Texas point guard Jamie Carey doesn't like to talk about the concussions and post-concussion syndrome that temporarily kept her out of basketball and forced her to switch schools before returning. But after two years on the sidelines, Carey has returned, better than ever, and transformed the second-seeded Longhorns (27-5) into a Final Four contender.
"I set very high expectations for myself and the people around me," Carey said. "I wanted to start right where I left off, if not better."
Carey, a high school all-American from Colorado, began her college career at Stanford where she set a school season record by making 81 three-pointers and earned Pacific-10 Conference freshman of the year honors. She ranked among the top 25 in Division I in three-pointers per game and three-point percentage (45.5 percent). She appeared to have a bright future ahead of her.
But early in her sophomore year, Carey suffered two concussions within a week and a half during basketball workouts. Suddenly, her head hurt constantly, and she had dizzy spells. She had trouble concentrating in class. She started forgetting little things.
"I had a lot of memory loss," she said. "I couldn't remember where I parked my car at the mall. I couldn't remember if I wrote a check or paid cash."
Her doctors, concerned about further head trauma, told her not to play basketball anymore. Unable to divorce herself completely from the sport, she continued to go to practices and help Stanford as a volunteer assistant coach. She also coached a youth team in her spare time.
Eventually, the symptoms subsided. Carey started playing pickup basketball again. She asked Stanford's medical staff to clear her but was refused.
"I was reevaluated multiple times," Carey said. "My tests results kept getting better and better. I was never cleared, and they said they never would."
At one point during her pursuit to play again, Carey flew to Austin to be evaluated by specialist. The doctors, who were not affiliated with the University of Texas, gave her an encouraging diagnosis.
"They said if I was their athlete they would clear me," Carey said. "I went back to Stanford. They said that's not good enough."
Frustrated by Stanford's unwillingness to budge, Carey started looking for a new school. It didn't take long for her to settle on Texas. Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer called Texas Coach Jody Conradt on Carey's behalf.
"I was kind of thinking maybe if those [Austin] doctors would clear me, maybe UT would," Carey said. "It was just a shot in the dark, and it worked."
The NCAA determined that Carey has two years' eligibility remaining. Because she only played one season at Stanford, Texas could petition for an additional year.
Conradt, who has often compared getting Carey with winning the lottery, was thrilled to add the 5-foot-6 point guard. Carey's competitiveness and intensity were what the Longhorns lacked when they bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the round of 16 last season.
"She's exactly what our team needed," Conradt said. "I jokingly say I think our team was afraid of her in the beginning because she was so much more driven and focused and vocal. Everything was in place except that one piece. If I could have picked any point guard in the country, I couldn't have picked anyone better than what Jamie brought to our team."
With Carey running the offense, Texas has been on a tear this season. The Longhorns earned their highest Associated Press ranking in 15 years, reaching No. 5 in the latest poll. Carey led the team in three-point baskets (47), despite missing a month of the season with mononucleosis. She ranked in the top 10 in the Big 12 in assist average (3.9 per game), free throw percentage (86.2 percent) and three-point percentage (45.3 percent) and earned conference newcomer of the year.
Carey, who hasn't had post-concussion symptoms for two years, knows she has to be careful on the court. She doesn't take charges. Conradt has worked with her on keeping her head up on defense. But despite her best intentions, basketball is a contact sport. In a game against Kansas State this season, Carey ran into a pick and crashed to the floor.
"I got hit pretty hard, and I was fine," Carey said. "I think it was good for my teammates to see that, and I think it was good for my coach and the medical staff to see that."
Carey hopes to lead Texas past the round of 16 this weekend and to its first Final Four in 16 years. The Longhorns will play Minnesota in Sunday's West Region semifinal at Stanford.
"It's been a great ride," she said. "It's been everything I hoped for. More than that, I think I appreciate [basketball] more than I had because I have a new perspective and I know the game can be taken from you in a second. It's that much more special, I think, because of that."