Molly Chenot dribbled the ball from midfield to the six-yard box. With a tap from her right foot, she made a solid, square strike, and the ball rolled into the back of the net. She tipped her head back with a smile as teammates rushed toward her.
In a matter of seconds, her on-field intercollegiate soccer experience had begun and ended. But without a doubt, Molly Chenot had been a Cabrini student-athlete for four years.
That special moment happened Oct. 27, 2012, when Cabrini and Cedar Crest arranged a goal-swap at the beginning of Cabrini’s Senior Day. A series of concussions suffered before Chenot ever reached Cabrini had kept her off the field for all but that special moment.
But they didn’t keep her off the team.
Chenot, a center midfielder out of Skillman, N.J., suffered eight concussions before graduating from high school. The final one, during high school in spring 2009, put her on the sideline for good.
Only her parents noticed when she took the hit to the back of the head where her neck and skull connect. Collisions in the midfield are common, and the 5-foot-2 Chenot always tried to beat out 6-footers for headers.
“I remember watching her play for her club team,” Cabrini head soccer coach Ken Prothero said. “She was just relentless, she never cared for her body, she was always throwing herself around trying to do anything to win. I think that’s how some of the concussions happened.”
Chenot wore headgear as a sophomore in high school, and her older sister, Maureen, also experienced concussions. But even for a family accustomed to concussions, the spring 2009 incident was different. Symptoms were typical at first, but when they didn’t subside, the Chenots knew the result was worse. There was no relief between April and August 2009. The concussion affected her social life, studies and daily routine.
Chenot had played club soccer year-round since first grade, following in Maureen’s footsteps. Road trips to college showcase tournaments filled the Chenot family weekends. The sudden adjustment to life without soccer was jolting for Molly’s dad, Pat, but the bigger question hovering in his mind was, “Can she function in college?”
The effect of the concussion was enough that the family pondered keeping their youngest of four daughters at home. Pat and wife Barb ultimately decided sending Molly to Cabrini was the best choice, but when the first semester rolled around, Molly still exhibited symptoms of her injury. The question of whether she would ever put on a pair of shin guards again had been answered.
So she chose to remain a member of the team, even though she would never again mix it up on the field of play.
“I said to myself, ‘Okay, I can play soccer for the next four years and not remember my own name or I can focus on something else,’ ” Chenot said.
Even though she couldn’t play, Chenot found her first relief as a result of the preseason workouts that first year. To that point, she had seen 14 doctors, but she thought ‘Why not?’ when Nick Sita, the team’s certified sports performance specialist – who assists with preseason speed, strength and conditioning – asked to take a look at her. Chenot had been prescribed with medication, but Sita recommended she try therapy called “myofascial release.”
After months of neck exercises and nerve injections to treat the permanent damage in her neck, Chenot began to show progress. When she went on a run the summer before her junior year, it was her first exercise in more than two years.
“I remember the first time she could go on a run,” senior goalkeeper Maddy Edwards said. “She asked if I wanted to go, and it was the craziest thing for me. We just ran around campus and I thought to myself, ‘Wow Molly hasn’t been able to do this in forever.’ ”
But just as Chenot eased back into physical activity, she also had to adjust in the classroom.
First, the good news: Chenot faced her concussion head on and aims to graduate magna cum laude in the spring with a degree in social work. Make no mistake, though: The accomplishment will have been the effort of heroic work.
Using a system of 4×6-inch note cards, Chenot begins studying well before her peers and preps for quizzes much more intently than most other students.
“I just don’t remember things people would normally remember,” Chenot said. “And if I miss class, I can’t read my friends’ notes to figure it out. I have to be there listening to the teacher and reading the PowerPoint to understand things.”
Chenot almost obsessively avoids missing class and uses Cabrini’s cost-free tutoring services when needed. She has learned different coping mechanisms to deal with stress to avoid triggering a headache, including monthly massages for physical and mental well-being.
Classmates may spend finals week cramming for hours at the library, but Chenot is already prepared, simply because she has to be. Studying for 90 minutes the night before an exam is Chenot’s version of cramming. Any longer than that and she will be too mentally exhausted to take the test the following day. When it comes to group projects, Chenot finds herself taking the lead when other students don’t see the need in getting an early start.
“She always planned ahead, and I even read some of her papers and they were amazing,” Edwards said. “She put 110 percent into her studies, and it was amazing how she was able to get things done with the concussion and, after having all of these head injuries, how she learned to manage her time and study habits.”
Potential complications are always present. Chenot suffered eight concussions while playing a sport, but she’s lost track of the number she’s had from simply living her life at Cabrini. The slightest contact brings back symptoms of a high-impact concussion. A bump on the freezer door spells confusion, severe headaches, neck pain and drowsiness. Her entire routine is thrown off − no exercise, loud noises or bright lights for up to three weeks.
But she attends her classes, no matter what.
“I still go to class because I saw how much it stopped my life for so long and I just push through it,” Chenot said. “I try to do an hour of homework and give myself a little break.”
A six-time dean’s list member, Chenot interned at a mental health counseling facility twice a week. As a case manager in the recovering section, she worked to find people housing.
After graduation, Chenot plans to complete a master’s in social work, with the goal of working in a hospital as an oncology social worker. Chenot’s interest stems from her mother Barb, a breast cancer survivor.
“You’re only 22 when you graduate college,” Chenot said. “You hopefully have 80 more years left, and an athletics career isn’t going to be the final determinant of whether you have a happy life.”
Still, it’s worth reflecting on her athletics experience. Chenot was an excellent player. Prothero pegged her as starting material when he scouted her in high school. Though she never played, Chenot was valued just as much, if not more than, an all-conference player because of her dedication. In fact, Prothero says his biggest concern for next season is filling her unique role.
“She was like a captain who just came off the field, but she was always there,” Prothero said. “She would talk to players on the bench and give advice. She was a great connection between the players and our staff because she was kind of one of us, but one of them as well. I don’t know how we’ll ever replace her.”
These days, friends and family share Chenot’s story when talking about sports injuries. Edwards, her teammate, coaches 10-year-old girls and gives the Chenot spiel when teaching kids how to head the ball and protect from a collision when contesting a 50-50 ball. Chenot has been open in discussing the risk of concussions and her experiences. Last June, she was part of Brian Williams’ Rock Center segment about concussions in soccer.
Chenot’s teammates remain aware of her lingering symptoms and go out of their way to protect her from a bump on the head or loud environment. Chenot knows she wouldn’t be where she is today without that kind of support and help from Cabrini’s athletic trainer.
“[My teammates] think I gave them something, but I am forever thankful because they kept me involved,” Chenot said. “I looked at many other schools for soccer, and I am so glad I picked Cabrini because if I hadn’t I don’t think I would have stuck with it. The coaching staff and the girls are just phenomenal.”
Molly’s teammate and best friend, Kaitlyn Smith, who was her roommate since her freshman year, shares Chenot’s inspirational story when she learns of players who are still competing despite multiple concussions.
“I tell people they can still be part of a team,” Smith said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re on the field or not. Molly [Chenot] was a part of the team, got elected captain, was a great role model and didn’t let her concussion stop her from being a part of a team in the sport she loved to play.”