From nearly paralyzed to professional golf
March 26, 2020
By Adam Stanley, PGATOUR.COM
- Trey Shirley finished T7 at the Mackenzie Tour’s first Qualifying Tournament. (Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada)
As Trey Shirley lie in a hospital bed, he prayed and thought about giving up the fight.
How was this perfectly healthy 18-year-old, with the world at his fingertips, suddenly not able to feel them anymore? Shirley looked for answers. He figured he was going to be paralyzed for life. He couldn’t drive, shoot hoops, go to college or take the next step – literally and figuratively – in his life. He dreamt about what could have been.
And then the dream came true: the feeling returned, first in his fingers and then his toes and then eventually everything came back.
He uncontrollably cried. What more could he do?
“It was very close to me giving up treatment and my body not responding; that’s what makes it so gratifying,” says Shirley, a decade later.
“If there was any sign of [movement] coming back, then there was a very good chance that everything was going to come back. If not, I would have been paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of my life.”
Shirley, with a laid-back drawl and an attitude to match, is from southern Kentucky. He was a star athlete as a youngster, playing tennis and golf for his high school while leading the basketball team in scoring, averaging 25 points per game.
“He was by far our best player,” says his former coach, Tim McMurtrey.
That was before Shirley began his battle against transverse myelitis, an infection that inflamed his spinal cord, which essentially made it stop sending messages to his body.
Shirley says his back had been bothering him for a while after turning 18 but thought almost nothing of it, as he was an active kid and just assumed it was being impacted by how many sports he was playing at the time. He saw a chiropractor who advised the pain would subside. It didn’t.
One morning Shirley woke up to shower before school but couldn’t feel the water hitting his body. He lay on his bed wondering why. His mom, Jane Butler, a teacher, had already left for the morning. Shirley says he couldn’t lift himself off the bed.
He was terrified.
His father brought him to the hospital and he underwent several tests. A blanket placed atop his legs felt like 10 needles poking him. At one point the doctors tried to convince his family he was merely stressed.
“I was a multi-sport athlete, and I had something going on pretty much every day and was talking to colleges (about scholarships and offers). [Doctors] thought I might have just been stressed out, and they were trying to get me to calm down, but I knew that wasn’t the case,” says Shirley. “I’m just not a person to get stressed out over much.”
Butler had connections at the Kosair Children’s Hospital (now called Norton Children’s Hospital) in Louisville, which was about two hours away. Shirley was 18 at the time and wasn’t technically allowed to go to a children’s hospital, but Butler wanted that second opinion and it proved to be one that saved her son’s life.
“I watched an athlete get paralyzed. He’s in a wheelchair. If we didn’t push to get something else done … I was not about to accept the fact that it was stress,” says Butler.
The doctors at Norton started treatment immediately. Spinal taps. Fluid drains. Catheters. At that point, it was just a waiting game.
“Would my body react to the treatment, or would I be paralyzed and my life as I knew it … gone?” says Shirley, remembering the many questions he had.
One day the doctors came in, and he was ready to accept his body was rejecting the anabolic steroids.
But his body had other plans.
“I was just so happy to wiggle my fingers,” he says.
During his time of recovery, Shirley says he was buoyed by the support of his community but also the ability to listen on the radio to his team continue to play on Tuesday and Friday nights.
A few of his teammates drove to the hospital to show their support and later, when he got home, they all got on a bus from his high school and came to wish him well.Trey Shirley (left) with some of his high school teammates shortly after returning home from the hospital.
“I don’t think he would have ever made it had it not been for that,” says Butler.
Even a decade later, McMurtrey, who was also Shirley’s tennis and golf coach (“The main thing I did for him was a whole lot of leaving him alone,” he says with a chuckle of Shirley’s golf prowess), says that whole year is ingrained in his head because of how much uncertainty there was.
The team had no idea what was going on, and then it got worse, he says. McMurtrey remembers getting a call telling him that he needed to get to the hospital.
They didn’t know if Shirley was going to pull through.
“That scared me to death,” says McMurtrey.
The other players began wearing warm-up shirts that all said ‘Shirley’ on the back and pushed through to the regional tournament.
The team then made it to a Class-A state championship in Richmond. After Shirley did some physiotherapy and waited for his muscles and body to recover, he worked out with McMurtrey and his dad one night in a gym to see how he was holding up.
He was fatigued, maybe only 40-50 percent of his previous stature, but he wanted to get back to his team. The sensations came back quickly, once they came back, but it was all about how he could handle things physically.
Shirley suited up. It was nothing short of a miracle.
“He gave it everything he could, but he just wasn’t the same player after the sickness; that was tough on him, but it didn’t matter because he got over it, got well and it was heartwarming the way our community worried about him and took him in,” says McMurtrey.
“Just going from being scared to death and not knowing what was going to happen, to having something lifted us,” continued McMurtrey “It didn’t matter if we played basketball again or if we won another game, it was just great to have him back.”
The human body can do miraculous things, and Shirley’s journey is a prime example. How could he go from being nearly paralyzed to competing again, in multiple sports?
Prayer, he says, was what pulled him through mentally, as well as a positive attitude.
“He was everything you could ask for as a high school athlete. But as good an athlete as he was, he was a better kid,” says McMurtrey.
Shirley ended up walking on to the Western Kentucky University basketball team, but his reflexes were reduced, and he couldn’t jump as high as when he was a star less than 12 months prior. Basketball became secondary. It wasn’t as much fun, he says, not being able to play like he used to.
Shirley then began to contact his friends from high school to see what they had done, and many had decided to play football at Campbellsville University, a small school about 45 minutes from their hometown.
He reached out to the golf coach there and went in for a tryout. He made the team.
The weeks went on, and he joined an intramural basketball team. He was playing so well that the junior varsity coach asked Shirley to play for his team before the varsity team also gave him a spot.
In a span of a couple of years, Shirley went from being 95 percent paralyzed to playing both varsity golf and basketball in college.Trey Shirley graduated from Campbellsville University in 2013.
Now Shirley is on the lengthy journey that is professional golf. He’s dabbled on the Korn Ferry Tour, PGA TOUR Latinoamerica, and the Mackenzie Tour - PGA TOUR Canada. With a tie for seventh at the Mackenzie Tour’s first Qualifying Tournament, in Howey-In-The Hills, Fla., in early March, he’ll have solid status and numerous opportunities to play when the Mackenzie Tour’s 2020 season begins.
But, considering everything Shirley has already gone through, playing professional golf is a happy bonus.
“I met my wife (at Campbellsville) and we’re married, living a happy life, and I’m trying to make the (PGA TOUR),” says Shirley. “I’ve been on various Tours, sure, but I’m just trying to live the dream like everyone else is.”
And his story provides proof that dreams – that at one time might have felt like a nightmare – do come true.