Rugby was a family affair early on for Keys. His father George Keys coached the sport at Abbotsford Senior Secondary and was also involved in the club level with the Abbotsford Rugby Football Club. The transition from the stands to the pitch was a logical one for Keys.
“I grew up on the sidelines of the games,” he recalled. “It was quite natural and I was just always around it. It became a really easy transition when I started getting kicked out of almost every soccer game.”
Keys continued in the sport throughout his youth, and helped win a provincial title with ARFC as a U16. He starred at Yale Secondary for most of his high school career, but that all changed in his Grade 12 year.
The Yale senior boys rugby team folded in 2003, which was Keys’ Grade 12 year, and it forced him to transfer schools if he wanted to play high school rugby in Grade 12. He joined the Bateman Timberwolves for that rugby season, eventually graduating there.
“I was having success at the provincial level and just wanted to keep playing in my Grade 12 year,” he said. “It was different, and it certainly wasn’t ideal to be 17 and leave all your friends at school. But this was primarily for rugby, and after a long appeal process – they welcomed me.”
Keys and the Timberwolves lost their first match at the provincials that spring, but battled back to win all their remaining games in the relegation bracket.
That summer Keys won a national silver medal with Team B.C. U18, and then got his first taste representing Canada at the 2004 World Junior Championships (U19) in South Africa. He gained carded athlete status two years later, and went on to have a long and productive career wearing the maple leaf on the international stage, competing at the U21 and senior levels. He earned eight international test caps for the Canadian men’s 15s side, and suited up for nine tournaments with the national sevens squad including the 2009 Rugby Sevens World Cup in Dubai.
Keys said his biggest career highlight was donning the maple leaf in international play.
“Just wearing that jersey was a huge honour for me,” he said. “There’s no way to describe what it feels like to sing along with your anthem in front of 80,000 people. The games move so fast, but that gives you a chance to let it sink in. I’ll never forget what that felt like.”
Keys’s club rugby successes included a CIS invitational championship (2003) and a CIS national sevens title (2011) with the Victoria Vikes, and a provincial title with the Aurora (Ont.) Barbarians in 2007. He played professionally in 2009-10 with Moseley Rugby Club in Manchester, England.
He did suffer his fair share of injuries though. Keys famously traveled on an airplane across the Pacific Ocean with a broken leg after a match in Japan back in 2010. He said the nine-hour flight was a trip he will never forget.
Key was 24 at the time, and he snapped his tibia, fibula and broke his ankle in two places against the Japanese. He went straight to the hospital after the injury, but a lack of painkillers made him decide to suck it up, put the leg in a splint and get his surgery done back in Canada.
“I just remember my foot was turned around backwards and I was in a lot of pain,” he said. “It took me about three to four months to recover, and my leg was never quite the same.”
His rugby career ended in 2011 after breaking his neck playing in Victoria. He’s now a journeyman powerline technician with BC Hydro and lives in Vancouver.
Despite some of the painful injuries, Keys said his time on the pitch and learning the game in Abbotsford was a key to his success.
“It’s a great rugby community in this town and the ARFC does so much to develop and grow the game,” he said.
Keys said the local rugby talent continues to excel on national and international levels.
“I think you get a certain type of player from Abbotsford – one who is hard working and a character guy,” he said. “Every single year I’ll see the U19 team or different representative sides for men and women, and I look down the list and almost always see that Abbotsford is well represented.”
He thanked the community, ARFC, teachers, coaches and his family for their support during his hall of fame rugby career.
Keys officially enters the hall on Saturday during a banquet at the Legacy Sports Centre. Tickets for the event are available at Hub Motor Service in Abbotsford.