Archdeacon: Premature end to hoops career ‘was like experiencing a death’

Concussion issues sideline Wright State junior

As soon as Jenasae Bishop finally was able to lift herself up off the floor onto unsteady legs and start an unfocused wobble off the practice court, her emotions began to well, the tears began to spill and soon Wright State basketball coach Katrina Merriweather was at her side, hugging her.

“She was walking and blinking and she just had this strange look in her eye,” Merriweather said. “She wanted to practice again, but you could just tell.

“I was like, ‘Y’all, she’s not OK!’”

This happened just before the current basketball season began – during a Raiders’ preseason practice – when the 5-foot-6 junior guard suffered her third concussion in just over two years of college basketball.

The first one had come during a practice early in her freshman year at Boston College. She caught a teammate’s inadvertent elbow in the middle of the forehead and the blow was serious enough that it sidelined her for two months of that 2018-19 season.

The next two concussions have come since she transferred to Wright State before the start of last season.

Although she’d been a top 30 in the nation point guard recruit, had begun getting college offers as a high school freshman, scored 1,984 points at East Chicago Central High even though she missed part of her senior season with a torn ACL and still ended up a top candidate for the prestigious Indiana Miss Basketball award, the cumulative effect of those three concussive blows has permanently knocked her once-celebrated career way off course.

At times it sent her – as she admitted in a candid, heart-pouring conversation with me the other day – into what she called some “very dark phases.”

Although she said she’s dealt with two years of depression, she said she’s kept much of it from her family, many of her teammates and her friends.

“I don’t know if this is too sensitive to bring up, but after my first concussion already I was having some thoughts that…aaaah… that I shouldn’t have been having,” she said quietly. Later, she got more specific: “Suicidal thoughts, stuff like that.”

When you think of college basketball, the injuries that come to mind are torn ACLs, sprained ankles and dislocated fingers.

But over the years concussions have especially impacted some of our local college teams.

Less than two months ago, Chase Johnson left the Dayton Flyers for the second season in a row because of mental health issues that he initially tied to post concussive stress syndrome.

The 6-foot-9 forward suffered three concussions in his first two seasons at the University of Florida and he played just six games for the Gators. At UD he played eight games last year and then started the first five this season.

Six seasons ago UD lost grad transfer Ryan Bass after the 5-foot-9 guard suffered his second concussion of the season in a game against Ole Miss. The Dunbar High grad also had four concussions while playing three seasons at Oakland University and finally doctors here told him it was too risky to continue playing.

That same season Wright State guard Kendall Griffin’s career ended after he suffered his second concussion of the season – he was fouled going up for a lay-up at Oakland – and the fifth of his college career.

A few years ago a study by the National Athletic Trainers Association found that female basketball players are three times more likely to get a concussion than men.

Three years ago, in the most extreme case, Missouri State star Audrey Holt was forced to give up college basketball six games into her senior season after suffering what she said was the 14th concussion of her sports career.

While it didn’t take that many to waylay Jenasae, the three concussions she suffered came with serious consequences. After the elbow at Boston College, she took a charging foul against Xavier in just her third game as a Raider last season. That sent her flying backwards, her head bouncing hard off the court.

“I was out of it,” she recalled. “It was similar to the first one. I couldn’t walk in a straight line. I was a little confused, my head hurt and light hurt my eyes.”

The final blow this year came in a preseason practice when, she said, an off-balance teammate caught her hard in the face with her hand.

“Instantly I got a bad headache again,” she said quietly.

She said the next day she remembers sitting with Merriweather at practice:

“We had a pretty deep conversation about my struggles and what I’d gone through with previous concussions.”

Merriweather remembered the heartbreak of the moment:

“It was awful. We were sitting there and she started to cry. We got up and started to walk out of practice and I was trying to hug her and she was literally falling into my arms.

“That night I called her parents and said, ‘I’m not putting that kid back out on the floor, something’s not right.’”

By then the WSU trainers and medical team were well into their treatment and tests of Jenasae.

When the test results came back, she said “The neurologist told me it wasn’t good. He recommended I never play again because potentially it could hurt really me.”

Merriweather was taken aback by the report: “The results of the neurological tests were pretty incredible. She had suffered severely in the cognitive area. It’s why the doctors recommended she never participate in contact sports for the rest of her life.”

The reality was crushing Jenasae said:

“Hearing that just broke my heart. Hearing basketball was over, it was like experiencing a death.”

‘A magician on the court’

Naomi Bishop, Jenasae’s mother, is a head cashier at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana.

Kendell, her father, is a member of the United Steelworkers 1010 and some 17 years ago he said he was asked to help coach his sister’s basketball team:

“I said I could, but there was one problem. I had to watch Jenasae because her mom worked a different shift than I did. The folks there said fine, so Jenasae – she was about four – started coming to the gym and throwing the ball up.”

Later Naomi signed Jenasae up for cheerleading, too.

“Right after the first time, I was like, ‘Mom, this is not for me,’” Jenasae laughed. “I didn’t feel like I fit in with everybody else and I never went back.” She did feel at home in the gym and by eighth grade there was a buzz about her game. She was small and fearless and skilled.

“She was a magician on the court,” Kendell said.

In one game – that was later trumpeted in the local newspapers – she led East Chicago Urban Enterprise Academy in a triple overtime tournament loss where she was one of just three players from her team still left on the court.

The rest had fouled out, but she picked up the slack.

She scored a whopping 72 points.

Soon after, she got her first college recruiting letter.

Starting varsity as a freshman at East Chicago Central High, she scored 30 points in just her fourth game and ended the season averaging 21.7 points and 6.5 rebounds a game. As a sophomore she averaged 25.2 p.p.g. and as a junior 24.6.

By then she was pursued by schools like Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State, Princeton, Dayton and Boston College with whom she finally signed.

But in the summer before her senior year, she tore her ACL in an AAU game and underwent surgery. She missed part of her final high school season, yet still was chosen an Indiana All Star.

By then the Boston College coach who had recruited her had been fired. He dad, knowing new coaches often want to have their own players on the team, wanted her to go elsewhere, but Jenasae chose to honor her word.

Then came the concussion and she ended up playing in just seven games – 15 minutes total and never scoring – her freshman season at BC.

“I didn’t feel like the system was right for me and decided to transfer,” she said.

A few schools, including Miami University, showed interest, but someone at her old high school, reached out to WSU assistant Tennille Adams, who also had gone to East Chicago Central.

“The first time around she was a top 50 player and we didn’t have a shot at her,” Merriweather said. “But I knew she came from a good family. I knew her dad and some friends of their family and we made an offer.”

Jenasae accepted immediately: “Trina and her coaching staff welcomed me with open arms. I felt like it was the place for me to be.”

WSU won a medical appeal with the NCAA that allowed her to play immediately and Merriweather said: “We were pretty excited by that. She was just what we needed. We never anticipated she’d take a charge against Xavier.”

Jenasae said her fortunes quickly turned that game: “I was really feeling myself that game. I had my confidence back. I felt it through my entire body. I was finally in a groove.

“But then one of my teammates got beat on defense and it was just instinct. I took the charge.” Her dad was watching the game back home: “It was scary. She hit the ground and immediately grabbed the back of her head.

“Right then I knew: ‘This is not good.’”

Great teammate

When she played for the Cincinnati Bearcats, Merriweather said her coach had a special way of reaching players:

“She had this board that had sayings on it and she put people’s names next to different ones. I remember next to my name it said, ‘I will survive because my role is vital.’

“I started a few games, but I was never the best player at UC. I was never the leading scorer. But I remember how important she made me feel.

“And now I try to do the same with all 15 of our young ladies.”

In Jenasae’s case, just as she does with her other players, Merriweather has her scout a specific individual on the opposing team and report the tendencies to her.

“She’s at every practice, every game, cheering and clapping and talking to her teammates,” Merriweather said. “I know some days are tougher than others for her so I let her decide her involvement.

“It’s still not easy for her. She tells me she doesn’t talk sometimes because she feels she can’t get her words out right. She said she doesn’t want to sound stupid.

“But she’s anything but that. She’s a beautiful kid. And she’s getting really good grades, which amazed her doctors considering the cognitive issues. They said, ‘She must have a strong work ethic.’”

Jenasae admitted classes have been a challenge: “I’ve got some short-term memory issues and sometimes when I try to study, nothing really marinates in my brain. It just flies in one ear and goes out the other.” To make it, she said she’s both “gravitated to God, I tell Him I need help,” and around campus she has relied on her friend Jordan: “When I can’t do something, she’ll break it down for me and explain it.” Her approach has been working.

She said she had a 3.8 grade point average and most recently she posted a 3.6.

“All her teammates love her and respect her and think she is pretty amazing,” Merriweather said.

Jenasae’s dad feels the same:

“Sure this is something she didn’t want to hear, something she couldn’t prepare for. But just like she did before, she has to keep moving forward and stay focused and positive.

“I mean, she’s just 21 years old. She’s got a whole life ahead of her.

“She’s going to be OK.”

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