Steve Grey went to extreme measures to watch his son play tennis.
The two traveled around the state and the country as Colby Grey played a busy schedule on the junior tennis circuit. Some years, that meant playing in a tournaments 47 weekends a year.
“He was always there, driving me everywhere. He never complained,” Colby Grey said.
But when they got to each tournament, he didn’t want his dad around — at least not in plain view.
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“When I was 10 or 11, I really didn’t want anyone watching me play tennis,” he said.
He was shy. So instead of sitting courtside with the other parents and risking making his son nervous, dad hid in bushes and climbed roofs to get a view of the court despite a neck injury that made it hard for him to get around.
“He would watch me play these tournaments that don’t mean anything at all,” Colby Grey said. “No one is watching, no one is looking them up, but that’s how I got good.”
This spring, during his sophomore season at Templeton High School, he would have done anything to have his dad right next to the court to watch him play. But an Oct. 7, 2016, drive to work changed everything for the Grey family. That morning, Steve Grey was killed in Lancaster when a driver allegedly sped through a stop sign and slammed into his car. He was 54.
On top of that, as he and the family grieved, Colby Grey was continuing to battle a long list medical issues that have plagued his youth.
Despite everything that life threw at him, when it was time for the tennis season, he was unbeatable. He didn’t drop a set in league play on his way to a Los Padres League singles title. He also led Templeton High to its first-ever LPL League title.
For his accomplishments, Colby Grey is The Tribune 2017 County Boys Tennis Player of the Year.
Grey doesn’t have to go far to find sanctuary from the chaos of his life.
All he has to do is open the sliding glass door in back of his Templeton home and walk a few steps before setting foot on a beautiful, full-size blue and green tennis court. A ball machine and LED lights overhead means the chance to improve his game any time he wants — just another legacy left by his father, who owned several storage units.
But recently Grey, 16, has spent more time at doctor’s appointments than at practice. It started two years ago when he decided to dramatically change his diet.
“I was eating extremely unhealthy junk food all the time — because I couldn’t get out of my food comfort zone at all,” Grey said. “I decided to change (my diet) very dramatically, and my body went basically into shock.”
Things quickly went from bad to worse.
He was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a condition that made him throw up regularly. He was in and out of doctor’s offices and shed 21 pounds from his already skinny frame. He tried medication, but said the side effects left him with thoughts of suicide. He then had fundoplication surgery to combat his acid refulx but was still throwing up four to five times a week, even though doctors said the surgery would stop it.
“I have worked with doctors for the last two years trying to figure this out,” he said.
Though it all, he kept playing tennis.
“It has been important to me to keep on playing tennis because I could have easily put the racket down when I did get sick, but that’s what kept me going,” Grey said.
Slowly, his heath started to come back in time for the tennis season, and his all-around game flourished.
“I didn’t see that he missed a step,” Templeton High coach Mary K. Housinger said. “He came back in the spring with new shots. He’s incredibly quick and flexible on the court.”
He went 36-0 in league play and 43-1 on the season. He won his first-round match in the CIF-Southern Section Division 4 Championships and helped lead the team past the first round in the team competition following a 17-2 regular season.
“My freshman year, when I was still battling medical issues, I wasn’t sure if I was going to play high school tennis at all,” Grey said. “In the end, the deciding factor was the coach. Mary K has been amazing for the team.”
In a sport where isolation is so common, Grey found a connection in his teammates.
“I think it has been one of the most amazing high school experiences,” he said.
Now he’s become an advocate for the tennis program.
“He is a recruitment officer,” Housinger said, adding that Grey also helps coach players on both the girls and boys teams. “He finds kids and tells them to come out for the tennis team, and kids look up to him.”
His sales pitch is a good one.
“I get people out from baseball and I say, ‘Hey, you can hit a million balls in tennis, whenever you want.’ Most of them will be over the fence granted, but hey, you’re hitting it.”
Coming of Age
As Grey smacked volleys over the net at his home court last week, his smile never faded. Later, even as he talked about his father’s death, he quickly turned words from tragic to positive.
“Oftentimes people look at it and they go, ‘Why are you keeping all this inside?’ It has been a matter of faith to me,” Colby said. “This has really strengthened my faith in God. That’s just what I have learned through all these things.”
And the Templeton community — which has seen tragedy strike all too often recently, first on the football field with the head injury to Isaac Lindsey in 2015 and then in the death of basketball player Shelby Sudbrink earlier this year — has helped Grey, too.
“I have gotten things that I don’t even feel I’ve deserved,” he said.
He was elected Homecoming Prince and Vice President of the ASB, something he could have never imagined as a shy middle schooler. He’s also been inspired to become more involved in the medical field and hopes to one day become a nurse or doctor while pursing his longtime goal of becoming a college tennis player.
“Going into high school, I was very to myself. I had to break out of my shell, and that’s what really helped me,” he said.
‘You just have to go out there and swing’
The medical struggles have continued for Grey this summer. At a tournament in early July at the Avila Bay Athletic Club, he was forced to withdraw when he got sick during a second-round match. A trip to the emergency room revealed inflammation in his heart.
This week, Colby said, he was diagnosed with POTS, a syndrome that causes an elevated heart rate. He’s been ordered to wear a heart monitor for the next three weeks — which means no tennis — and more medical test are on the horizon.
Meanwhile, the driver in his father’s fatal hit-and-run crash was charged with murder in October, but the trial has been delayed numerous times, weighing heavily on Grey and his mother Tiffani Grey, Steve Grey’s wife of 19 years.
Everything Colby Grey has gone through in the past two years — the highs and the lows — have helped him realize what’s really important. He laughs as he thinks about himself as a 12-year-old on the court.
“I never got mad, but I cried a lot four years ago. If I lost I would break down,” he said. “Now ... it’s a match. Compared to what I have already been through, what is the real significance?
“You just have to go out there and swing, and that’s kind of how life is.”