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Saturday, March 10, 2007
Updated: March 13, 2:18 PM ET
After the storm

By William Weinbaum and Mark Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com

"Fans rushed the court and then something happened. In a second my life completely changed."

--Joe Kay, 2004 valedictory speech

It was the night before his 18th birthday.

The clock was winding down on the most rewarding basketball game for Joe Kay, a two-sport star who had signed a letter of intent to attend Stanford on a volleyball scholarship.

Kay says he was "on top of the world," Feb. 6, 2004, as he dunked on a breakaway and was about to revel in leading Tucson High's basketball team to a home win over archrival Salpointe Catholic.

But seconds after the 6-foot-6 Kay raised both arms over his head as the game ended, he was knocked down and piled on by frenzied fans who presumably just wanted to hoist him on their shoulders.

Kay's carotid artery was severed, causing a stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side.

Would this ever again be the same Joe Kay, Arizona's student of the year and high school athlete of the year and the region's top saxophone player? What would happen to the math acumen that earned him perfect scores on three different SATs?

For the next eight months, Kay was in rehab, relearning how to walk, how to talk and how to think. He also had to change from being a right-hander to a left-hander.

Now, more than three years after the incident, Kay is a sophomore at Stanford, which honored his previously existing scholarship. He says what he misses most is the special math ability that he had, and he no longer plays the sax because the stroke robbed him of the use of his right hand.

On Stanford's sprawling campus, Kay would have gotten around by bike. Now he navigates Stanford in a customized golf cart.

Until recently, when he spoke with "Outside the Lines," Kay had turned down all national television interviews because he didn't want to dwell on what happened and what he's done to overcome it.

Even with mere mortal math skills, Kay has already passed calculus and economics. Unable to play, Kay has covered volleyball for the Stanford Daily and is a regular at Cardinal men's basketball games, sitting in the "sixth man" section close to the court. If he senses, however, a court-storming might happen, he moves away from the court.

Last year, Kay settled a lawsuit against the Tucson Unified School District for $3.5 million, including $600,000 from the two boys who tackled him.

"I'd throw that $3.5 million out the window for my math ability to come back," Kay says. "That $3.5 million is just to help me make a life for myself."

Kay said he has two goals: raising awareness of the dangers of storming the court, and drawing attention to the needs of students with disabilities. He founded and leads an advocacy group of disabled students.

"My stroke closed a lot of doors for me, but it also opened a lot of doors for me," he says.

Those who know him best say he is the same Joe Kay. A boy who became a vegetarian at age 4, when he learned the hamburger he was about to eat came from an animal who'd been killed to make the meal, Kay still takes on every challenge with quiet aplomb and still would rather see the attention focused on others and not himself.

Kay might have said it best when he addressed the Tucson High Class of 2004 in his valedictory speech:

"All of us will be faced with obstacles throughout our lives. We have to persevere through these things and learn from them. We will have to work hard to reach our goals because, as I have learned, life can change in an instant."

William Weinbaum is an ESPN producer and Mark Schwarz is an ESPN correspondent.