Joe Kay's life changed forever on Tucson High's gym floor, but he works hard to provide scholarships for disabled athletes

It's been a little more than 10 years since Joe Kay's life changed forever. And during that time, one of Tucson's most inspirational athletes has made it his life's work to help others who have gone through a similar change.

Kay was a promising multisport star at Tucson High in February 2004 when, after helping to orchestrate a landmark victory for the Badgers' basketball team, he was swept up in the celebration. Literally.

The senior was knocked to the floor by fans rushing the court in Tucson High's cramped gym. During the scrum he suffered a blow to the neck that severed his carotid artery. It caused a massive stroke, leaving him paralyzed on his right side and unable to talk.

The 6-foot-6 Kay was a few months away from graduating and heading to Stanford on a partial volleyball scholarship. All of that was put on hold while he recovered from his injuries. And while he eventually regained his speech and most of the use of his right arm and leg, his athletic career was over.

"I can move my right arm above my head, but my wrist and fingers basically don't have any function," Kay said. "I also still have some minor aphasia, where I know what I want to say but I have trouble saying the words."

Kay still ended up going to Stanford, with the school converting his athletic scholarship to an academic one. And he received additional assistance from an organization that for more than 30 years has provided tuition and other help to physically challenged athletes.

Swim With Mike, founded in 1981, has raised $14 million and helped 162 disabled athletes attend the UA, Stanford, USC and other schools on the West Coast. Started as a way to purchase a handicapped-accessible van for Mike Nyeholt, a three-time All-American swimmer at USC who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident, the charity has grown into one of the largest of its kind in the United States.

The annual Swim With Mike fundraiser was held April 5 in Los Angeles, and satellite events have popped up across California and as far east as Connecticut.

They include the offshoot event known as Float With Mike, scheduled for Saturday afternoon, April 12, at the UA's Student Recreation Center.

Kay, who is living in Tucson again while completing a master's program in social work through Arizona State, was instrumental in bringing Float With Mike here. The event will feature an inner-tube water polo tournament that is open to the public for both watching and participating in, with a suggested donation of $5 per person.

T-shirts, hats and other items will be available for purchase and additional donations will be accepted.

Kay said last year's Float With Mike, the first event of its kind, raised between $3,000 and $4,000. He hopes to at least match that this year.

Swim With Mike has awarded scholarships to 10 people who have attended the UA, including four last year, as well as Drew Donnellan, a Salpointe Catholic gymnast who was paralyzed from the chest down after an injury during a practice in 2006. All of the scholarship recipients were promising athletes who suffered a catastrophic injury, but thanks to the charity have been able to pursue their education without having to worry about some of the costs.

"They really helped me out, which is why I'm so gung-ho about continuing this scholarship," Kay said. "I think I'll probably be involved with the scholarship for years to come."

The help Kay has received is also why, after graduating from Stanford with an American Studies degree and then spending nearly two years on a perpetual road trip across the country, he decided to return to school to pursue a degree in social work. He wants to help others the way he's been helped.

"I'm very interested in working with people with disabilities," he said.

Kay remains an avid sports fan, and like most people in Tucson he followed the UA's basketball season and its run in the NCAA Tournament. He also got to see his college alma mater make its first NCAA appearance since 2008, and a surprise trip to the Sweet 16.

However, Kay found it hard to watch some games this season, the ones that ended with fans storming the court to hoot and holler over what essentially was a meaningless event in their lives. Having experienced firsthand how dangerous such scenarios can be, Kay was disturbed whenever he saw one occur.

"I'd think in my head or say to my friends, 'This is ridiculous,'" Kay said. "You should jump up and down and slap hands with your friends, not run onto the court. It's an issue of safety. The whole institution of rushing the court is dangerous."

College hoops are over for another year, so that issue will need to be put on hold. Kay's focus is on Float With Mike, anyhow, and he hopes this Saturday's event can help keep Swim With Mike's mission moving forward.

"Anyone can come, anyone can enter," he said. "The more people that come out, the better."

Float with Mike Inner-Tube Water Polo Tournament

Noon to 4 p.m., Saturday, April 12

UA Student Recreation Center

1400 E. Sixth St.

$5 suggested donation


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