The cruelest joke in sports history has to be the one that fate played on a skinny sunbeam named Joe Kay.
Joe Kay was one of Arizona's best high school volleyball players. All-conference in basketball. Scholarship to Stanford. Class valedictorian. Perfect math score on the SAT. President of Associated Students Against Hunger. Lead sax in the school band. Vegetarian.
All until this moment: It's the night of Feb. 6, 2004. Joe Kay is the 6'5", 175-pound flagpole whose monster dunk has just put Tucson High up for good against archrival and state powerhouse Salpointe. The fans are chanting his name as if it were one happy word: "JoeKay! JoeKay!"
The buzzer sounds, the rafter-scratching crowd of 1,000 spills onto the floor as if a dike has burst. A throng of delirious boys runs madly at Joe Kay, out of their minds with desire to grab, carry and/or dog-pile their hero, all at once. But for Joe Kay it's like being hugged by the 5:15 train. They are coming too hard. He tries to brace himself, but two guys flat-out tackle him. A dozen more pile on. Joe Kay gets twisted. Something freaky happens inside his neck.
Joe Kay winds up in a hospital, his right side is paralyzed, and he can't say a word. In another room the doctor is telling Joe Kay's mother, Suzanne, that when her son got body-slammed, his carotid artery was briefly blocked, keeping blood from his brain. Joe Kay had had a stroke. "This is big, this is permanent, and this is devastating," the doctor said.
Joe Kay was not a braggart, not evil, not a spoiled jerk. Why hit him with a lightning bolt the very moment he scaled Everest? Why take one of the greatest moments of his life and, three seconds later, make it the worst? How could a bunch of students trying to idolize him paralyze him instead?
If it were me, I'd sue God. I'd be so angry, I'd make King Lear look like an Optimist Club president. I'd be bitter and vengeful and a human storm cloud. But not Joe Kay. He isn't down. Joe Kay wouldn't see a glass half empty if you dumped it over his head.
"There's no why about it," says Joe Kay, who walks and talks and thinks with a little hitch now. "It just did. It sucks. It happened to me. I don't dwell on it. What are you going to do about it? I mean, how bad is it compared with what's happening to people in Sudan? In India?"
There are only two little things that bother Joe Kay:
1) He wishes he'd simply laid in the big basket instead of tomahawk dunking it. He thinks his dramatic slam yanked the crowd off its chain. "I think that dunk is why I'm talking to you today."
2) He wonders when the two guys who tackled him will say they're sorry. "It's been a year and a half, and they've never come forward. I mean, I know they didn't mean to hurt me. I don't want to sue them. But it's kind of upsetting. I just think they should apologize. I think everybody would feel better."
Joe Kay did not go to Stanford the next fall. That's because he was working his butt off 12 hours a day in a rehab center in Phoenix, learning how to live with a body that only half worked. Here was a kid who once could recite all the presidents in 10 seconds now having trouble with an 8√∑4 flash card.
The bills have mounted like cordwood. Suzanne and husband Fred, a retired public defender, sued the Tucson school district for failing to provide enough security to control the crowd. Their son's bills "could reach a million dollars," says Suzanne, and she and Fred want the school district to assume some of the responsibility.
So you can imagine how it drives her crazy when people come up and say, "God must've had a plan for Joe."
"That's bull," says Suzanne, who has returned to teaching law after taking a leave to help take care of Joe. "God had nothing to do with this.... I have no interest in a God who would do that to my son."
But 19-year-old Joe Kay is like ipecac syrup--you can't keep him down. Two years behind schedule he starts at Stanford in about two weeks.
This Joe Kay isn't half as quick of feet or brain as the old one, but he's twice as determined. He still can't move his right wrist and hand, so he's going to play one-handed trumpet instead of sax. He'll write essays on a one-handed keyboard. He'll be The Fan, not The Man.
Let them try in Palo Alto the same as they tried in Tucson--it's impossible to make this kid feel sorry for himself. "I mean, it's pretty hard to sit here and discuss how terrible a life I have," he says, "when everything's been perfect for me my entire life, you know?"
Sometimes in sports we get it backward. The time people ought to be chanting, "JoeKay! JoeKay!" is now.
• If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to email@example.com.