PHOENIX – Gage Dayley was so ill, he struggled to simply walk down the street. These days, Dayley is the senior quarterback for the Highland Hawks, the No. 1 seed in Arizona’s 6A division who tonight play fourth-seeded Red Mountain in the AIA semifinals.
But he’s not that far removed from the days when he could barely rise from bed.
When Dayley was 7, he contracted Valley fever, an infection caused by the fungus Coccidioides that is found in the soil in the Southwestern United States and parts of Mexico and Central and South America. Every year, an average of 150,000 Americans contract the illness, with two thirds of those people living in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
The infection usually only lasts for a few weeks, the CDC reports, but in some cases can lead to severe lung damage. Gage was not only battling Valley fever, but was also in a fight with pneumonia.
The star quarterback doesn’t recall much, but keenly remembers struggling to breathe and function.
“I don’t remember much,” Dayley said. “I was 7 but I do remember being in the hospital for two weeks and I had two draining tubes in my lungs. All I do remember is the doctors pulling them out, all the toys I would play with, and playing Star Wars on the Xbox that they let me use.”
His dad, however, doesn’t remember the experience as lightly.
Gage’s father Lee Dayley, who is the junior varsity football coach at Highland, watched and looked after his son in the hospital. After work, Lee would go to the hospital and sit with Gage until his mom would take over for him.
“Sitting in the hospital with him for the two weeks, he was in the hospital with tubes that kept draining the liquid out of his lungs due to the pneumonia he got as well,” Lee said. “I spent every night with (him) and then left for work from the hospital room when his mom came for the day.”
Once Gage was healthy enough to go home, he still wasn’t out of the woods yet, as he was still struggling to breathe.
Doctors came up with a list of exercises for Gage to do, including taking walks to build up his endurance before he could play sports again.
However, Gage struggled to get through the ordered exercise due to his weakened stamina.
“We would go walk around the neighborhood and he would get tired by the end of the street,” Lee said. “So I would carry him back and each day we would go a little bit further.”
Once Gage was healthy enough to play sports again and restart youth football, Lee had to make a change. Gage, who played running back, had trouble keeping up with his teammates.
“It really affected his speed,” Lee said. “Before, he was the fastest player on the team. Afterwards, he couldn’t keep up with the other players.”
For people recovering from severe bouts of Valley fever, a simple jog on land can feel like sprinting on the ocean floor.
“After I got out (of hospital) it was just hard to breathe at times cause I was still healing,” Gage said. “I just couldn’t run fast at all and I was probably the slowest kid in the country at the time.”
Lee switched Gage to quarterback. At the time, Gage’s youth team was very run-heavy, so all the young gunslinger had to do was hand off the ball.
Soon after, Lee found out that Gage could throw. Then the game plan changed.
“Initially we switched him to QB because we were a run-heavy team and he could take a snap and hand it off,” Lee said. “We soon found out that even at age 7 he could throw the ball and actually hit the receiver on time. The next season we went to a pass-heavy team and as an 8-year-old we came out five-wide and three-wide 80% of the time. No one knew how to stop that.”
Fast forward to this season, and the Hawks are sitting on a 9-3 campaign and are making a push for the Arizona 6A state championship behind Dayley’s talents and leadership. This season, Gage has thrown for 2,059 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing over 69 percent of his passes.
“He puts the ball where he wants it,” Highland coach Brock Farrel said. “He makes throws very few people can make.
For Lee and Gage’s teammates, they see all the things that have made Gage a great player and teammate.
“Gage has great leadership skills,” Lee said. “He knows exactly what every player on the offense does on every play. He is extremely calm in all situations. Going into his first varsity start as a sophomore, I asked him if he was nervous. He told me that he added up all the football games he had played in up until then and that he had done this a 100 times before and this one is no different.
“Twenty nine varsity starts later, he is even more calm. There isn’t a high school formation or defensive scheme he hasn’t faced.”