By Bruce Wood
Standing near the hash at his own 15, Dartmouth senior Miles Gay cleanly fielded the opening kickoff of the 2012 Big Green football season, perhaps surprising himself a little.
The senior from Friendswood, Texas hadn't expected the kick to come his way both because he was in for blocking purposes and because he thought Butler's Brett Thomaston was going to cross kick to the other hash. Oh yeah, and because as a linebacker his speciality is tackling ballcarriers not being one.
"Just catching the ball was the first surprise," Gay said with a laugh.
There were more surprises in store.
Gay was about 10 yards up the field when Butler's Jordan Massey broke down in preparation for laying a hit on him. Anticipating the collision, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Gay dropped his own shoulder at the same time.
Score one for Gay. He ended up knocking the Bulldog player backwards and then sidestepped the pileup while other would-be tacklers got tangled in the mess.
"I thought the guy was going to tackle me, but I figured I would make him work for it," Gay explained of the initial hit. "He just bounced off, so I went off to the left."
After escaping the scrum, Gay evaded the last would-be tackler at his own 40 before rumbling down the Dartmouth sideline with a motorcade comprised of Jordan Aré to his right, Kyle Bramble directly behind him and Kirby Schoenthaler behind Aré.
"When I ended up scoring everyone was celebrating," Gay said. "It's just about the most excited I've ever been in my life.
"I didn't realize until I watched the film that I was literally escorted by all the other 10 guys on the team."
It was neither the first time nor the most important time his teammates had his back.
As so many Dartmouth students had before him, Gay spent his sophomore winter not in snowy Hanover but doing a foreign study program in Barcelona, Spain, along with Rob Bathe, Thomas Prewitt and other teammates and classmates.
The first indication of trouble came when some of his friends went out on the town one night in Barcelona at the end of February and Gay stayed in.
"I was a little sick but I wasn't really worried," he said. "I felt like I had a bad cold or something. I was shivering and couldn't sleep."
He rallied enough the next day to try to find a phone to replace one he lost, but when he felt "awful" before class the next morning he was worried.
"I had trouble breathing," he said. "If I laid on my right side for too long I could feel fluid moving around. That's when I knew I had to go to the hospital."
And just in time.
"Thomas Prewitt went with me. He pretty much had to do everything for me," Gay said. "I couldn't even walk to the subway very well. I had a backpack on with the notebook with directions to the hospital and I couldn't even carry that.
"At the hospital they told me I had pneumonia. They said they weren't sure how bad it was but they would need me to probably stay the night because I have asthma. They didn't know if those two were going to link up."
While a group of his friends were heading to Rome, Gay wouldn't be joining them. Also staying behind, fortunately as it would turn out, was Bathe. The center's Spanish might not have been fluent but it was better than Gay's, something that became important after bloodwork done at the hospital suggested he wasn't going to get better simply with a good night's rest.
"The Spanish I knew wasn't ready for a hospital setting so when they came back with the bloodwork they were talking to Rob," Gay said. "He told me, 'I'm not too sure whether what they are saying is good news or bad news, but I think they said you might have to be here for two weeks.'
"That," Gay said, "is when it really hit me."
With her son hospitalized, Monika Gay was ready to fly to Barcelona but Gay told her it wasn't necessary. He would take care of it.
When they told him several days later they would have to use a tube to try to drain the fluid he had a change of heart. "At that point I was like, 'Mom, go ahead and come. I can use you now.'"
It's a good thing she flew to Barcelona because things would get worse before they got better. On Sunday, March 6, his mother's birthday ironically, Gay underwent emergency surgery. While the eight-inch incision he'd been warned about was only five, it certainly wasn't the kind of souvenir he ever intended to bring home from Spain. When he awoke on March 7 he found he had two more tubes in his side.
He spent the better part of the next week at the hospital, thankfully with his mother allowed to sleep in his room. Just as thankfully, Monika Gay wasn't the only family he had family in Barcelona.
He also had his teammates.
"They were great staying with me and keeping me going, especially before my mom got there," he said. "Bathe had episodes of '(It's Always) Sunny in Philadelphia' on his computer and we watched them, which was great because at night I would just be staring at the wall or the ceiling because I couldn't really roll over and I couldn't sleep.
"My mom could tell when I was having a bad day and then pretty much the entire team would come over. She could see me brighten up. It was real good for me mentally and healthwise. It helped a lot."
Helping Monika Gay out, even before she flew overseas, were the Dartmouth football parents, Coach Buddy Teevens and team doctor Jack Turco, who were in constant contact with her.
Gay was finally discharged from the hospital about 12 hours before his flight back to the United States was due to take off.
"At first they weren't going to let me fly," he recalled, "but I was like, 'No, I need to go back to America and go home. I can't be here anymore.' So they let me go."
Gay had weighed in at 220 pounds before leaving for Spain. He returned at 186. Not surprisingly, he sat out spring ball.
"By the first week of the summer I was able to do the running, as much as I could," he said. "I still had some breathing problems but it wasn't bad at all. I was able to do 90 percent of everything. By the time the season came I was full-go and able to do everything I wanted to do."
Technically a walk-on, Gay posted 26 tackles as a sophomore and while that number slipped to eight a year ago, the simple fact that he was back on the field brought smiles to a lot of faces.
But not as many as his return against Butler brought.
"I know we still would've won the game but that changed everything," he said. "That is something that can happen in the middle of the game and change the tide. To have it happen right at the beginning, I knew right there we were going to blow them out."
He knew it even if he was sucking wind a little as he crossed the line.
"I was going pretty good for the first 50 yards, but the last 30 I was hurting pretty good," he admitted.
But the pain was well worth it because 18 months and 3,500 miles removed from his scary time in Barcelona the touchdown return meant whatever debt Gay owed his teammates was paid in full.
A veteran writer and observer of Dartmouth athletics, Bruce Wood launched a web site in 2005, www.biggreenalert.com, specializing in Big Green football news coverage.