Basketball

Back from brain injury, junior is 'heart and soul' of East Lansing

East Lansing's Justin McAbee, right, suffered a brain injury in September that caused him to miss most of the football season. The junior has become the 'heart and soul' of the No. 3-ranked East Lansing boys basketball team.

East Lansing’s Justin McAbee, right, suffered a brain injury in September that caused him to miss most of the football season. The junior has become the ‘heart and soul’ of the No. 3-ranked East Lansing boys basketball team.

EAST LANSING — For the first few seconds after Justin McAbee collapsed on the East Lansing High School football field in September, he thought he was dying.

The junior outside linebacker and team captain had jogged onto the field just moments earlier. Then he collapsed, untouched, onto the turf. His arms and legs went numb.

“I was aware of my surroundings, but I couldn’t respond to anybody,” he recalls. “I was just super scared.”

His mother sprinted from the bleachers. For the next few minutes, he stared up as she begged him to say something, anything. Tears were spilling down her face.

“He was staring dead ahead at me, but there wasn’t any activity,” McAbee’s mother, Michelle Lawson, said. “He wasn’t moving, speaking, just staring straight ahead with no emotion. I was crying and begging him to respond to me, but I just wasn’t getting anything.”

Emergency workers carefully put McAbee into an ambulance and rushed him to Sparrow Hospital. He became responsive during the ride.

McAbee now describes the collapse as “a blessing.” Doctors determined McAbee’s brain was bleeding from a hit he had suffered two weeks earlier against East Kentwood. Although he passed the school’s concussion protocol at the time, his injury was more serious than anyone knew. A doctor told him that one more hit to his head could have altered his life.

“That situation had a profound impact on not only me, but his teammates and everybody that was there,” East Lansing football coach Bill Feraco said. “Knowing the type of kid that he is, he’s extremely passionate, and, if there was a testament to a team player, it would be him.”

He spent the rest of the football season recovering.

Five months after that night, he’s playing again, basketball this time.

The junior is back to being the exuberant athlete he once was, and he’s focused that energy onto the basketball court, said coach Steve Finamore. McAbee, he said, is the “heart and soul” of the Class A No. 2-ranked Trojans (18-0).

“It’s an extreme blessing,” said McAbee, who wasn’t cleared for physical activities until late November and was stuck in the house playing video games for two months. “Just to play basketball and move like I did before.”

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Sometimes he starts for East Lansing. Sometimes he doesn’t. His minutes fluctuate based on the night and the matchup. He’s fine with that. He’s just glad to contribute in any way possible.

“I like to describe myself as a role player, as in a person who is always doing the same thing,” McAbee said. “Always bringing energy, not scoring every night, not getting the most rebounds, but bringing defense and energy. That’s all I want to bring to the team.”

Finamore said he’s always known McAbee would eventually contribute to the program, even if his impact doesn’t consistently show up in the box score.

“He’s got the biggest spirit on our team,” Finamore said. “He got the stop at the end of the game against Holt. He stopped a kid going baseline, and the kid stepped out of bounds. In the video, you see Justin jumping up, hopping, he was so excited to do that.”

McAbee’s mother said East Lansing’s season-opening matchup against DeWitt, three months after McAbee’s collapse, was almost too much for her to handle.

“It was a very scary time,” she said. “Relief. Sports are just such a huge part of Justin. He’s been playing sports since he was 5.”

She’s just happy to see her son be himself again.

McAbee said he thinks about the incident every now and then, and he said he’s leaning toward not returning to the football field for his senior year. His focus now is on helping the unbeaten Trojans finish the season undefeated and win a state championship.

“It would mean the entire world at this point,” he said. “It’s been like an emotional roller coaster so far, and, to be at the end, No. 1, with my seniors and brothers, that would be crazy.

“That would be the best feeling ever.”

Contact James L. Edwards III at jledwards@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.