JESSICA Pitts has reached sporting heights about which most of us could only dream.
But now the elite athlete has descended into a nightmare from which there is no escape.
Pitts is just 20 years old, she has played soccer for Australia and for Melbourne Victory’s W-League side — all while completing year 12.
She also seemed destined for great things on the football field, starring for Echuca in the side’s inaugural season.
And although she would only play five games in the Northern Country Women’s League but was so outstanding she finished second in the league’s best and fairest vote.
Pitts has suffered a string of horrifying concussions — now one too many.
Her career on the football field — Australian Rules or soccer — is all but over even though she played her debut Echuca season with a helmet (pictured). Her doctor has warned Pitts not to play contact sport. Initially, he said, not for a year. Beyond that nothing is confirmed.
But Pitts, who can recall at least seven concussions in five seasons, said she’d been expecting the verdict.
‘‘I’d been told by a couple of doctors things like that, and he hasn’t specifically told me no, he’s just given me all the information,’’ she said.
‘‘He’s said this is my decision to make, but he strongly advised me not to play.
‘‘There’s more to life than sport and you have to think about the future.
‘‘But it’s so hard when you’re only 20 years old and you feel reasonably OK and you know you are really fit.’’
The hits started coming as a 15-year-old soccer player.
‘‘I just copped a shoulder to the head and she got me in the right spot. I had a week off and then went back to training,’’ Pitts said.
‘‘The following week I went up for a header; I obviously hadn’t fully recovered and I came off second best there. I had three within two weeks; once you get hit, you’re more susceptible to the next one and a light knock can do it.
‘‘I can’t even remember half of them, but in one of them a big girl just took me out. I tried to take the ball around her and she just dropped her shoulder and got me in the middle of the head.’’
But the most sickening incident came on a synthetic soccer pitch in Melbourne Pitts likened to concrete.
‘‘I WENT up for a header and her elbow caught me in the temple and I was knocked out mid-air, but then I’ve just face-planted into the ground,’’ she said.
‘‘I don’t remember it, but my dad told me I dropped like a rag doll. It took me a while, but I got up and I kept trying to play. I don’t really remember anything and I wasn’t really there.’’
The game was called off due to a light failure, and it only got worse on the way home.
‘‘I was sitting in the car and my legs and arms were tingling and I obviously started to panic a little bit,’’ Pitts said.
‘‘Dad called an ambulance and I started vomiting. I couldn’t move, it felt like really weird sort of stuff was happening. I went to hospital, and they said I had a bit of swelling on the brain and I had really bad whiplash.
‘‘I was out of soccer for about five months, training as well. I didn’t work for two months and I didn’t go to school.
‘‘That was the worst one, it took a long time to recover, and I think since then I haven’t ever really been right.’’
Pitts played for Melbourne Victory the year after, but ended her soccer career in favour of moving back to Echuca.
It was here she joined the Murray Bombers’ senior women’s side, and took a similarly nasty knock. Unable to recall the clash, Pitts relied on information provided by her father who was a runner in the game against Mooroopna.
‘‘He said I was watching the footy and putting my body over the ball. I got sandwiched between two girls, the front one got me in the head and I’ve fallen backwards, and the girl behind me squished me in between the two of them,’’ she said.
‘‘I don’t remember it, I was out, and apparently I was having some sort of fit, which was pretty full-on. I went straight to hospital and the doctor basically said to me ‘you’re an idiot, you need to stop playing’.
‘‘I don’t remember the whole game, who we played, where we played; I only know it was here because I finished up at the Echuca hospital. It’s pretty scary when you miss massive periods of time and can’t remember anything.’’
Polling 12 league medal votes in five games, Pitts’ immense talent was there for the world to see.
Echuca Football Club president Brett Stevens said with an injury-free run Pitts could have gone anywhere.
‘‘She’s a talent and in my opinion there’s no doubt she could have gone on to play AFLW,’’ he said.
‘‘Simply put, when she played, we won, and when she didn’t, we probably lost.
‘‘The world was her oyster. When she began to play for us, we said we’d do our best to help her as far as we could. She was knocked out two games in.’’
Echuca’s record with Pitts? 5-1. Without her? 1-4.
‘‘I just loved it; it’s a completely different atmosphere to soccer. You just go out there and play footy, it’s as simple as that.’’ Pitts said.
‘‘I was really enjoying football and I was hoping I could have taken that a bit further.
‘‘If I could have played AFL that would have been awesome but it’s hard to know.’’
After a year, her condition will be re-assessed but Pitts refuses to admit to herself it’s all over.
‘‘(The doctor) thinks I shouldn’t go back to playing, but he at least wants me to take a year off to let my brain recover,’’ she said.
‘‘For me to be able to play I have to be cleared by a neuropsychologist. And it’s a matter of if I want to go back and play and if I think it’s worth it.
‘‘My memory is terrible, I forget things so easily. I’ll tell a story and then 10 minutes later I’ll go to repeat it again. Concentrating is pretty hard, when I was doing year 12 I struggled a fair bit with constant headaches and that sort of stuff.’’
Sport is a massive part of her identity, Pitts remains playing touch football and futsal and acknowledged the potential for problems in her long-term health.
‘‘I’ve always been known as the girl who plays soccer; that’s basically all I was known for,’’ she said.
‘‘Not to have (sport) is a bit hard. It’s a massive change in my life but you find other things to do.
‘‘It’s not now that it really affects you, it’s when you’re 40 years old and you end up with dementia and stuff like that.’’