Through the course of a normal day, a span of 9.8 seconds rarely seems significant. Most people take more time than that to pick out the shirt they're going to wear, or to decide whether they want pretzels or chips from the vending machine.
But when a part of a person's life has gone dark, 9.8 seconds of light can create enough brightness to last a lifetime. Gophers goaltender Alyssa Grogan was allowed that tiny slice of time in the net on Feb. 18, as a spontaneous, thoroughly unexpected gift from coach Brad Frost. That was all she needed to give her hockey career a proper farewell, with the help of 2,157 overjoyed fans at Ridder Arena.
Grogan, a senior, suffered a severe concussion in practice 16 months ago. She was told on Nov. 30 that she would never be able to play contact sports again. Though she was resigned to leaving the game on that sad, sour note, Frost put her in for the final seconds of a 5-2 victory over North Dakota, ensuring her last day of hockey would be her best rather than her worst.
As Grogan took her place in goal, her parents and teammates -- and a few random strangers -- wept. Amid a deafening ovation, 16 months of pain and frustration gave way to a blissful bit of a minute that will stay with her forever.
"When you're told you'll never play again and you're given 9.8 seconds, it's way more than you could ever ask for,'' said Grogan, an Eagan native who compiled a 1.97 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 38 career games. "No matter how small it was, I'm very grateful for it.
"To be out there again with the seniors was really cool. It's something I'll never forget.''
Grogan said the same about Oct. 18, 2010, the day she was hurt. During a race-to-the-puck drill, she dived to poke-check the puck away from a skater, whose knee crashed into Grogan's forehead. Another player fell onto the back of her head.
Grogan remained conscious, but she was so disoriented that Frost sent her off the ice and called for a doctor. She fell asleep three times in the hour after the injury; over the next six weeks, she slept 20 hours a day. When she was awake, she experienced severe headaches and could not focus her eyes.
Though she was halfway through the semester, Grogan had to drop all her classes, because she couldn't read. Her senses were easily overwhelmed by light and motion and large groups of people, so she couldn't go to games or go out with friends. Her symptoms worsened every time she tried to exercise.
"This is not something I would wish on my worst enemy,'' Grogan said. "It's a terrible, emotional thing that affects your whole life. And it's very humbling. Things like working out and hanging out with your friends, you realize how blessed you are to be able to do that -- and how tough it is to have that taken away.''
Grogan returned to school last spring, but she could only take a light class load, and she needed assistance because of her vision problems. She worked diligently on her recovery and remained optimistic, even as her return to hockey seemed more and more unlikely. That hope was extinguished last fall after a visit to noted concussion specialist Michael Collins in Pittsburgh.
She remained on the roster and became the analyst for the Gophers' radio broadcasts. On Senior Day, Grogan sat on the bench in uniform for the first time since her injury. Frost had no plans to play her -- but with a three-goal lead, fewer than 10 seconds left and a faceoff at the other end of the ice, he seized the moment.
As she stepped onto the ice, Grogan felt the tears well in her eyes. Her mother, Karla, who didn't immediately realize what was happening, was overcome when she did.
"I started jumping like I'd won a million dollars,'' she said. "When Alyssa turned up to look at us, I could see her grinning ear-to-ear through her mask. That 9.8 seconds was all we needed to have some closure.''
This semester, Grogan is back in school full time for the first time since her injury. She is able to read more and do some light workouts, and for the first time in 15 months, she has enjoyed some headache-free days. Her doctors, she said, have assured her she will fully regain her ability to do day-to-day activities.
Karla Grogan said her family now views time in a different way. It may not seem like much in the grand scheme of life, but to Alyssa and the people who love her, 9.8 seconds made all the difference.
"Every time I think about it, I tear up,'' Alyssa said. "It was just a few seconds. But when I was out there, it felt like a really long time.''
Rachel Blount • firstname.lastname@example.org