After enduring the effects of a brain tumor, Colleyville Heritage senior Mitchell Gay was forced from the football field, but he landed successfully in the water polo pool.
In the process of treatment for the tumor, Gay said he had vertebrae removed and was told he could no longer compete in football. It was too dangerous to get back on the field and take any contact.
The fact that Gay battled a brain tumor early in his life is another whole story of its own, but the fact he still wanted to compete athletically is where this story is focused.
Gay said football was out, but entering his freshman year, he was told about water polo.
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“I was cleared to play water polo. I tried it out and loved it,” Gay said.
Now, in just the program’s fifth year at Heritage, Gay is helping to establish a legacy for the sport at the school.
“The game is just really fun and I love all the people I play with,” Gay said.
Being a water polo player in Texas has its share of misunderstandings and challenges, too.
Gay said he commonly has to explain there is no horse involved in the sport, and his friends often ask how the scoring is measured. Is it goals or baskets, or what?
“The objective is to score more goals than the other team,” he answers.
One of the biggest transitions for Gay, who had played center in football, was learning that passing and shooting in water polo is done with just one hand. Not using two hands, which is second nature for a center, took a lot of getting used to.
Gay is 5-11, 170, but weighed much more in his football days, he said.
Going from having shoulder pads, jersey, pants, cleats and helmet in his locker to his new equipment list of just a speedo, cap and the ball took a little getting used to, he said, laughing.
The conditioning is quite a change, as well.
“The first game, I went in for a solid 15 seconds and had to come out to the sideline,” Gay admitted. “Now I can go a whole game. Playing four quarters of five minutes means we’re in the pool for about 45 minutes total.”
And Gay is an exception among most of the other water polo players.
Gay estimates that about 95 percent of the water polo players for Heritage are also on the swim team.
“I’m in the 5 percent,” he quickly noted.
“I’m just a competitive player who likes to play along with the team,” he said of why he’s turned down encouragement to be on the swim team. “I told Coach (Daniel) Jau it doesn’t work for me. I just love water polo.”
Playing as a center or set in his new sport, Gay said his role is similar to that of a basketball center playing the post.
Gay has scored goals, too, including a hat trick in the Panthers’ most recent game, a 15-5 win over Irving MacArthur.
Scoring is something Gay also relies on from other, younger players such as sophomore Zach Shelley, who scored four goals in the MacArthur win.
The young Panthers team is 1-1 so far but was headed to tournament play to gain additional game experience before the regional tournament comes up at the end of the month at The Colony.
The top four teams out of the regional will move on to the state tournament, a goal not yet accomplished by the Heritage program.
With just two seniors and two juniors, the Heritage squad should be ready to compete with the other 15-20 teams in the area.
Water polo is not a UIL sanctioned sport, much like lacrosse and ice hockey.
Gay said he plans to attend Texas A&M next fall and is considering the school’s club team to keep up with his love of his new sport.