ORLANDO Dear Cecilia;
It’s me. Pops. Your grandfather. I have to tell you about this football game I watched, played by this team I cover.
I know you’re only two months old and that right now, all you can really do is eat, sleep and that third things babies do a lot. But you also smile a whole bunch and when you’re old enough to understand it, you might find yourself grinning when your mom or dad reads this to you.
See, I’ve been telling people about University of Kentucky football for a long, long time. In your world that’s like, four days. In mine it’s four decades and I’ve never seen anything like what I just saw here in Orlando.
Orlando? That’s a big city in Florida where Mickey Mouse lives. You’ll learn a lot more about him as you grow up. (When you get older, tell your folks you want to visit him in his Magic Kingdom but, fair warning: By then it might cost as much to go there as it will for you to go to college).
While I was here I worked the Citrus Bowl, where Kentucky played Penn State in one rip-snorter of a game. It takes excellence in all three phases to win one of these things against a traditional football power and the Wildcats had all three.
Special Teams: Broke up a fake punt on the game’s opening drive; blocked a field goal; blocked expertly enough on a punt return to spring Lynn Bowden for a touchdown. It was the second time this season Bowden has asked to enter the game as the return man. And it was the second time he took it to the house.
Defense: Held the Nittany Lions to 161 net rushing yards and sacked their quarterbacks six times – three of those belonging to a man named Josh Allen. Kentucky, with all the momentum belonging to the Lions, held Penn State out of the end zone in the final minutes, forcing a field goal.
Offense: After that field goal, a guy you’ll probably hear your dad (and your old granddad) mention a few times, Benny Snell, put the team on his back and ground out a pair of clock-killing first downs.
Cecilia, you’re going to be taught that it’s nice to share, but not this time. In football, you never want to give the ball back to the other team until you’re done with it. The Wildcats DID hand it back to Penn State, but there was only one second left on the clock. (That might sound unfair, but there’s no crying in football.)
That’s why your grandfather found himself in a sea of UK players, celebrating at midfield. They had just won the school’s first New Year’s Day bowl since, well, since before Pops was born.
Those guys I mentioned earlier? Even when you’re old enough to go to college, UK fans will still be talking about them. Allen turned down a shot at a decent paycheck to come back for his senior season. Now, whatever NFL team is lucky enough to draft him will have to serve up his cash in buckets.
Snell will do what Allen did not. He’s leaving school after his third year. Your folks won’t let YOU do that, Cecilia, so don’t go getting any ideas – unless you’re in the same situation as Benny. He will have a high, HIGH-paying job in just a few months.
So will some of their other teammates. C.J. Conrad, Mike Edwards, Bunchy Stallings, Darius West – all of them have had sparkling careers and they’re worthy of a spot on an NFL roster. They’re part of a senior class that accomplished what their coach, Mark Stoops, has been preaching all along. They’ve changed the culture of Kentucky football.
For good? We won’t know that, probably, until you’re in middle school. Maybe sooner, maybe later. It takes a few years to take hold. But we do know this: The foundation is there. A lot of young guys played in the Citrus Bowl, guys who are coming back next season.
And there are redshirts. Cecilia, those are the boys who have been patiently awaiting their turn to play. Now, they’ll get their chance, although the bar has been set pretty high.
But that’s what a quality football program looks like. I’ve seen it a couple of times, although all too briefly. Rich Brooks had things going in the right direction before he retired (he’s having fun being a grandpa himself).
When I was in college, in the ‘70s, Kentucky had a collection of talent similar to this one – depth at virtually every position, manned by future NFL players. It had a defensive terror named Art Still and a guy who was hard to tackle on offense named Derrick Ramsey. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see a UK team like that again.
But I just did. And it sure was fun. When you grow up, I hope you get to see one, too.