Two years after suffering severe concussion, former Central star McLaughlin ending college career at Stonehill
BY Mac Cerullo
March 6, 2016
EASTON -- Every morning when Casey McLaughlin wakes up, she gets a constant reminder of what could have been.
"It's an every day battle, waking up with headaches," McLaughlin said. "It's a rough start to the day, where you're like 'ugh, I'm going to have this headache all day and I have to go to school, and then basketball.'"
For McLaughlin, a North Andover resident and a junior at Stonehill College, the headaches have become a fact of life, an unseen scar that still lingers two years after the injury that changed her life.
Considered one of the top high school basketball players in Massachusetts, leading Central Catholic to an expected state championship three years ago, McLaughlin's college basketball career was derailed after just two games after suffering a severe concussion during practice early in her freshman year.
McLaughlin still feels the lingering effects of the concussion, and now after two years, she has decided to end her basketball career.
"Your heart breaks for a kid like Casey, who brought so much to any team she's been on in terms of work ethic and character," said Stonehill coach Trisha Brown. "It's sad to see her dream of playing college basketball cut short."
McLaughlin's fate is a cruel one, especially given the high expectations she had coming out of high school. Before arriving at Stonehill, the 6-foot forward was a four-year standout at Central Catholic. Her senior year she was an Eagle-Tribune MVP and a Boston Globe All-Scholastic, averaging 17.4 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.9 steals per game, and she capped off her career with a 27-point explosion to help Central Catholic capture the 2013 Division 1 state championship.
Having committed to Stonehill all the way back as a high school junior, McLaughlin had long looked forward the chance to play at the next level. Once the opportunity finally came, it looked as though she was ready to thrive, scoring in double figures in each of her first two games and totaling 23 points in 23 minutes of action.
Those two games were part of an early season tournament down in Florida, a special treat for a team that generally doesn't travel far outside the northeast, and it also offered a great opportunity for McLaughlin to bond with her new teammates, who were all just as passionate for the sport as she was.
In short, McLaughlin was living the dream, and her future looked to be as bright as they come.
But then, in the blink of an eye, her dream turned into a nightmare.
A FREAK ACCIDENT
Those who knew McLaughlin as the high energy, high intensity star from high school would probably assume she got her concussion diving for a loose ball or taking a charge, which was commonplace in high school.
But the sad irony is that her injury actually happened during practice while making one of the most routine plays in basketball.
"I went up for a rebound with another girl on my team -- we both jumped high -- and her elbow just came down on my head," McLaughlin said. "It wasn't even a crazy hit, I think it just hit the right spot, you know what I mean? The right amount of pressure."
McLaughlin can't remember what happened next, but based on what she was told by her teammates and coaches, she spent the last 10 minutes of practice in a daze, making uncharacteristic mistakes and forgetting the plays. She initially thought she'd just broken her nose, but when she started getting nauseous after practice, she knew something was wrong.
Eventually she sat down with the trainer and was diagnosed with a concussion, and at first McLaughlin was somewhat relieved that it wasn't something worse. After all, she'd suffered a concussion once before as a junior in high school, and in that case she just had a headache for a few days and was back on the court a week later.
Needless to say, she figured that would be the case again, but then a week went by, and then another, and she was still having headaches. Months passed with little progress, and then before she knew it, the season was over.
During that time, McLaughlin began visiting concussion specialists all over the country. They tried every treatment and therapy at their disposal to try and get McLaughlin back on track, but with little success.
"It's just so hard, because you'll see other people with concussions and they have much different recoveries. Some people are a week, some people are like me, two years, a couple of months, it's just so different, so it's hard to know what to expect," McLaughlin said. "Even now, I wish someone could tell me 'you'll be better then,' but that's the hardest thing, not knowing when you're going to feel better. That's the worst part about it."
McLaughlin said she heard the same message from every doctor: "You will get better ... We just don't know when." And while she held out hope, eventually reality began to set it. Once a year had passed, she began to harbor doubts on whether she'd ever be able to return at all, and then when the two-year anniversary came and went in November, she was finally forced to face the bitter truth.
She wasn't coming back.
A SILENT STRUGGLE
McLaughlin has never come out and formally announced that she's finished, but over the past few months it has become something of an unspoken truth around the program. In many ways the decision has helped McLaughlin in her recovery, because now she doesn't have to stress about trying to make it back in time for the season, or about letting her teammates down.
"I kind of realized that I need to get better for my life, and I don't want to risk getting hurt again or something happening from me playing," McLaughlin said. "I love the sport but I don't love it enough to be in pain for the rest of my life, just because some doctors have said 'if you get hit again you could have a really debilitating future' and that's not worth it to me at all."
The past two years have been difficult enough for McLaughlin, who has endured nearly constant headaches and frequent bouts of nausea while trying to navigate the demands of college as best she can. While she has made some progress, she described life as a daily struggle, and said one of the most difficult things for her is the fact that many people often assume everything is ok, even though she's suffering inside.
"I wish people knew that, even though I look fine on the outside, that's the hard thing because there is no cast, you know what I mean?" She said. "People can't tell walking on the street that I'm in pain. So I think that's another thing for people to be aware of, that people are suffering, they have these symptoms on the inside that they don't show."
McLaughlin said that other athletes need to be aware of the dangers of concussions too, adding that anyone who thinks they might have a concussion needs to take it seriously and report it, otherwise they could wind up getting seriously hurt.
"People need to be aware when they're playing that if they don't feel right after a hit, they need to step aside and get checked out," McLaughlin said. "It just scares me now when people get hurt and you can tell something's off and they don't report it. Because people do that all time time, no one wants to miss playing, but it's really not worth being out."
While McLaughlin hasn't been able to play, she's stayed involved with the program, attending every home game and participating in any team functions she can. She said the support offered by her coaches and teammates has been huge for her, saying she doesn't know what she would have done without them.
One regret McLaughlin does have is that she never got to play a game in front of the home crowd at Merkert Gymnasium. Instead, she has spent the last two years watching the games from the bench, the closest she has ever come to stepping foot on the court since her injury.
"I just miss being on the court, I miss that stress relief, that intensity ... I just miss playing for something," McLaughlin said. "Sitting on the bench, it's fun to watch, but it's nothing like being in the game and being able to make a difference, make an impact. On the bench I can clap, I can cheer and I can look for things for people to improve on, but I can't be part of the action, that's what I miss the most."
But now that she knows basketball is in her past, McLaughlin said it's been easier to look ahead. Though she doesn't know exactly what she wants to do after college, she is majoring in management and is currently looking into summer internships. But long term, she's focused on continuing her recovery and hopefully one day reaching a point where the headaches finally go away.
When that day comes, she said she'll probably look back on her time at Stonehill positively, with all of the friendships she made along the way, though not without a sense of regret.
"I'll have a positive outlook on it, but it's definitely been not your ideal college experience. I wouldn't wish it on anyone," McLaughlin said. "I'm trying to focus more on my future and not really think about basketball anymore, so I'm looking forward to life outside of Stonehill and to leave this in the past, with my concussion, and have a fresh start."