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NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt Jr joins Dr. Michael 'Micky' Collins '91 for USM conversation

Dr. Michael

NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr recently joined University of Southern Maine alumnus Dr. Michael “Micky” Collins at the Portland Campus for an intimate conversation about concussions and healing.

In 2012 and again in 2016, Collins, a world-renowned concussion expert, helped Earnhardt recover from severe concussions and return to racing.

“It’s easy to get up here because Micky gave me my life back twice,” Earnhardt said. “When somebody does that for you, you do whatever they need, any time they need it, for the rest of your life.”

On the first occasion, Earnhardt suffered the worst crash of his career during a test run.

“We were running at 190 miles an hour and my right front tire blew and I hit the wall,” Earnhardt told a sold out crowd at Hannaford Hall. “It was a singular event. It was a hard impact.”

At first, he hid the effects of his injury,.

“I would never in the first part of my career thought to seek medical help for a concussion or head injury,” he said. “It was nothing to worry about, and it would go away. I know now that it’s not the case at all.”

After telling his doctor, he was quickly taken to the Sports Medicine Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where Collins serves as the director.

In just two weeks, Earnhardt was driving again. The second time, it was worse.

“He was very sick,” Collins said. “I didn’t even care about race car driving.”

Rather, Collins treated a man with a severe injury that stole his feeling of being connected to the world. It literally shook his vision and filled him with anxiety.

Collins and his program gave Earnhardt computer-guided eye exercises, prescribed a rigorous exercise regimen and told him to be active.

“With his kind of concussions, you have to attack it,” Collins said. “You can’t let it attack you.”

There are six different kinds of concussions, he said. Among them are vestibular, ocular, cognitive/fatigue, post-traumatic migraine, cervical and anxiety/mood. All require different treatments.

Earnhardt’s recovery is chronicled in his book, “Racing to the Finish.” 

“Mickey was extremely great at spelling out everything that was going on,” Earnhardt said. “In 2016, the rehabilitation was six months: four months till I felt normal and six months till I felt like a racecar driver.”

And Collins gave Earnhardt faith that he could get better.

“In the short term we’re very good at treating this injury,” Collins said. “Advances have been made. We know a lot more about this injury. We can get (patients) to feel normal.”

Collins' Pittsburgh center is the largest research and clinical program focused on the assessment, treatment, rehabilitation, research and education of sports-related mild traumatic brain injury in athletes of all levels. He has been an instrumental source across the nation in developing concussion-management policy in youth sports, state legislation on youth safety, the Centers for Disease Control's concussion toolkit, and pioneering targeted treatment pathways for his patients. He is also a co-founder of ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing), the most widely used computerized sports-concussion evaluation system that has become a standard of care in nearly all organized sports at all levels.

At USM, Collins earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and biology in 1991. He earned a master's degree in psychology in 1995 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1998 at Michigan State University. He received an honorary degree from USM in 2019.

Read and watch more about the event as covered by the media -- including an article in the Portland Press Herald, a two-part feature on "207" from News Center Maine/WCSH-6, and also an article about the event from Dianne Atwood, who was the event's moderator.

Story by Daniel Hartill / Photos by Alan Bennett, USM Office of Public Affairs