April 2, 2012
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - You can't miss Maryland women's lacrosse attacker Karri Ellen Johnson's trademark smile.
It's as reliable as her 3.17 goals per game.
So when that effervescent grin dimmed on a late March evening in 2011 on nearly the exact spot Maryland hoisted the national championship trophy a year prior, the Terrapins - for a lack of a better term - were shell-shocked.
"I just remember during the game falling more than usual and being a little off balance," Johnson recollects of that day in Towson. "On the field I was justifying everything in my head. After the game I knew something was wrong. I ended up taking a post-concussion test and failed miserably. It went from there."
The resulting diagnosis of concussion came with more questions than answers. Concussion generally remains an "invisible" injury with no definitive timeline for recovery. Even with enhanced technology and understanding of neuroscience, there is still no total agreement on the definition or grading of concussion.
"I was trying to salvage the rest of my season. I definitely thought I would be back playing," Johnson said of the lingering uncertainty. "The most frustrating part of not playing was the not knowing if and when I would come back. Getting let down time after time was really hard for me, all the way up into the national championship game."
The Terps would eventually be forced to play the remainder of the 2011 campaign without the services of Johnson, Lacrosse Magazine's National Preseason Player of the Year and its leading goal-scorer two years running. Maryland captured its third straight ACC title but fell short of a repeat title bid by one goal to Northwestern in the national championship game.
"All the way up until the final four I was hoping I would get the opportunity to play with her one more time," former fellow attacker and 2011 team captain Sarah Mollison said. "Karri Ellen has a laidback personality, is easy to get along with, and always considers others before herself. She is so talented, passionate and competitive and always competes with her heart. She is inspiring to watch by many, including her teammates."
After finally gaining clearance from the medical staff in late July - nearly four months after she was sidelined - Johnson spent the entire summer on campus, patiently preparing for her final act.
"I rested a lot because I didn't want to come back too soon. I heard horror stories about people having headaches for years because they came back too early," Johnson said. "It was nice to just let my body heal itself. I had to take it one day at a time."
Johnson has resumed her ascent in the Maryland women's lacrosse record book. She initiated the climb the instant she donned the Red and Black for the first time in 2009. The then-rookie from Annapolis recorded a game-high five goals in her Terrapin debut against Richmond. She went on to score 74 goals that season - the third-highest total in Maryland career annals - en route to netting her first of two consecutive IWLCA First Team All-America honors.
Despite playing only 11 games last season, Johnson still ranked fourth on the team in goals with 39 and managed to muster All-ACC accolades for the third straight year. She leads Maryland with 50 points in 2012 and ranks tied for second all-time on Maryland's career goals list, trailing only Jen Adams - arguably the greatest women's lacrosse player in the history of the game.
Those numbers are meaningless to Johnson though. She'll be focusing on just one number in 2012. One practice, one game, one goal at a time all the while cherishing every single moment in her senior season.
"You really learn to value and appreciate something when it's taken away from you," Johnson said. "I think I learned so many valuable lessons off the field which helped me appreciate my teammates, coaches, and the game even more. It's one of those bittersweet moments when you grow so much yet you would never want to experience it again."
Mollison, who is now an assistant coach at William & Mary, faced her former "favorite target" Feb. 12 when Johnson helped the Terps top the Tribe in the season opener, nearly 11 months after a concussion almost derailed her illustrious career.
"I was excited to see Karri Ellen play again. She deserves to play the game she loves and works so hard for," Mollison said. "Her ability to come up with the draw, catch defenders by surprise on the crease and get herself open before she cuts are just a few of her strengths. She is constantly pushing those around her which is one quality I really appreciated as a teammate."
Johnson, who may have ended up elsewhere as a highly-touted recruit had it not been for the singing voicemails from head coach Cathy Reese, could not be more excited about wrapping up her stellar career at Maryland on a high note.
"My overall experience as a Terp has been awesome," Johnson said. "I feel privileged representing the school as a student-athlete. Contributing to the Maryland tradition and having such a successful program has been the ultimate experience. I wouldn't change it for the world."
A healthy and hungry Johnson will have one last chance to put Maryland women's lacrosse back on top in 2012. What's not to smile about?