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Baranek: Kersten Magrum benched, not beaten, by concussions

Kersten Magrum (left) was forced leave Illinois women's basketball team after suffering her fourth concussisecond season. | Phocourtesy University Illinois

Kersten Magrum (left) was forced to leave the Illinois women's basketball team after suffering her fourth concussion and second of the season. | Photo courtesy of University of Illinois

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Updated: March 2, 2013 12:05PM



There is a room in the Northwest Tower in the football stadium at the University of Illinois where they hold daily physicians clinics. It’s also a room where doctors and trainers treat and consult with the school’s athletes about their injuries or other physical issues.

“I really can’t stand that room,” former Lincoln-Way East girls basketball star and Mokena resident Kersten Magrum said. “I’ve just heard too much bad news there.”

A couple of Tuesdays ago, she heard the worst news of all, when the doctors told her she wouldn’t be playing basketball anymore for the Fighting Illini.

Magrum, who was the SouthtownStar’s Girls Basketball Player of the Year for the 2008-09 season, suffered the fourth concussion of her college career during a late-December practice. After a few weeks of observation, doctors determined she was not recovering rapidly enough to return to competition.

“It was just kind of like a shot to the chest,” Magrum said Tuesday. “It was weird to actually hear it. You never think it’s going to happen, that you’re going to be done.”

Magrum’s career as a player at Illinois was the antithesis of her four years at Lincoln-Way East.

From her freshman year, when she led the Griffins varsity with 11.7 points per game, through her senior year, when she left East as its all-time leading career, season and single-game scorer, she was as injury-free as any athlete could expect.

During her time at Illinois she was forced to redshirt what would have been her sophomore season because of a stress fracture in her right foot. During the 2011-12 season the 6-foot-1 forward missed several games becasuse of two concussions. This season she has suffered two more concussions and a separated shoulder.

Each time, Magrum worked earnestly and did what needed to be done to return to the court. That’s one of the reasons she was chosen as the Fighting Illini’s Most Courageous Player after the 2011-12 season.

This last concussion wasn’t as easy to come back from.

Magrum said there were times the only way she felt comfortable was in her on-campus apartment with the lights out.

“Lights and noise would bother me,” she said. “And while talking I would lose my concentration. That was rough, because it was really embarrassing to me.

“I would be talking and then be like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ You don’t want to admit that something’s wrong. I usually felt better (after the previous concussions) within a month. But some days were really rough.”

Too rough, the doctors concurred — especially when, Magrum related, during two biking and running sessions a few weeks back she reported she wasn’t feeling really well.

“Definitely, when they’re having issues recovering and with everyday life, that’s when we get concerned,” said Sam Laingen, Illinois’ associate athletic director. “Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer — like, if you’ve only had three (concussions) you’re fine, if you’ve had four you’re not. It’s very subjective.”

Ultimately, the future of a bright 22-year-old young lady — Magrum is a psychology major and looking for a future in kinesiology — was put ahead of playing basketball.

“Basically we’re learning more and more from research about concussions that there are severe long-term effects,” Laingen said. “There are issues with memory, personality disorders, general mood problems.

“Everyone is very familiar with Junior Seau and his mental health issues. We’re finding out that those were probably related to concussions.”

Seau, a 10-time All-Pro NFL linebacker, committed suicide in 2012 at age 43. Studies concluded Seau was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disorder that’s been linked to individuals who have had multiple concussions.

In the Southland, there’s been a noticeably more aggressive approach to dealing with concussions. Oak Lawn’s LaTondra Brooks suffered a concussion Dec. 10 and wasn’t cleared to play until Jan. 3. Lincoln-Way East’s Meaghan McMahon was cleared Thursday to play for the first time after suffering a concussion Jan. 15.

Magrum’s mood these days generally is upbeat. She’s had an important part of her life taken away, but there is so much more to come. And she knows that. At least she wants to know that.

“There has to be a silver lining here somewhere,” she said. “God has to be directing me somewhere to go. I just have to learn to deal with this adversity and use it for the betterment of somebody else or even myself.

“With all of my (injuries) I can now talk to my younger teammates when they’re going through stuff. I’m still going to go to practice and travel with the team quite a bit. I’ll approach the game from a coaching standpoint. I would like to be a coach someday.”

And she’d like to do so free of a few lingering cobwebs.

“I should have a full recovery,” she said. “There will be little things that stay the same. My attention span might not be as long, my motor processing might not be as quick. But ... I’m not too concerned about it. Right now, I’m 22 and I’m not worried about that stuff. It’s really scary to think about, but I really just don’t think about it.”

Let’s hope the thinking and decision-making that already have been done will mean she never has to.



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