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Written By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt
One of the best aspects of writing about rugby players is learning who they are and where they came from to become the incredible people they are. It is very true that we are blessed in this sport with a rare breed of human being; I have yet to do a profile on a player that feels they are “all that and a bag of chips” and acts it.
Also, as editor, I fall more in love with the sport every time I work on a piece for The Scrum Newsletter. These are some incredible men and women – who have often overcome obstacles to reach the pinnacle of their sport. I’m honoured to work on all their stories.
No one is more deserving of praise than Pat Kay, an emerging talent on Canada’s Mens Seven’s roster. To say that Pat has been through a lot is seriously downplaying the upward slope he's had to climb on his rugby journey.
What started as a casual conversation with his friend, mentor, and former coach Robin MacDowell quickly evolved into a story I felt needed to be told.
You want to see heart on the pitch when our men and women play? It’s there for all of them, this we all know.
As for Pat Kay, this story is why he plays for two when he steps onto the field.
It wasn’t until Kay, now 24, was about 14 or 15 that he realized he wanted to play rugby at the international level. Prior to that he played baseball and soccer and didn’t realize he was actually a better rugby player than either of those sports. At the time, he chose to leave the rugby to his older brother Thomas. At about 14 he had to make a choice between trying out for the BC Baseball team or rugby. He explained that the decision was a tough one and actually left him in tears.
It was Thomas, according to Pat, who excelled both at school and at rugby. Thomas Kay was a great player, receiving a scholarship for rugby as well as maintaining optimal grades. Thomas loved the sport and by all accounts was headed for great things. Then, just a few weeks after his high school graduation, Thomas thought he was shaking off an on-field injury. But instead of getting better, in a matter of weeks he was much worse and ended up in the hospital. It was never fully discovered what was happening to Pat’s older brother, but the result was a series of radiation treatments, four craniotomies, left-side paralysis, and the inability to communicate verbally temporarily, as well as blindness.
This was, to say the least, a difficult time for the Kay family. “My Mum had to take a leave of absence from her job to stay with my brother at whatever hospital he was transferred to every few months, and my Dad worked out of town throughout the week, which left me alone much of the time or with my oldest brother, Sean”, explains Pat. “I was at a pretty vulnerable age, so looking back I am very appreciative of all the people who helped out my family by bringing me meals or driving me to practices and what not.”
Pat Kay wasn’t much for asking for help. In his own words, he was shy and reserved, choosing instead to go about the business of getting his school work done.
It wasn’t until Thomas became ill that Pat took on his older brother’s dream of a rugby life, adopting it as his own.
“Everything I do in rugby is for him and my family,” Kay states definitively.
Robin MacDowell chuckles and nods at the thought of Pat taking the modest route, knowing full well that his student has never sought the limelight or the glory.
When he speaks about Kay – or rather when he fully gushes about him – MacDowell’s voice is full of pride and awe. “What he went through,” he says, “being the age he was and just knuckling down and getting his school work done and staying out of trouble, it’s not something kids have to go through.”
As MacDowell explains, there was a time the doctors informed the Kay family that nothing more could be done for Thomas, and that it was a matter of time before he’d be gone. The Kay family spent the better part of two years reeling, just not knowing.
MacDowell relates that when he started working with Pat, it was at Thomas’ bequest. Thomas saw some spark in Pat that Pat did not see in himself. But Robin MacDowell saw it as well, so he promised Thomas he would work with the junior Kay.
And so he did. And the more he worked with Pat, and saw that fire ignite in him, the more he realized that Pat was training, and working, and practicing, and improving, for two.
Playing for two.
I asked Pat if he ever felt he was playing for two, as Robin stated he had. He replied “playing for two is a good way to put it. When training is tough, if I am injured or mentally drained, often I will remember that I am representing both of us [he and Thomas] and that gets me through.
"I like to think that at times when Thomas is struggling, he can be proud of some of my accomplishments and even take credit, as he taught me a lot.”
The younger Kay began training with Robin MacDowell and created a deep connection, that as Kay explains, “stemmed from the relationship he had with my brother.” When Thomas decided to pursue rugby, he reached out to MacDowell, as their mothers were friends and Robin already had a career in rugby. Like MacDowell, Thomas had international aspirations. When Thomas became ill at just 18, Pat explains that Robin “took it upon himself to mentor me.
“Mostly throughout grade 10,11, and 12 we would spend multiple days a week kicking and working on skills. He got me involved with the Dog River Howlers and I was able to play in a few tournaments, which were great experiences and allowed me to play against some quality opponents at a young age.” Kay relates that MacDowell even taught him how to drive.
Early on in their training, MacDowell explained that he would work with Kay for an hour or so and then head off to training of his own. He would leave him with the instructions to kick at the posts ten times on the left side and five on the right.
He also asked Kay to “pick a stadium” the way he himself had picked Stade de France in his early years. As MacDowell shares, “I told Pat to pick the stadium you think you’re least likely to ever play in. I picked France and then the first time I played there it was the most incredible feeling. So I told him the same thing. He chose Hong Kong. Then he played there.
"It was an incredible moment for me the first time he played Hong Kong, because I got to be there for it. My team were all asking ‘what’s wrong with coach?’ because I was so choked up.”
Pat remembers as well, saying he chose Hong Kong simply because it looked cool in pictures. There goes the modest player again.
Kay is known primarily as a 7s player, having appeared in 156 matches and scoring 204 points since his 7s debut, but in fact he’s played both 7’s and 15’s, and has yet to decide which game he prefers.
He explains: “I have been training full time now since 2013, and my career has slowly become more and more sevens-focused. I completely support our 15s program, and hope to get more involved in the future, but it’s difficult to say when. It’s not so easy to just flip-flop between the two versions of the game – especially at such a high level. Some guys are more suited to play 7s, and some are more suited to play 15s. I think that I am a good candidate to do both.”
Kay’s current focus to reach the 2020 Olympics, which he says will be another difficult qualifying process, but one that he feels the team are better prepared for and more “ready for the challenge.”
Keen to play competitive rugby as long as possible, Kay hasn’t thought much beyond that. He might try his luck overseas or “even give Rugby League a go.”
He’s also watching the growth of the MLR league with interest, as we all are.
“There are lots of opportunities out there, but for the time being I am enjoying playing sevens on the World Series.”
Kay is busy working hard and enjoying the tours with his teammates, revelling in the experiences they share together on tour, the places they go, and the people they meet.
His favourite stop on the World Series tour has been Cape Town thus far, but without hesitation he names the best place he’s ever played as Vancouver for the home crowd. Nothing like playing for your own supporters and looking up at the sea of red in the stands.
Pat is proud to play not only for himself but for his older brother as well. He thinks of Thomas’ legacy often, and how he’s at the place he is because Thomas believed in him.
Of how Thomas is doing now, Pat is happy to share that after the unstable early years when the family didn’t know or understand fully what was going on, and with doctors just as baffled and therefore not overly helpful, Thomas finally made enough progress in hospital to be able to go home. He’s now living a good life with his parents and part-time caregivers supporting him.
“It’s inspiring that he is able to keep such a positive attitude, I’m not sure that I would react the same way if such a horrible thing happened to me.”
For the immediate future, Kay and his mentor-coach MacDowell are reuniting this August to host some great camps together on Vancouver Island.
On Friday August 22, they will be at their home club Cowichan Rugby 6:30-8:30 pm, then on Saturday they’ll be hosting a camp at Nanaimo Rugby Club form 11:00 am-2:00 pm, then wrapping things up on Sunday with an event at Westshore Rugby Club from 1:00-4:00 pm.
You can find information at macdowellrugby.ca/camps.
Ædelhard is also proud to support the camps, as Robin MacDowell has been named our first Elite Brand Ambassador. With all the gifts Robin brings to the game, and with stories like Pat Kay’s that he has to share, Robin is the perfect choice for us. These camps are fantastic events for us to be part of, with our shared goal of growing the game.
Pat Kay is pleased to be involved as well. He’s proud to contribute to bringing his brand of rugby ‘home’ to the Island.
He says “I encourage any young rugby player to join one or all three of them.” We can’t wait to be part of it, and we know he can’t either.
As for Pat Kay’s future, it’s looking bright. He’s a thoughtful young player on the precipice of great things, be them in 7s or 15s.
This summer he plays in the 7s World Cup, representing Canada, which the entire Kay family is immensely proud of, as is Coach Robin, who says Pat playing in the world cup is the story coming “full circle.”
We will be watching Pat Kay as he 'plays for two'….