WEST LIBERTY, Ky. -- As soon as Joker Phillips learned of the tornadoes that ravaged West Liberty, Ky., in March, he wanted to help. Like the rest of the Commonwealth, his condolences were with the residents of the Eastern Kentucky town, but he wanted to find a more tangible way to show his support.
It didn't take long for him to figure something out.
Each year, Phillips and the UK Athletics marketing staff make a few stops around the Bluegrass on the Gameday Ready Tour. After going to Phillips' native Franklin, Ky., on Sunday, Philips and company packed up the buses and headed east.
"This is our third year doing the tour and with the devastation that happened this spring, this is a definite spot that we wanted to hit to kind of ease the pain so to speak," Phillips said.
Phillips quickly got a glimpse into the tragedy with which West Liberty is trying to cope. After a scenic drive past Cave Run Lake, evidence of the storms that cut across the city was plainly clear. Trees were uprooted on a hill that overlooked the city and the path continued through razed buildings still unoccupied.
"You just can't imagine going through something like that," Phillips said. "Four months removed, seeing some things not come close to being put together, I think that's the thing that touched me."
After a couple right turns, Phillips' bus arrived at Old Mill Park, the site of Monday's event. Damage from the tornadoes was never far from view, but Phillips perspective changed as he began interacting with the 200 or so people that came out to take part.
"Coming though the town, you kind of felt the pain at first," Phillips said. "And then once you turn the corner, I saw how many people came out to this thing, you did feel the warmth, you feel the support and hopefully they feel the support from us."
After meeting a few people and shaking hands with an old friend or two, Phillips took the microphone to get the festivities started. With inflatable games and athletic events for children eighth grade or younger, it was a day of fun, but he began things with a serious, though encouraging message.
"Things like this will bring the community together in a positive way," Phillips told the crowd, "so let's use it that way."
After Phillips spoke about the goal of the tour - encouraging education and physical fitness - children split into age groups and rotated around a set of activities. Meanwhile, Phillips made the rounds, interacting with as many people as possible. His hope is that his visit can leave the same kind of mark on them as a similar one made on him as a youngster.
"There was a group of NFL players that came through my town when I was a little kid - Virgil Livers and Doug Plank," Phillips said. "I just knew the impression that it made on me. Hopefully we can make the same kind of impression on the kids we visit."
Phillips certainly made an impression on a young boy named Jackson Elam. Elam met Phillips early in the event and the two took to each other immediately. Elam was Phillips' sidekick throughout, even holding a microphone for Phillips during an interview with a local television station and helping hand out signed pictures to fans afterward. The only time Elam disappeared from Phillips' side was to run and grab his older brother to excitedly introduce him to Phillips.
Perhaps Elam will get a chance to see his new friend again later this year, as Phillips announced all children in attendance would receive two tickets to UK's game against Western Kentucky on Sept. 15.
Phillips doesn't often take breaks from a schedule full of practices, recruiting, meetings and preparation, but this event is important to him.
"It's just a sign of our appreciation," Phillips said. "This is my vacation time and I want to take time to show my appreciation to these people, especially to these small communities that, a lot of times, don't get to see us up close."
Before he does take advantage of the chance to take a short vacation, Phillips will be at the Gameday Ready Tour at Bob Amos Park in Pikeville, Ky., at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 26 before one last stop at Shawnee Park in Louisville at 1 p.m. on July 15.