Wildcats still finding reasons to smile through dismal football season

Taylor Wyndham, Courtesy KyForward.com
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(Wyndham photo courtesy KyForward.com)

Earlier this football season, at his regularly-scheduled Monday news conference, Joker Phillips requested – demanded – that someone in the Wildcat Den smile. It was a tall order. The Cats had been beaten again, losing even more players to injury and, slipping closer to what, in the eyes of some (many?) would be the final chapter in the Joker Phillips Era at Kentucky.

On the Monday following the loss to Georgia, there were smiles – even laughs, despite the fact that the Wildcats had thrown a scare into the Bulldogs, only to see them slip away with a 29-24 victory.

Before Phillips could take usual his spot at the podium, Taylor Wyndham held court with media members, who, in lieu of football questions, fired a dozen queries at the senior defensive end about his bushy beard, which now is approaching Jeremiah Johnson (mountain man) proportions. He still has a ways to go before anyone will confuse him for a member of ZZ Top.

Wyndham admitted he admires the beards sported by San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Brian Wilson and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brent Keisel. In fact, it was Keisel that he had in mind when he began growing his facial hair on Aug. 2., the day UK football summer camp opened. And he’s already decided on its day of departure: He’ll shave on Dec. 1.

Wyndham explained the challenges of letting facial follicles run rampant, saying, “You’ve got to pick it out and comb it down and get all the food out of it. It gets out of hand sometimes.”

Some might recall that your faithful correspondent, once upon a time, sported a full beard – but it was NEVER as full as Wyndham’s, so I never faced the challenges he does – especially at meal time.

“It’s pretty bad because I can’t eat anything with sauces,” he said. “We had a meal on Sunday and I was eating some wings. I had a whole bunch of sauce right here.”

The full beard, combined with the eye black which Wyndham, like so many players these days, smears all over the unexposed portion of his face, provides for an ominous look.

The beard alone favors the one sported by the live mascot in Morgantown, the West Virginia Mountaineer. Wyndham is sure he’ll play to a stereotype in the minds of Missouri fans this Saturday. “They probably assume that all guys from Kentucky (have them) because it’s like, mountains and stuff. They think I’m from Kentucky,” said Wyndham, who actually was born in Charleston, S.C. and grew up in Swansea, S.C.

Wyndham is one of only a handful of seniors on a team full of players that, he says, fully support The Beard. “They love it,” he said. “A lot of them are like, “Man, this beard’s awesome.’ They’re all about it. I wish girls would feel the same way. Girls hate this thing.”

Wyndham said his mom hates it, too (I can relate) but she comes to as many games as she can. It has to be a challenging trip for his parents, Kurt and Melanie, who this season have seen their son participate in just one victory, and likely hear criticism of Taylor and his teammates wafting through the stands.

The head coach has heard it – on game day, on his radio show, via email – but, like Wyndham, has managed to maintain his sense of humor. On Monday, near the end of his news conference, Phillips was answering a question about how important it was for his young team to be competitive in the game immediately following the embarrassing loss at Arkansas.

“Some things in the past, you like to forget,” Phillips said. And then, for just a second or two, the lights went out, leaving the room in near-total darkness. One of the UK staffers in the back of the room, leaning against the wall, inadvertently had bumped the light switch and turned them off. Only, Joker didn’t know that.

“I was wantin’ to forget THAT,” Phillips said with a smile. “I thought I was gone, man,” as the room erupted in laughter. “An assassination, or something…”

Dark humor, to be sure, but these are dark times in UK football. Anything that brings a laugh or a smile – even to the fourth estate – is welcome right about now.

And if they can somehow pull off an upset of Missouri on Saturday, the smiles will be non-stop for Phillips, his staff and his players. It might be obscured on the face of Taylor Wyndham, but it will be there – underneath that big, bushy beard.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brent Keisel