More than Poker: Michael Graydon’s WSOP Main Event Is About Beating a Brain Tumor

8 min read

Michael Graydon’s crimson drawl is as thick as a stand of longleaf pines without even a hint of sadness as he talks about his fate. The father of two calls his diagnosis a blessing — something that showed him life is a gift to be savored.

Michael with his father and brothers. From left to right, his dad, Mike, Brad, Michael, Mark, Kasey, and Joe. (Image: courtesy of Michael Graydon)

But his voice gets a little dewy, a little softer, as he struggles to find the words expressing how grateful he is for the poker community that stepped up for him in a big way.

“I was telling my wife, it’s crazy,” Graydon told CardsChat News. “If you grow up a baseball fan or something, it’s like Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. reaching out to help you. I’ve just been on cloud nine. It still feels like it’s a dream.”

When Graydon takes his seat in the WSOP Main Event today, on Day 1D, several of his brothers and sisters — he’s the second-oldest out of seven — will be on the rail to cheer him on. He took a stab at the Main Event once before, in 2016, but this will be the first time doing it with a new perspective on life.

Graydon, 40, from Moody, Alabama, was diagnosed in March with low-grade glioma. LGG is a slow-growing, cancerous brain tumor that doctors say is inoperable. Graydon has been going through radiation and chemotherapy in an effort to kill the tumor, but he knows the odds are not in his favor.

“The only difference between me and someone else is I’ve been told my life is going to end,” Graydon explained, “and that sort of wakes you up to start living life every day to the fullest, whether it’s trying to do something to help somebody else, or being kind to the people who are most important to you.”

(You can follow his quest through the WSOP Main Event on Twitter.)

A poker player from Birmingham

Graydon started playing poker when he was 15 after his brother found a low-stakes game in the back of a Mexican restaurant in Trussville, Alabama. It’s just felt right, Graydon said, and from there the game became his lifelong passion. 

Before he settled down and became a family man, Graydon played in WSOP Circuit events in Tunica, Biloxi, and Cherokee, North Carolina.

“I‘ve been playing for 25 years, and I love it,” Graydon said. “I’ve had some decent success and been put in some spots where I could really have had a big score, but it’s never really worked out, so I never took the leap to play professionally when I got married and had kids.”

His Circuit days slowed down about 10 years ago after he married his wife, Haley, and had a daughter, Blair. He supported his family through a small car dealership he owned, but still played poker with his friends and in tournaments around Birmingham, occasionally popping on an airplane to play in larger events.

In 2016, he played in his first Main Event, selling 80% of his stake to friends and family. He made it to Day 2, but didn’t cash.

Micheal Graydon and his daughters
Family man: Micheal Graydon with his daughters Blair, 9, and Wryn, 6. (Image: courtesy of the Graydon family)

Inspiration from a strong, little girl

Soon after, his second daughter Wryn was born. “She stopped breathing in my arms at three months old,” Graydon said, his voice breaking like a bird briefly separated from its flock.

Wryn had a rare kidney condition that flushed out the body’s nutrients along with toxins.

The next two years were spent in and out of Children’s Hospital of Alabama, getting tests and dialysis, and wondering if Wryn would be OK. Graydon’s father is a doctor and he was straight with his son: Wryn was very sick. It would be close to a miracle if she survived until she was big enough for a kidney transplant.

“They didn’t think she’d reach her first birthday,” Graydon said. “I had to let my dealership go because we lived at the children’s hospital for over a year.”

Wryn is now 6 — a “firecracker,” thanks to one of Grandma Graydon’s kidneys, who was lucky enough to be a match.

All the while, Graydon had no idea his little girl was preparing her father for his battle with cancer. 

Life-changing money at the WSOP

Graydon has long battled sinus problems, so he didn’t think much when something felt wrong in his throat and neck last summer. But a visit to an Ear-nose-throat doctor in December revealed one of Graydon’s vocal cords was paralyzed. 

Several scans later confirmed the ENT’s fears: a tumor on Graydon’s brainstem and was pressing down on nerves, causing voice problems and neck spasms. It wasn’t the kind of thing you could just remove either, as it had become entwined with areas of the brain that control basic life functions, like a heartbeat and breathing. Any attempt to remove it would likely lead to paralysis or death. 

So Graydon began chemo and radiation immediately, which predictably, wiped him out. He was forced to take a step back from his landscaping business, and he admits things are tight.  

His latest scan revealed that the tumor isn’t growing, and actually may have shrunk slightly from the treatment. Still, his prognosis is unclear. Oncologists say the average person lives 3-5 years after being diagnosed with this form of cancer, but they’ve seen patients live 20 years and longer because the tumor simply stopped growing. 

“If I could just min-cash,” Graydon said. “It would be like $17,000, and that’s life-changing money for me right now with all these medical bills.” 

A man of Christian faith, Graydon believes his daughter Wryn helped get him ready for his battle with cancer.  “I think the Lord has been preparing me for this the last six years,” Graydon said, “dealing with everything with my little girl and watching her battle and never giving up.” 

He calls his daughter “a tough little goofball.” 

“It could have been a nightmare if she was one of those kids that always complained. And she had plenty to complain about. She’s probably been stuck to give blood 2,000 times in her short life. She doesn’t even cry at that,” Graydon said. “Even though there’s a big difference between a child and an adult, just the way she handled it all. She never gave up.”

Her father calls himself a genuinely positive person and the life of the party. This attitude is carrying him toward whatever the future holds. While he can’t predict what’s happening deep in his skull, Graydon says he’s moving forward in as normally as possible by waking up each day, playing with his kids, spending quality time with his wife, and playing poker. This is how he’s choosing to enjoy whatever time he has left here on Earth. 

“You have two choices,” Graydon said. “Be depressed and sulk and sit there and wait ’til you die, or be positive and do something with it.”

Poker pros rally to support

Graydon’s road to the 2021 WSOP started with a simple, heartfelt request on Twitter.

After posting that Tweet last week, the poker world responded quickly and decisively. Friends Graydon met while playing on the WSOP Circuit, like 2013 WSOP Champion Ryan Reiss and fellow Alabamian Shannon Shorr, stepped up to help, as did many absolute strangers who sent his tweet through the pokerverse. Within two hours, 70% of Graydon’s action was spoken for, and he was on his way to Vegas.

Later that day, poker pro and coach at Hybrid Poker, MJ Gonzalez, asked those who already donated if it would be OK if he put Graydon in the Main Event himself so that Graydon can keep the equity if he happens to cash.

Poker pro Jonathan Depa quickly said he’d like to split the cost with Gonzalez. Maria Ho then booked his flight from Birmingham, and player after player continued to reach out with offers of dinners, places to stay, and lessons while Graydon tries his luck at the Main Event for the second time since 2016.

Graydon says already his WSOP is off to a glorious start, even before Day 1D cards went in the air. Like just about everyone else playing this tournament, he really could use the prize money if he makes it that far. But few know as well as Graydon how to keep a positive attitude and bring joy to those around you even when the cards don’t fall your way.

Graydon’s family has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help with medical bills and other financial blows as he carries on his fight.

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