|Claire Marburger is a preseason All-American who leads Luther in scoring. But there's much more to who she is as a person.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
By Nathan Ford
Claire Marburger sits down in a quiet room with bare walls, opens her laptop and turns on some music. Sporting a Luther College jacket and New York Yankees ballcap, she looks into the camera and hits record.
“Bear with me.”
Basketball practice starts tomorrow at Luther.
You want to know how Claire ended up there.
She’s heard the questions.
Why did she pass on a Division I scholarship?
Why has she transferred to a school in the same conference?
Over the next 25 minutes, Claire tells you her story.
It’s long. It’s a little complicated. It is immeasurably important.
“I want to say I’m not telling this to get compassion.”
On Feb. 21, 2015, Claire Marburger scored 34 points for Perry High School in an Iowa Class 4A regional semifinal game against Winterset.
Perry lost, 63-58, and in Claire’s head, she had failed.
She was Perry’s all-time leading scorer, the Class 4A Player of the Year and a member of National Honor Society. None of it mattered to her brain when the buzzer sounded that night.
“I no longer thought highly of myself,” she said in an email this week. “I no longer thought I was worthy of everything that I had achieved, and earned.”
Claire believes this is when her depression started.
“It’s hard. It just is.”
Claire started playing basketball when she was 5. Growing up the middle of five children, she was naturally competitive.
“I think I initially liked basketball because I was good at it at a young age and was killing everyone in Biddy Basketball, and it gave me something to focus my anger and competitive nature on when I was little,” she said. “It was and is still used as an escape for me.”
Around that same time, Perry won the 2002 Class 3A state championship.
Claire admired those girls.
From that day, a goal was etched in her mind: hold up a state-qualifying banner, bus to Des Moines, step onto the floor at Wells Fargo Arena in Perry blue and white.
Take part in the state tournament.
The Jayettes were 19-5 her junior season, but came up a win short of state. Her senior year, they were 15-8. State was two wins away.
“I lost a little love of the game and lost a lot of who I was,” she said.
You should know how hard Claire worked to get here.
She joined Kingdom Hoops, an Ankeny, Iowa, AAU program in sixth grade. Yes, she was gifted, but at first, she was only a practice player.
She was dedicated to improving and eventually started playing in travel tournaments. By eighth grade, a college basketball scholarship became realistic.
After standing out on the AAU circuit the summer before her junior season, recruiting picked up.
On Aug. 26, 2014, Claire verbally committed to Valparaiso in Indiana. A few months later, she signed a National Letter of Intent, accepting a scholarship offer to play Division I basketball for the Crusaders.
“I hated the recruiting process,” she says now.
“I know this may sound ungrateful, and I am sorry for that. I am very proud that schools and coaches appreciated my work, but some nights I wanted to sit on the couch and just watch some Wednesday night TV shows with my family. By the time I got an offer from Valpo, there were many girls from my AAU team that were committed and I was just tired of the recruiting process.”
Claire averaged 22.9 points as a junior, 23.5 as a senior. Her Valparaiso teammates had similar accolades. She was more than qualified.
But when she moved to the Indiana campus, her brain made comparisons anyway, about two resume notes she didn’t have: state qualifier, state champion.
“I don’t know what got me through that week.”
For a week and a half the summer before her freshman season, Claire went to Valpo basketball workouts and slept. Then she slept, and slept some more.
“I slept because it was a way to escape my own life,” she said.
If you are wondering what requires escaping from a Division I basketball scholarship, Claire will tell you.
“That week was the only and last time I thought that I would be better off dead than alive,” she said.
She called her parents, Dan and Elizabeth. They brought her home. Claire said the 400 miles were too many. She knew that wasn’t entirely true.
Telling the whole truth was so much harder than it might sound to you or I.
“It made me feel weak…”
It was a physical before Claire’s sophomore year of college.
You may have seen a healthy student-athlete.
She averaged 17.1 points in her first season at Central College in Pella, Iowa, about 81 miles southeast of Perry. She was named second-team all-conference and her team’s MVP.
Claire knew she wasn’t healthy. She told her doctor everything.
Claire was diagnosed with clinical depression.
“As much as I wanted to get through this alone, I couldn’t,” she said.
According to the World Health Organization, 350 million people suffer from depression worldwide.
It doesn’t discriminate.
There is no quick-healing method.
“I was so ashamed that I asked my doctor to call my mom and tell her, because I knew I would never get myself to do it. I did not want my parents disappointed in me again.
“To my parents: I know you were never disappointed. My head was just telling me something different.”
Claire started seeing counselors. She returned to Central for her sophomore year.
She kept seeing counselors. She kept playing basketball.
“You’re worth it.”
The next season, Claire averaged 20.1 points for the Dutch. She was named first-team all-conference, even as Central went 9-16.
She didn’t enjoy it.
“Basketball is part of my identity, and it has been a constant in my life since I was 5,” she said. “I knew that I was not in the right spot if I dreaded doing the one thing I loved, playing basketball.”
It was time for a change again. This time, Claire would pick where she wholeheartedly wanted to go.
Central’s final game last season was at Luther, an 83-68 loss.
Claire was impressed.
“I really respected Coach (Amanda) Bailey,” she said. “She was one of those coaches that you want to impress even during warm-ups. She intimidated me. I felt like she would glare at me on the sideline during warmups, and I wanted to intimidate her right back.
“It did not work for me.”
That stuck with her.
Claire reached out shortly after the season. She visited the campus in Decorah. She found a place she loved.
“I wondered if I was crazy because I have never really pressed a day in my life and we run an up-tempo game with a full-court press all game,” she said.
“I really liked Coach Bailey and the girls, but I think what the most intriguing thing was that no one knows me up here in Northeast Iowa.”
This was the fresh start Claire had been looking for.
“What more is there to me?”
Claire leads the Norse (12-7) with 17.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this season. She wants to win the Iowa Conference tournament, make it to the big dance.
Here’s the most important thing: she is happy.
“There is still a small part of my love of basketball that will always be lost due to not getting to state in high school and not achieving that goal, but being here at Luther, on this team, I am finally happy again,” she said.
“I love basketball again.”
That’s not all.
“Off the court, I am majoring in Business Management with an emphasis in marketing,” she said. “This summer I have an internship with a real estate agency and if I really enjoy that, I will look to pursue that. I have always been interested in houses and architecture plus I’m a very ‘people person,’ so I think I would really enjoy it and buying a house is a big deal, and a big moment, so if I can help people have those big moments, that would be pretty cool.”
Yes, Claire is a basketball player, and an exceptionally talented one. But, as she’s learning, she’s more than that.
All athletes are.
Claire recently came across a Players Tribune article from NFL receiver Brandon Marshall. It was about his battle with depression.
It sounded familiar.
“After this article, I just kept looking up athletes with depression and their stories, and holy cow, there are a lot of them,” she said. “I am not alone. Many people go through this. This isn’t something to be ashamed of and this doesn’t make me weak.”
She warmed to the idea of telling her story.
There have always been questions. The latest: Where are you transferring next year?
Claire decided to open her laptop. She hit record. For 25 minutes, she bravely answered the questions, courageously described her journey.
She posted the video on Facebook and her blog.
“Depression, it’s given me a lot. It’s gotten me to where I am now. But it’s hard.”
The next day, Claire went to basketball practice.
“I was worried because I did not want people feeling sorry for me, I didn’t want any sympathy, that was absolutely not why I shared it,” she said. “Reactions were very similar. Many people were shocked that I went through this, which is understandable.
“The other reaction was the one I wanted. I had close to 20 people reach out and thank me for sharing, and they shared a little bit of their story with me, and said it was nice to know that they aren’t alone, or they said they had been through it and if I ever wanted to talk to just reach out to them.
“I was unsure about sharing my video, but after receiving messages like those, it made me happy that I did share. I was afraid to look weak, but realized that it took a stronger person to admit and share their imperfections.”
Now you know Claire Marburger’s story. Maybe you know one like it. Maybe it’s similar to yours.
Hopefully you know the world is better with you in it. Hopefully your words and actions tell others they have so many reasons to be here.
“I don’t like to open up much. But seriously, it’s important to be happy.”
Claire headlined her blog post “Who Am I?”
This is Claire, in summary:
“I want people to know that I AM much more than a basketball player and I DO have imperfections. Off the basketball court, I am a fun-loving, caring person (even if my ‘game face’ says differently) that goes by the nickname: BIG THUNDER.”
Even in the middle of winter, we will always need thunder.
If you are suffering from depression and need help, tell your primary care doctor or another health professional.
If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for toll-free, confidential calls at 1-800-273-8255.
“I would tell (anyone who is struggling) that as soon as I admitted to struggling, and reached out for help, my life got better. It surely wasn’t an overnight change, but it has gradually gotten better, and I am the happiest I have ever been now. I would also say though that it takes time, and only on your time can you admit it and get help. No one can do that for you, and I know how hard it is to admit it and to ask for help, but I wish I would have done it sooner. It would have saved me a year and a half of living every day as a zombie, and just going through the motions day to day. It’s hard and it is going to be hard, but as soon as you do it, you are closer to finding happiness and the pieces of you, you may have lost.”