Purdue’s Clemons played through pain and grief

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This week, we will share amazing comeback stories featuring student athletes across the state. These college and high school athletes have overcome injury or illness. WTHR is partnering with Methodist Sports Medicine for the Brady Sports Achievement Awards.

Purdue’s Liza Clemons has played through pain much of her basketball career. Clemons points all over her body when asked to play show and tell: torn labrum on her right shoulder, two surgeries on her broken left foot, stress fracture in her left leg, hip problems, severely bruised back. Despite her injuries, the junior forward played in every game this season, averaging 27 minutes, 9 points and 5 rebounds.

"There's someone hurting more than you,” said Clemons, “so you can push through."

But Clemons played this season with more than physical pain. On October 4, her fiancé, Johnny Lee Upshaw, was shot and killed in an apartment building in their hometown of Fort Wayne. Known as Jay, he was just 21 years old.

"He was my best friend before anything else,” said Clemons. “I knew that whenever I had a problem, he was the one I could call. After a game, if I felt like I played bad, I could call him, talk to him about it."

Clemons admits she thought about quitting basketball in the days after Jay’s death. Why didn't she?

“My teammates, my coaches, my family, his family," answered Clemons.

Clemons did not quit and never even missed a practice while she grieved.

"Basketball is the key reason and the Purdue family that helped her process all this,” said Purdue women’s basketball head coach Sharon Versyp. “I think you have to continue to do what you love even though you've lost the person you've loved."

The Boilermakers wore blue shoelaces in memory of Jay this season. Blue was his favorite color, the color the couple wore to prom. Clemons played for Jay during her best season at Purdue.

"I was able to take my anger out sometimes, just running and scoring, fouling if I had to,” Clemons said with a laugh. “It was an escape."

"She's taught all of us so much, her strength and resilience,” said Versyp. “She's just an amazing young lady. God does choose certain people as an instrument and she's one of them. She played battered. It did not matter. She's like, ‘I can play through pain. I can play through anything.’"

Clemons admits she feels old now, worn down from injury and grief. But she lives by the words tattooed on her wrist: “Faith” when read one way, “Trust” when you look at it upside down. Clemons has faith for a healthy and happy senior season and trusts the Boilermakers can hang another banner in Mackey Arena.

The Brady Sports Achievement Awards program is Thursday night at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. The event starts at 7:00 pm. For ticket information, call 817-1258.