Vandegrift’s Jayelen Gray completes comeback from cancer


Jayelen Gray wanted to deliver the news.

Days after learning he would miss the majority of his sophomore football season, he decided he didn’t want to hide the reason from his Vandegrift teammates. He didn’t want Vipers coach Drew Sanders to tell them, either.

So the soft-spoken Gray stood in front of a locker room full of young men and said the words that would change all of their lives.

“It was hard to say,” he said this past week, almost a year later to the day.

Looking out at his teammates, Jayelen Gray told them that he had cancer.

***

The bump in Gray’s right wrist first showed up during a track and field practice in the spring of 2015.

Then a freshman at Vandegrift, Gray had decided to give the shot put a try. He struggled with the necessary technique at first, and came away noticing some pain in his right wrist.

“I looked down, and it was like a little ball there,” he said. “I went to the trainers to get ice on it because I thought it was like a bruise or something.”

About a month later, the bump remained unchanged. After an ultrasound, Gray was referred to a rehab center that provides manual therapy and massage treatments. By this time, the 2014-15 school year had ended, and little had changed, but since his wrist didn’t hurt now, Gray began offseason workouts with Vandegrift’s varsity football team.

He had been building toward this day since his family moved into the Leander school district in the spring of 2013. Classmates and coaches quickly took notice of Gray, then a seventh-grader, because of his size and strength.

“Someone came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, there’s a new kid (in middle school) who can bench 225 pounds five times and has never lifted a weight in his life,’ ” said Dylan Hudson, now a senior starter on Vandegrift’s defensive line. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to meet this kid.’ ”

Teammates immediately took to Gray, recognizing not only his talent but his positive energy.

“He has such a good heart and he’s always smiling,” Hudson said.

Two years later, Gray had developed into a promising defensive lineman who was 6 feet, 1 inch tall and weighed 205 pounds, but his odd-looking right wrist remained an issue. Knowing that, Sanders suggested Gray have the wrist examined again to make sure he wouldn’t injure it further.

His uncle Barry Gray, who along with is wife Nicole Gray are Jayelen’s guardians, agreed and took Jayelen to see an orthopedic surgeon. A biopsy was performed, with tissue taken straight from the bump on Gray’s right wrist. Finally, the 16-year-old had a diagnosis: epitheliod sarcoma, a rare form of soft-tissue cancer.

***

Gray’s disclosure left his teammates in shock. He already had played in the first three games of the Vipers’ 2015 season, racking up 21 tackles — including six solo stops — in victories over Elgin, Abilene Cooper and Killeen. Yet there he stood, announcing that he was preparing for a greater battle than any of them could imagine.

“That moment was so tough, to see someone who’s always so happy and energetic and positive at one of the lowest moments of his life,” Hudson said.

For Gray, the announcement provided a dose of reality that hadn’t kicked in before that moment, and Barry Gray noticed a change in his nephew from that day forward.

“That was the first point where I saw, ‘Wow this kid’s pretty strong,’ ” Barry said. “Because I wasn’t ready to do that. … I kind of took his lead from there.”

Vandegrift played East View the following week, and — with Jayelen Gray wearing his No. 52 jersey on the sidelines — won 45-13 to improve to 4-0. The Vipers dedicated the season to Gray.

In October, he had five lymph nodes removed from his right bicep and armpit to prevent the cancer’s possible spread. Shortly after the surgery, he began radiation treatments. The Vandegrift community pitched in to help cover the cost of Gray’s treatments, coming together for a charitable car wash in mid-October.

“Everyone just gave me hope,” he said. “They prayed for me every day. That gave me a lot more strength to push through everything.”

Sanders sent encouraging texts to Gray almost daily, and Hudson recalled Gray telling him, ‘I’m playing. I’m playing; I’m doing it.’ He was always positive.”

Gray continued the radiation treatments through December of 2015. In late January of the new year, surgeons removed cancerous tissue from his arm.

“I was extremely nervous,” Gray said, thinking back to the surgery. “The night before I was crying because I was scared to get it done. … But it was either that or get my arm taken off. I didn’t want that at all.”

The first part of the operation went according to plan, with the tumor being fully removed. The second part — a reconstruction of Gray’s forearm — proved more complicated, as a skin graft had to be done and blood flow to the arm had to be restored.

“Everything looked like it was OK,” Barry Gray said, “but once you’re in there for 10 hours, you know something’s not right.”

After Gray had spent 12 hours on the operating table, blood flow still had not returned to his right arm.

“I’m thinking he’s going to lose his hand,” Barry Gray recalled.

Those worries were alleviated in the morning, when surgeon Robert Whitfield brought Gray back into the operating room and this time, was able to restart blood flow to the arm.

“I believe it was a miracle,” Sanders said.

***

Gray still faced a long road back to football.

Infections from the skin grafts led to an extended stay in the hospital and prolonged his recovery. Even when he returned home, he wasn’t allowed to leave the house for fear of another infection taking hold. Still, he never lost sight of his goal of playing football.

“I would try every day to go down the hall and back,” he said. “Some days I could do it and some days I couldn’t.”

Fewer than six months after his surgery, he joined the other Vipers for summer workouts.

Then in August, it happened.

In Vandegrift’s season opener against the legendary Odessa Permian, Gray dug his right hand into the turf at Monroe Stadium, coiled and ready to spring at nose guard.

”It was incredible,” Gray said. “Before I went on the field, I gave coach Sanders a hug and I told him thank you. Then I gave all my other coaches a hug.”

In front of a packed house, he drove a Panthers offensive lineman backward as Vandegrift junior Jonathan Roth picked off a Permian pass that led to a second quarter field goal.

Gray continues to work on his conditioning, but he has upped his snap count each game while recording seven tackles this season. In the Vipers’ close loss to state-ranked Westlake on Friday, he made a crucial third-down stop to force a second-quarter field goal by the Chaparrals.

In its first season as a Class 6A program, Vandegrift has started 1-4, but Gray and his teammates know all about comebacks now.

“He’s been an inspiration to me, I can tell you that, and reminded me — multiple times — why I coach,” Sanders said. “As a coach you get wrapped up in wins and losses, and then I look over at him and he reminds me that there’s a lot more important things than a win or loss. And he’s winning right now, for sure.”

Barry Gray said Jayelen will continue to have quarterly check-ups for the next few years, but for now all is well. Barry also has noticed a fundamental change in his nephew.

He believes it’s more than a coming of age.

“There was already a fundamental degree of strength that he was brought into this world with,” Barry Gray said. “These events emboldened his strength, deepened his faith and I think it actually got him to be a bit more outspoken and personable.”


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