The crowd at Nebraska’s Omaha Marian High School basketball game was in shock. Freshman center Maggie Heim went up for a rebound and had her legs swiped out from under her. Heim’s head hit the floor and everything went black.
“The last thing I remember is the whole crowd going, ‘Oh …,’” she said.
It would be her first concussion, but not her last.
An avid high-school athlete, Heim played not only basketball, but she also ran track and played volleyball. Now, biologically more prone to have concussions since her first had occurred, Heim suffered two more collisions in high school, but she was mentally hard-headed and brushed off the accidents.
“With my stubborn personality, I was like, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’” she said.
Heim eventually bounced back from her injuries and was recruited by Ohio State volleyball coach Geoff Carlston after her sophomore season. She said she considered herself a risk taker. The long distance from home did not bother her because she loved OSU for more than just its athletics.
“If my sport were to ever be taken away, I knew that I would still love the school,” Heim said.
Senior middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe has known Heim since they were in high school, playing each other in the club volleyball circuit. Sandbothe said Heim had an infectious personality, and she stood out on the court.
“Everywhere she went, she would just light up a room, or she lit up a game,” she said.
During her first two seasons as a Buckeye, Heim made a big impression. Her team knew her as a leader and an encouraging voice. Even though she didn’t see a lot of playing time as an underclassman, Heim said she was determined to be the best teammate possible to everyone around her.
“Something about Maggie that not a lot of people know is that she was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met in my life. When it came down to the wire, she was an absolute competitor,” Sandbothe said. “She pushed everyone to be better.”
Just before the NCAA tournament during Heim’s sophomore season at OSU, the past reared its ugly head once again. She was hit in the head during two consecutive practices. Immediately, she knew something was off.
“I finished practice and walked off the court and said, ‘Something doesn’t feel right,’” she said.
The athletic trainers took her into their office and asked her simple questions. “What day is it?,” “Who was the last team you played?,” Heim couldn’t remember any of it.
Despite the scare, she was back in the gym the next day, ready to spend another practice with the team she loved most and take off for tournament play. However, she was sent home to rest, and had to watch the Buckeyes play from a television screen. The following days would be focused on getting back on her feet.
Before Heim left to go back to Omaha for winter break, the trainers suggested this was more than just another hit. Her injury was potentially career-ending. A neurologist’s recommendation confirmed her worst nightmare. She returned to OSU with a heavy heart and bad news for the Buckeye sisterhood.
“I told them I wouldn’t be playing anymore, which is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say to anyone. We sat in the locker room and just cried. It was almost like a loss, like a death,” she said. “I hugged every one of my teammates.”
Sandbothe remembers that day and the greater message that stood out through the tears.
“It was really scary, and it was a realization that this game is something that’s bigger than all of us and it can be taken from you in the blink of an eye.” Sandbothe said.
But just because she wouldn’t be on the court, it didn’t mean Heim was abandoning her team. After telling them the initial news that she wouldn’t be wearing a Buckeye jersey anymore, she also had a second message.
“The second thing I told them is, ‘I’m going to be there as much as I can, as much as I can emotionally handle these next two years because they’re my family,’” she said.
Heim hung around St. John Arena a lot after the incident, because she still had so much love for the team, even if she wouldn’t be playing. It helped her transition into her new role as a student assistant coach.
“It’s a student-coach role, but I think it’s more being a sense of calm, peace and happiness around the team,” she said. “I wanted to continue to bring that in any way I could.”
It was a good fit for Heim. Carlston said she brings a great perspective to the team as a walking example of gratitude.
“One of the most valuable things she brings is that sense of gratefulness, that sense of urgency — understanding that it all can be taken away from you,” he said. “That’s a really essential piece to have within your program, someone who can speak to that and who has lived it.”
As time progressed, Heim began to explore new facets of life outside of volleyball. She expressed interest in television, modeling, the Peace Corps and traveling the world after graduating in May. Heim currently works with Big Ten Network doing play-by-play broadcasting of her team’s home matches.
“It’s in my personality to not say no to things that freak me out,” she said.
Helm said she would have never known about the other opportunities that existed for her had she not gotten injured.
“I’m not a victim to my injury. I’m not curled up in a ball saying, ‘Oh, poor me,’” she said. “I’m using it to motivate myself to go do other things.”
Heim’s story has been an inspiration for those around her, including Sandbothe and Carlston who have seen Heim through all of the stages of her journey. Sandbothe said Heim has grounded the senior class in humility.
“She did a tremendous job of letting people know she was okay and letting people know there is life beyond this game,” Sandbothe said.
As for Carlston, Heim is one of the reasons that being a coach is so rewarding. He’s seen Heim at her lowest and, now, her highest.
“She’s a good example of really why I enjoy coaching,” he said. “To see a player like Maggie go through what she went through and come out of it … and not only come out of it, but come out of it on the other side much better.”
Even though her time as an OSU athlete was cut short, Heim is anything but bitter. She said her days spent as a Buckeye are something that will always be carried with her.
“As difficult as it’s been at some points, there’s been so much joy that’s come from being a student-athlete here,” she said. “I don’t really have words for it. It’s been so unbelievable, but I’m beyond grateful for everything that God has given me and this program has given me.”
Heim has been officially released from the NCAA and OSU, so she is free to decide whether she will ever play volleyball again, but what she’s more interested in is exploring who exactly Maggie Heim is.
“My identity was always being an athlete and that’s where my confidence came from. My happiness was from going to practice and wearing a jersey,” she said. “Something I’m interested in is establishing an identity that’s being a human being and not just being a student-athlete.”