(Photos courtesy: UK Athletics)
GAINESVILLE, FLA. – Come with me, to the soggy turf of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, where for 59 minutes and 56 seconds, the Kentucky Wildcats had battled not only the Florida Gators, but 31 years of frustration.
Thirty one years of blowouts and disappointments; of Steve Superior and the Fun & Gun; of Game Day and Tebow. Games where Kentucky either had no chance to win or every reason to do so.
George Adams, fumbling into the end zone and in the same game, a potentially game-winning TD wiped out by an illegal formation.
There was the ugliness of 73-7 and 65-0 routs and the even more garish 28-27.
Derek Abney returning a kick for a crucial touchdown, only to have it called back because of a holding penalty called not only behind the play, but on the other side of the field…
Jared Lorenzen throwing a panicked pass that led to a cheap Florida TD, negating the effort by a UK defense that blitzed Gators freshman quarterback Chris Leak all afternoon…
The night of triple overtimes, when a play clock blinking zero in the Swamp didn’t seem to matter…
And of course, two uncovered wide receivers, lonesome in the end zone, and a holding call that wiped out any hope of a game-winning, streak-busting, primal-scream-of-a-game-winning field goal…
Oh, it’s all in the record books, sure, but Kentucky fans don’t have to think about it much any more, thanks to a team that overcame turnovers and penalty yards by the bunches and had to wait an excruciating three minutes or so, as referee David Smith conferred with voices in his head. Incomplete pass? Or fumble?
The best the Gators could hope for, had it been called an incomplete pass, was one more play. There would have been four seconds left, with the ball on the Florida 25-yard line, had the final call of the night gone against the Wildcats.
UK fans all over the planet likely expected the worst. That’s because they were quite familiar with the gut punch of sudden, heart-wrenching loss.
Only, not this time.
Smith shed his headset and announced that what may have looked like an incomplete pass was, indeed, a fumble. Redshirt freshman defensive back Davonte Robinson had caught it on a bounce and, at the urging of Mark Stoops, headed for the goal line, where he fought his way through a Gator into the end zone. Now, it was a touchdown for real – and the clock read all zeros.
So now here’s Stoops, drenched in a Gatorade bath, making his way to midfield to shake hands with Florida coach Dan Mullen.
Benny Snell, held to 59 rushing yards by Florida last year, proud owner of a 175-yard effort, sobbing into his dad’s shoulder.
Logan Stenberg, telling the UK radio network that the yeoman’s work done by the offensive line, which blasted so many holes that the Wildcats ran for a total of 303 yards, was dedicated to O-line coach John Schlarman, who’s battling cancer.
Linebacker Kash Daniel, channeling every professional wrestler he’s ever seen, barking with elation at a camera as he doused himself with water and then headed off to hug his coach.
Stoops had competed against the Gators as an assistant at Miami and Florida State. He knew his way around the Swamp but the last time he brought his Kentucky team to Gainesville, they left with a 45-7 pounding in the rear-view mirror.
And now, here’s Stoops, standing on a bench in the crowded, steamy UK locker room, telling his players that this night’s result was the epitome of a team effort. And that it was the next big step in the evolution of their program.
His voice was hoarse, his vocal chords straining as he fought to be heard over the cheers and howls of his Wildcats. But he managed to get their attention one more time as he announced the awarding of two game balls: To Schlarman, and to defensive lineman Josh Paschal, who’s also battling a cancerous growth on his foot.
A great cheer went up as someone produced a football and Schlarman stabbed the air with it, a huge grin on his face. He’s a rarity: A Wildcat who’s both played and coached against the Gators. And now, he’s beaten them.
The shared a prayer and then, they sang, as they always do – the UK fight song. I can usually hear them through the locker room door as I await the proper time to enter and begin post-game radio duties.
But on this special night, they’d left the doors open. It was too crowded to close them, so the ruckus spilled out into the hallway.
I had heard them sing that song before, but never with such passion. As always, they finished it up with, “HEY! HEY! HEY!” Only this time, they delivered those words with more passion than I’d ever heard – 31 years’ worth.
That’s all over now. One in a row.