Souhan: A hockey hit that changed Duffy Fallon's life

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2013 - 6:38 AM

Duffy Fallon now finds satisfaction coaching disabled players.

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Duffy Fallon and coach Chris Gustafson were in good humor as Judd Yaeger, far left, kidded Rose Hollermann, right, about taking over as goalie. In red was Eric Rude.

Photo: RICH TSTONG-TAATARII • rtsong-taatarii@startribune.com ,

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Duffy Fallon made Breck’s varsity hockey team two years ago as a sophomore. As one of four fourth-line forwards, he yearned to make the cut for a squad that would compete in the state high school tournament.

On Wednesday, Breck will face Marshall at the Xcel Energy Center in the first round of the tourney, and on Sunday Fallon, now a senior, glided through an intense practice, but he’s no longer skating for Breck. He’s an assistant coach of the Minnesota Northern sled hockey team, working with disabled athletes.

His is a tale of our times transformed into a tale for all times: of concussion ignorance and awareness, of the good that people so often do, and of the perspective gained when one’s problem is dwarfed by others’.

“They’ve allowed Duffy to remain in hockey, safely, and to have a richness in his life that he wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Duffy’s father, Pat, the Minneapolis advertising guru. “This is an optimistic story.”

Pat was sitting in the stands a little more than two years ago when an opposing player drove Duffy into the boards. Duffy doesn’t remember the third period, even though he scored a goal. After the game, he vomited incessantly.

The emergency room doctor put him in a neck brace and told him to go home and rest. He could do little other than sit in his bedroom with the lights off, so Pat set up an appointment with the Gillette Children’s brain trauma center.

“The first thing they said to him was, ‘Do you realize you could have died?’ ’’ Pat said. “That started the nightmare.”

Duffy experienced light sensitivity, insomnia, irritability, slurred speech, a loss of balance, headaches and memory loss. For a week, he had trouble leaving his room. An eager and active teenager who loves writing had trouble putting pen to paper or sitting in a class with bright lights.

“In the impact testing, my scores were horrendous,” Duffy said.

“You were roughly the same as an ashtray,” Pat said.

After eight frustrating months, the Fallons switched to the Hennepin County Medical Center.

“We should have been there from the beginning,” Pat said.

Dr. Sarah Rockswold determined Duffy had suffered a concussion in a hockey game in the weeks before the hit that changed his life, but she prefers the term “mild traumatic brain injury.”

“It’s easy for athletes and other people to shrug off having three concussions,” she said. “It’s not so easy to say, ‘I had three brain injuries.’ We find that 85 percent or so of people recover from their first mild brain injury, and there are 15 percent who go on like Duffy. He had two brain injuries. As the number of brain injuries go up the more likely you are to have problems.”

The Fallons credit Dr. Rockswold and HCMC with helping Duffy recover. After 239 appointments over two years, the Fallons estimate him to be at about 90 percent of his former capabilities. He never will play hockey again.

Duffy misses the game, though. One day Pat ran into Larry Hendrickson, the legendary high school hockey coach and father of Darby, the former Gopher and Wild player who is a Wild assistant coach.

Larry runs the Hendrickson Foundation, which supports sled hockey for the disabled. Duffy now works as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Northern team that will play in a national tournament in Philadelphia this month.

“This is the most amazing group of people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with,” Duffy said.

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