Keandra Gray rushes out of the goalkeeper’s box. At 5-foot-1, the Shoemaker junior is at a disadvantage against her opponent, but that doesn’t slow her attack.
“She’s probably one of the most feared goalkeepers because of the fact that if they’re coming on a one-on-one, she’s coming out at them with pretty much no hesitation,” Shoemaker girls soccer coach Central Hicks said. “She’s going straight to that ball and she doesn’t care about their size or what have you; she’s coming out hands first, straight to the ball and the contact is probably going to be there and she’s going to move on with her life.”
Gray keeps coming.
She’ll likely never play soccer in college. She doesn’t care.
“She’s fearless. She’s not scared of anything,” Harker Heights coach Royce Mitchel said. “She’s very confident in herself and because of that, it’s very difficult for us to score on her,” Mitchel added. “This last game that we played ... she made just great save after great save and just wore us down to the point where we just felt like we couldn’t score.”
This is the Keandra Gray — a formidable opponent and a fierce teammate — that came out of hiding in middle school. The other Keandra wore long-sleeve shirts to school everyday to hide her hands.
At birth, she was diagnosed with congenital syndactyly, the webbing or fusing of two or more fingers or toes. In Gray’s case, the middle and ring fingers on both hands were bound together. The two outside toes on each foot were similarly fused.
It took numerous surgeries as an infant and child to separate the fingers. Around the two fingers that formed as one inside the womb, scars remain. Despite having surgery to straighten out three fingers on each hand, she’s only able to completely extend the thumb and pointer finger on each hand.
“When I was in kindergarten and I got made fun of,” Gray said. “It was a lot harder being little and people judging you. I didn’t take it as serious because I was (young), but it did take a big toll on me because I felt like I had to hide from everybody.
“But, by the time I hit eighth and seventh grade, I didn’t care anymore. If they were going to know, they were going to know.”
Picking it up
The first couple of shots went through Gray’s hands.
“I’m going to do this. I’ve already started, I’m not going to stop,” she told herself.
She had no intentions of playing goalie when she tried out for the Lady Grey Wolves’ soccer team as a freshman. But, here she was, on the team and in the goal after Hicks asker her to give it a shot.
“It was her tenacity,” Hicks said. “I saw her on the field and I knew what kind of person she was, so when we said we were going to try her in the goal, it was almost like a no-brainer ... because the one thing I did know was she had heart and she was very intelligent.”
Gray was moved up to varsity as a sophomore, but as a field player and the team’s No. 2 goalie. She became the starter when the girl in front of her quit the team just days before Shoemaker’s district opener in 2012.
“Varsity was a lot different,” Gray said, “but I still liked playing goal keeper because I feel like I know what I’m doing in the goal more than I know what I’m doing on the field. ... When I was in the goal, I was like, ‘This is where I should be at.’”
Gray quickly realized at 5-1 she wouldn’t be able to stand in the net and protect the goal by jumping or laying out for a save. She also learned early that normal gloves were too flimsy and specialty goalie’s gloves, with a more rigid structure, supported her hands better.
Her hands often hurt after matches, like the skin on the underside of her fingers is being stretched, but she takes the pain in stride.
“I really didn’t think about how it would affect me playing in the goal,” Gray said of the condition of her hands. “I realized the ball would hit me in the hands ... Sometimes, my hands hurt more than other goalkeepers’ do, but it’s not a big deal to the point where I have to stop playing.”
Gray pushed her hands through her sleeves and stood up for herself.
She was in the fifth grade. Someone had just said something mean.
“I was like, I’m done. This is too much. I’m not going to sit here and let someone walk all over me and get away with it,” Gray said. “I didn’t understand why they had to pick on me. It was just that they didn’t like me and this is ridiculous. Why are you picking on me because I haven’t done anything to you? You’re wasting your own time to go all the way to me to pick on me. I don’t understand that.”
“(It was) like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders because I felt like I didn’t have to hide or have a secret from anyone anymore,” she added.
When friends asked about her hands, she told them the story. And finally, in seventh grade, her hands were her own. Her hands, for as long as she can remember, have been scarred and have their own limits, but they do not limit what she can do with them.
“It’s just the little things that got to me and I just brush them off now because I feel like it’s pointless (to get discouraged),” Gray said.
Beneath Gray’s goal keeper’s glove are two excuses that could’ve kept her off the pitch. But, she puts the gloves on and the excuses go away. She no longer thinks about them. She just plays, waits for an opportunity to come out of the box and the opportunity to rise up to a challenge.
“It’s worth trying to find something you’re really good at, even if you have an obstacle to cross,” Gray said. “I probably never would’ve came out for soccer and played goal keeper if I didn’t come out of that shell in seventh grade.”
Contact Kevin Posival at email@example.com or (254) 501-7562