In 2008, Lakota West star Amber Gray was considered one of the top Division I college recruits in the country. Many of the top programs wanted her and after careful consideration, Gray decided to commit to the University of Tennessee.
She had suffered a shoulder injury, which she tried to rehab through conditioning. Her shoulder, however, didn’t get better. Gray elected to have surgery in July of 2009.
The surgery performed at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Knoxville, Tenn., was called a success as Gray’s parents and grandparents sat in the waiting room looking forward to seeing her.
A few hours later, no knew why but fluid filled Amber’s lungs. She could not breathe on her own. She was rushed to the intensive care unit and put on life support where she stayed for four days.
“We went from celebrating the success of a shoulder surgery to not knowing if she would ever wake up again,” Amber’s mother Tonya Carter said.
After the fourth day, she no longer needed life support and was given her own room, even though she was still in a very rough spot. Headaches would cause her to scream in pain, she couldn’t use her left leg, had very limited use of her right leg, and both of her eyes were tracking outward. She also couldn’t remember, for a time, anything for longer than two or three seconds.
“We then went from praying for her life to praying for her quality of life,” Carter said.
It was later determined that Amber Gray had suffered a stroke after a brain aneurysm began to bleed.
“Honestly, I don’t remember any of it,” Gray said of the stroke. “I guess it is sort of a blessing in disguise, I was in and out. Apparently I was in a lot of pain.”
Gray was flown up to Cincinnati on a medical jet to the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute; there she underwent a 12-and-half hour surgery Dr. Mario Zuccarello.
After surviving the surgery, Amber had to learn the basics; including how to walk, how to track her eyes and how to use her shoulder. When Amber finished her three-week rehabilitation at the Drake Center, she still suffered from double vision because she couldn’t see straight out of her left eye.
Gray would make a full recovery, but UT doctors wouldn’t clear her to play.
“They told me that they would keep me on academic scholarship, which is the important thing. If I wanted to stay there, I would have been able to finish school on scholarship, be around the team and get back to living a normal life again,” Gray said. “But they told me that I wouldn’t be able to play anymore.”
Living a normal life for Gray included being on the basketball court. Playing again served as motivation during her extensive rehabilitation. So, she looked at schools that were located closer to her doctors in Cincinnati. She would pick Xavier after also considering UC, Wright State and Miami (Ohio).
“It was always in the front of my mind that I was going to be back on the basketball court,” Gray said. “I was working every day to get to that point, so it was a sigh of relief when my doctors cleared me to play and then Xavier’s doctors cleared me and that it is when it really hit me. I told myself that I had come so far and I just need to keep working hard and I will eventually become the player that I want to be.”
Gray, who has to wear a facemask with a protective pad over her scar from the brain surgery, appeared in Xavier’s season opener against South Carolina Nov. 12. She played seven minutes, scored two points, grabbed a rebound and had an assist.
“When you think about what she has recovered from, the fact that she is living and has the ability to tell her story and to continue to fight and return to the basketball court is nothing short of a miracle,” said Carter, who has attended every Xavier home game and has missed only one road game this season.
More recently, Gray scored 10 points against Mississippi Valley State Nov. 30. Gray also scored in Xavier’s most recent win at Middle Tennessee State Dec. 9. In five games this season, Gray is averaging 4.8 points and 2.2 rebounds for the Musketeers, who are currently 9-0 and ranked fifth in the country.
“She has a long way to go to get back to being that special player that she is. I am excited that she is here, doing it at our program,” Xavier head coach Kevin McGuff said. “She is certainly going to help us on the court, but she is also such a great representative off the court.”