A harsh reality: Kersten Magrum must move on after concussions ended her Illini career
What do you do when all your future plans come crashing down?
When Kersten Magrum took the court at the Value City Arena on Jan. 6 to face Ohio State, she had no idea it would be the last time she would wear her orange No. 44 Illinois jersey. She didn’t know it would be her final game of competitive basketball.
A year earlier, on Jan. 8, 2012, Magrum played the best game of her Illini career.
She made her first seven shots and scored 20 points. She was well on pace for her career high of 24 points, but with 11:13 remaining in the game, the 6-foot-1 Magrum went up for a defensive rebound and was elbowed in the head by 6-foot-2 Badgers forward Anya Covington, jolting Magrum’s brain into her skull. She collapsed, disoriented. The trainer took her into the locker room and decided, for safety’s sake, she shouldn’t go back in.
The injury was her first concussion.
At the time, Magrum had no idea what the next year would be like. She didn’t know the pain she would go through. How could she?
But here she was — 364 days and four concussions later — unknowingly suiting up for the last time.
Magrum, perfectly healthy one year prior, was about to be finished with basketball forever.
She swears she never used to get injured.
In high school, Magrum never suffered from a serious injury. Her three siblings, all college athletes, never suffered any serious injuries, either.
The trend continued through her freshman year at Illinois. Magrum played in all but three games, missing them due to coach’s decisions.
But during her sophomore year, Magrum got her first taste of injury. A stress fracture in her foot limited her to three games that season. But she was granted a medical redshirt. Despite sitting out for most of the year, she would have three more seasons of eligibility.
But Magrum’s first concussion happened on that fateful January night during her second attempt at a sophomore season. The second concussion happened just two weeks later. Magrum missed nine games between the two concussions but was able to return for the season’s final two games.
Following the season, Green Bay’s Matt Bollant was hired to replace then-head coach Jolette Law.
The clean slate for the women’s basketball team could provide Magrum with a nice reset on an injury-riddled career.
Despite the fresh start, Magrum was still undersized in the post, and in October, 6-foot-4 teammate Kierra Morris elbowed Magrum in the head, increasing her concussion total to three.
Each concussion was more painful. Each blow required longer recovery time. The effects were staying with Magrum longer and longer.
In the second game of the season, Magrum dislocated her shoulder, and she missed three games. She was back two weeks later with a bulky bandage on her shoulder. She was determined to play.
“Knowing the way that I play, I wouldn’t say I’m the safest player in the world,” she said, “but I pretty much go hard, and there’s no way to not play that way.”
The fourth concussion happened in practice leading up to the game against Illinois State on Dec. 21. Magrum felt sick and was clearly off her game against the Redbirds — she was 0-for-8 from the field — but the concussion wasn’t detected for more than two weeks. Magrum continued to feel dizzy and have headaches, and the concussion was finally detected after the Ohio State game on Jan. 6.
The doctor told Magrum that, if she were his kid, “her garage career would be over.” He couldn’t clear her to play anymore. She was medically disqualified.
One year too early, Magrum’s college basketball career was over.
Concussions are different than other types of injuries.
“I’ll take any type of physical ailment any day over concussions,” Magrum said. “It ruins your day. You’re not the same person. You have a headache all of the time. You really can’t do much. Sometimes, it’s hard to even read a book. With a foot injury, you can still be yourself.”
A broken foot is visible. So is a dislocated shoulder. But you can’t see a concussion. Many people doubt their legitimacy.
“I know people around me who have had this opinion that they’re kind of fake, that concussions aren’t real,” she said. “They don’t understand it. They just think you need to suck it up. Just being in that position, where I have been, you see that most people don’t care about it.
“Everybody’s played athletics and, I want to say, 99 percent of people don’t go through this, so they don’t understand. Before I got all these things, I didn’t really understand it, either.
“As an athlete, all you think about is athletics, performing, winning, excelling. You don’t think about being able to function outside of sports.
“But when you’re talking about being a functional human being and having healthy relationships and everything, academic performance, it affects it all. It affects everything. I don’t think people realize that how big of a deal it is.”
Magrum said there needs to be more efforts focused toward preventing and treating concussions.
“It’s going to happen. It’s a part of sports.”
Although concussions are a part of sports, there is little that the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics can do to protect its athletes from concussions, Director of Sports Medicine Paul Schmidt said.
“There’s times when you can’t protect them from a concussion,” he said. “We can educate. We can use the protocol that we do, but there’s nothing out there where we can put them in a bubble and say, ‘Hey, this is how we’re taking care of them.’”
When asked what the University is doing to ensure concussions don’t affect the daily lives of more of its athletes, Schmidt declined comment.
“I’m not sure where we’re going with this line of questions, and I don’t feel comfortable answering that question,” he said.
Schmidt also wouldn’t answer how the University would help an athlete suffering from concussions sustained in college after they graduate.
NCAA policy currently requires that schools inform athletes about the signs and symptoms of concussions. It also requires schools to remove athletes who may have suffered a concussion from play and not allow student-athletes with concussions to play on the same day they are injured.
What more can the NCAA do? What can be done to prevent others from suffering Magrum’s fate?
“I’m not sure,” Illinois head coach Matt Bollant said. “Maybe the game could be called a little bit tighter, but I’m not so sure. It’s meant to be played aggressively, and it’s a physical game, so I’m not sure.”
Protocol was followed with Magrum.
She was educated more and more after each concussion.
The athletic mentality continued.
“They would tell me, but I wouldn’t really take it to heart,” Magrum said. “I’d be like everyone else: ‘Oh that won’t happen to me. I’m fine. I just want to play. That’s all I want to do is play.’ Once the medical staff finally stepped in and said: ‘It’s not really your choice anymore. We’re not going to clear you.’ That’s when it really kind of set in that there are severe consequences to them.”
Now, if you spend time with her, you can tell that she still has to live with those daily consequences of her concussions. You can tell that the concussions are affecting her ability to function outside of sports.
Magrum has trouble thinking quickly. She interjects “ya know” into her speech often. She has trouble focusing.
During one interview for this article, Magrum requested that it transpire outside of the original location because the volume of the live music bothered her. Loud noises are one of her triggers. So is stress.
Concussions cause a lot of stress.
Initially after her fourth concussion, Magrum couldn’t remember where she parked her car. She had trouble navigating the mall.
But the biggest change was in her workout regimen. As a student-athlete, Magrum had officially worked out for 20 hours a week. In reality, she estimated, with outside of the gym workouts, the total number was “30-40 hours, easy.”
At first, Magrum was only allowed to walk. Then, slowly her symptoms faded. She began to bike for 10 minutes, then 20. Now, she’s allowed to run for 10 minute intervals. She can’t play basketball. She can’t even shoot around because of a recent surgery to repair her torn labrum in her shoulder.
“I’m a mess,” she said.
“It’s rough. It’s one of the hardest things just because you’re used to working out for hours and hours and hours, and that’s how you release your frustration. It’s a vicious cycle because you’re upset, because you can’t work out and you can’t play basketball. And then you have all the stress, but the exercise causes that stress, all the headaches, because then you can’t release it. It’s not a fun situation at all.”
This is just one example of the way her life has changed.
“Honestly, the hardest part is the daily struggle,” she said. “It’s not being able to get over the fact that you have concussions and not only living with that, but then having to move on with life. I didn’t plan on being done right now. It’s not only do I have all these concussions, my career is over. Now, I need find a job and something to do.”
The redshirt junior will graduate with a degree in psychology in two weeks. When she was still playing, she thought she would attend graduate school for a year. Now, she says needs to get out of Champaign; the memories are too strong.
Magrum credits her boyfriend, Kaeman Mitchell — a former walk-on cornerback on the football team — with supporting her throughout the entire episode.
“There’s nothing I can do to help,” Mitchell said. “I can just sit there and be patient, but I can’t make her feel better. You just kinda watch someone that you really care about just struggle. That’s the hardest part, just being so helpless that you can’t really do anything.”
Though Mitchell has had three concussions himself, he doesn’t know what it’s like for Magrum to no longer be able to play. To help with that, Mitchell introduced Magrum to his teammate, Ryan Klachko. Klachko, a redshirt freshman, retired from football earlier this year after suffering too many concussions.
Klachko has helped Magrum adjust, telling her about the benefits of getting in a regular sleeping pattern and sharing tips of how to help with the headaches. He immediately pinpointed the mood swings she suffered. He showed Magrum that she is not alone.
Most mornings, you can find Magrum working for the DIA. She mows lawns and cleans bathrooms. She’s never really had a job before; she never had time for one.
She’s also never had this much free time, which she spends improving her cooking. She gets more sleep. At first, she couldn’t watch basketball — she cried the first time she tried — but now she has the NBA playoffs on most of the time. She hasn’t gone to many Illini athletic events since her injury but would like to go to a few more before graduating.
“It’s always tough, because I was them, and now I’m cutting their grass and picking up twigs off their courts,” Magrum said. “It definitely puts things in a bigger perspective.”
Along with the free time, Magrum is also unfamiliar with the amount of choice she has in her life without basketball.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to explore my life and not have basketball be the center point,” she said.
“When you’ve had your whole life and athletic identity and, now, trying to be a normal person is kind of hard. I’m trying to figure out what to do next.”
Though she may not be sure about her future career plans, Magrum thinks she knows where she will be: Lawrence, Kan.
Mitchell accepted a graduate assistant position at Washburn University in Lawrence, and since he has supported her through everything, she wants to return the favor.
Magrum always knew she would play basketball for as long as she could, but she never thought she would have to stop this early. She planned to make a career of it.
When teammate Karisma Penn signed a free agent contract with the WNBA’s New York Liberty, Magrum couldn’t help but think of what might have been. Though she likely would not have played in the WNBA, she planned to play overseas.
“It’s like: ‘Man, I wish I could be in that situation, too. I wish I had that opportunity,’” Magrum said. “But then you see her, and you were there for the whole college thing, so it still feels good that she gets to do it because that’s what you want your teammates to do, to go on and succeed.
“But, of course, it’s bittersweet. You just have to focus on the future.”
What does that future entail? There has to be a reason that Magrum can’t play the sport she loves anymore, doesn’t there?
“With everything that’s happened, it has to be something that God wants me to do different than basketball,” she said. “All of my injuries have been kind of freak injuries. For my shoulder, whenever they got the X-rays, they told me: ‘We don’t even know how you did this, but you did XYZ. We don’t know how that’s anatomically possible.’”
Magrum has a small cross tattooed on her left wrist. Above the cross, the word “faith” is written. She got the tattoo after she “survived” her freshman year. The message seems even more relevant now.
“I just have to go off the faith that there’s something else for me to do because I know that if I didn’t get injured, I would play as long as I possibly could. I wouldn’t really be doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
What is God’s plan?
What do you do when all your future plans come crashing down?
“I don’t know yet. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Johnathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @jhett93.