there was only one choice to make.
“Nobody knew a lot about concussions before then, it was sort of on the cusp of the Crosby situation and the information and awareness just started to come out,” Leins said. “My doctor told me I had to retire, but I didn’t want to listen, I had a scholarship, I’ve gotta pay for school.
“He told me if I headed a ball another 2,000 times I’d just do more, irreversible damage, I might never be valuable in the workforce. I had to think about my future.”
For more than a year after that last major blow, Leins couldn’t venture outside without wearing a pair of sunglasses. Sensitive to daylight, and prone to headaches and nausea, his new life was suddenly in direct contrast to the world he had grown up in.
Even today, Leins limits himself to very light forms of exercise to avoid any recurring symptoms.
Other than the inherent physical challenges he faced on a daily basis, Leins said the first two years of his recovery was also accompanied with considerable soul-searching.
“Initially I wasn’t ready to accept I was done, I started soccer when I was five, so I’d already invested 18 years, I assumed it would always be who I was,” he said. “When we’re young, especially, we tend to build our personalities around what we’re so passionate about.
“I was Josh the soccer guy for so long and when that is taken away, it’s hard. Then I just became Josh. It was a whole new world for me.”
It took Leins an extra year and a half to finish school, but through patience and sheer persistence he was able to graduate with his degree in economics at the University of Victoria. While there remains a slight void in his life without soccer, Leins has moved on and now functions successfully in the work world, living in Calgary where he works as the finance manager for Bobsleigh Skeleton Canada. Through it all, Leins continues to live his life one day at a time.
“I look back now and it’s hard to imagine I was set on wanting to come back and play,” he said. “It’s still a little hard for me to be around the game, I miss it but it’s getting better all the time. Over time, you learn to deal with it.
“I played the game I loved and probably wouldn’t have done anything much differently.”