Jarrod Polson and seven fellow UK student-athletes returned from a service trip to Ethiopia on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This week, eight Wildcats are taking part in a service trip in Ethiopia. Throughout the week, the student-athletes will take turns describing their experience. Please note that these posts are the personal reactions of the student-athletes and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics. Jarrod Polson wrote the final entry, an account of the group's final day in Ethiopia and a reflection on the trip as a whole.
Jarrod Polson (men's basketball)
The last day of the trip may have been the most moving of them all. We were able to visit an organization called Youth Impact that was located about 15 minutes from our guest house. When we got there, we were greeted by Abraham (who was educated in the United States, but decided to come back to help the Ethiopian people instead of getting a very lucrative job in America), the visionary leader of the affiliation. He and his wife had the idea about 20 years ago to teach uneducated men and women different skills that would help them get back on their feet and provide for their families. In essence, instead of handing out the fish, teach the people how to fish so they can sustain themselves.
We toured around and saw people basket-weaving, working the cash register and even making scarves and blankets (which is a very complicated and tiring process). The items were so well-made and intricate that a lot of us decided to buy some souvenirs to take home from the different shops.
After a little bit of shopping, Abraham and Aramis, the other main leader, took us to the "library." Aramis also has a very interesting story. He grew up as a street kid who got into a life of crime and drugs, simply trying to survive. A girl he knew kept trying to convince him to come to church with her but he never would. Eventually, he decided to end the nagging so he accompanied her one Sunday, but instead of participating, he took out a cigarette and started smoking during the service. She was very embarrassed, but about six weeks later, he came again and sat in the front row where he radically changed for the rest of his life.
Anyway, we arrived at the library, which was also where they educated young children. Most of the young boys were taken off the streets, and most of the girls were taken here right before they would have more than likely been sent to the streets. You would think that being abandoned by your parents and having to live on your own would completely wreck a 5-year-old's heart, but I can honestly say I have never seen a group of children with more joy and excitement in my entire life. The teacher had them sing the ABCs in English to us, along with the Ethiopian national anthem, so loud and passionate in fact that most of us were either crying or had goosebumps the entire time.
The last Youth Impact group we got to meet was made up of older kids and young adults, ranging between around 14 to 21. They were a group of around 20 teenaged boys who were rescued from the streets by this organization. Some had been street kids for up to five years. Just to give a little background, I asked how children came to live on the streets. I learned that a lot of the times a mother takes her child to a stadium via taxi, tells the driver she will be back in 10 minutes, drops her child off and returns to the taxi. Others are simply orphans and have no parents to feed them. Others are the victims of mothers choosing a boyfriend over their kids because of an ultimatum. In any case, these children literally have nowhere to sleep at night and no way of getting food.
These teenagers we met quickly changed from a statistic to a story. Five years went from just a number to a tragic and lonely life. A few of these rescued men stood up and thanked us for coming to help them, one of the most humbling experiences of our lives. After we returned to the guest house, we were able to collect a lot of our clothing and shoes to send back to the Hope House (this is what the street kids' house was called) because they were big enough to fit into them.
We left for the airport around 7 p.m. (East Africa Time) and after a 17-hour flight followed by a one-hour flight to Cincinnati, we finally arrived safely in Lexington around 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
I know that when people come back from mission or service trips they always talk about how "life-changing" the experience was. Because I had never experienced one, I was always hesitant to believe them. I regret it now because this trip has really given our group a brand-new perspective on life. Some of us were talking about how sometimes during the trip, we were confused because we felt as if we were in a completely different world. The biggest impact on me personally was seeing the Bible come to life.
I started a book called "Red Letters" before the trip and it talked about trying to see Jesus in everyone you come into contact with. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, "Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." This idea was so clear to me in Ethiopia because it was really easy to see Jesus in a lot of the people we came into contact with. I saw Jesus in the little boy with a huge smile on his face using a balloon to drink water from a muddy river. I saw Jesus in the woman with a nervous-system problem who cried tears of joy when we delivered food to her because she was about to give up, saying we were a gift sent straight from God at the exact right time. I saw Jesus in the woman who was distributing bread she had made to the poorer people at the church, the same woman who we gave food to earlier in the day because she was very sick and struggling to feed her children. I saw Jesus in our two translators, one orphan and one street kid, who have every reason to be mad at the world or God, but are the two most joyful and unselfish young men I have ever met. I saw Jesus in the woman who has been in bed for 18 years plagued by leprosy, who wouldn't let me touch her head in fear of me getting the disease, who blessed us and our country through her words, and who still seemed more joyful than me after years of physical agony. I saw Jesus in the woman who brings in travelers to her small home and shares the gospel, all the while her sons won't talk to her, ashamed of her Christian views even though she has HIV and still feeds them. I saw Jesus in the leaders of Youth Impact and the church who finally "made it" and could be very successful, but chose to stay in their poverty-stricken native areas and try to help everyone they can. I could go on and on, telling the stories of so many people we met that have very little of what the world has to offer, but very much of what God has to offer: a joyful heart and a peace beyond understanding.
I'm not writing this blog to condemn anyone or judge anyone, because I am guiltier than anyone of not helping people or taking the time to make people feel loved. This trip has definitely changed the lives of our group members and I pray that God would use this trip as a wake-up call to realize why He chose us by name to live on this earth.
I'm not saying everyone needs to move to Africa to become a missionary. People in America have problems just like people in Ethiopia, just maybe not in the same ways. The one thing we realized, and (Senior Associate Athletics Director of Corporate and University Relations and trip chaperone) Jason (Schlafer) pointed out to us, is that everyone who we helped was more appreciative of the fact that we came to help than the actual food or supplies we gave. Forming relationships and just coming across the world blessed the people way more than any amount of food we could have given them. I'm talking to myself when I say this, but we can translate this to America by simply forming relationships with people who need to feel loved and be loved. People may not need food like the Ethiopians do, but everyone needs love and that is where we can make our biggest impact in America.
Eighty percent of a pretty solid professional starting five was on the podium for a press conference at the John Calipari Basketball ProCamp on Wednesday.
DeMarcus Cousins, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Eric Bledsoe and Anthony Davis were in the Joe Craft Center to serve as counselors and took a few minutes to catch up with local reporters. They talked about their professional careers, returning to UK and the experience competing at Team USA minicamp earlier this month, but the most interesting exchange came when the topic of the Alumni Charity Game on Sept. 9 came up.
Early speculation about the game suggests the 2010 and 2012 teams will be pitted against one another. Only Kidd-Gilchrist would say he would play for sure, but the prospect of two recent great UK teams going head to head drew some friendly trash talk.
"We will," Cousins said when asked who would win.
"Everybody knows who's going to win the game, really," Kidd-Gilchrist said confidently.
"2010," Davis said, straight-faced. "I say 2010 will win it."
"Thank you, Anthony," Cousins said.
"Did you say 2010 will win?" said Bledsoe, thinking he misheard. "Glad you're honest."
"Nah, 2012," Davis said. "We're proven winners."
"Wow," Bledsoe said.
"Got nothing to say to that," Cousins said.
Check out complete video of the press conference below, with the Alumni Game talk coming at the 6:50 mark.
Josh Harrellson averaged 7.6 points and 8.7 rebounds as a UK senior. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This year, Josh Harrellson took his game overseas, signing with the Chongqing Fly Dragons in the Chinese National Basketball league. After winning almost every award in sight, it's safe to say he was a successful export.
He led the Fly Dragons to a 14-4 record, best in the league, before falling just short of a trip to the finals. Harrellson and his team lost in the third game of a three-game semifinal, a game in which Harrellson poured in 24 points and 18 rebounds.
That sort of output, however, was not out of the ordinary.
Harrellson averaged 22.3 points, 18.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals en route to NBL Player of the Year honors. He beat out Hassan Whiteside and Craig Smith, both former college stars and NBA players. Harrellson also was named Forward of the Year and Import Player of the Year.
With production like that, Harrellson is sure to draw another looking heading into the 2013-14 NBA season. He played six games for the Miami Heat last season after impressing in 37 games during his rookie season with the New York Knicks.
Harrellson was a second-round pick of the then-New Orleans Hornets in 2011 after emerging as a key cog in UK's Final Four run in 2010-11.
If you have ever been to a UK sporting event, you have interacted with a member of the UK Ticket Office staff. Nonetheless, much of the staff's work to make sure fans can watch their Wildcats in action goes on behind the scenes.
Willis - a native of Mt. Washington, Ky., just southeast of Louisville - grew up a fan of the Wildcats' in-state rival, but decided Kentucky was the place for him and John Calipari the coach. More than a year-and-a-half ago, Willis became the first member of what would turn into yet another No. 1-ranked recruiting class.
The 6-foot-9 forward, who was ranked a top-30 player at the time, decided before the rest of the star-studded 2013 class came together that Kentucky was too good to pass up.
"I figured I got a scholarship offer from Kentucky so I better get on this train while I can because I know what's going to be coming behind me," Willis said.
And oh, did they come.
The Harrison twins were the next to commit. Then it was James Young and Marcus Lee. Then Dakari Johnson pledged his allegiance to the Cats. And then Julius Randle signed on. Finally, Dominique Hawkins completed it.
When it was all said and done, UK had the No. 1 recruiting class once again and what many analysts are touting the greatest recruiting class of all time.
And Willis was the one who started it all.
Willis admitted it's pretty neat to be known as the first commit in what could potentially be a historic class, even if it means he's going to have to work twice as hard to keep up with the internal team competition. Willis said that's ultimately the reason why he chose Kentucky. He knew he wouldn't be the only high-profile recruit at UK, and he relished the chance to play alongside and compete with the best players in the country.
"It's obviously about the team," Willis said. "If it was just about me, I could have gone somewhere else. It would have still been about the team and I could have maybe started or I could have been coming off the bench earlier somewhere else, but here I want to work even harder to do that and I want to push myself to do that even harder. When they bring in potential NBA players like they have been, you can't beat that. Going against future NBA players, it's too big of an opportunity (to pass up)."
Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Julius Mays and Twany Beckham returned to the familiar surroundings of the Joe Craft Center on Monday.
All four former Wildcats are in Lexington serving as counselors at the Prasco John Calipari Basketball ProCamp and they spent a little more than 10 minutes answering questions from local reporters. They provided an update on what they have been up to since the season ended, gave their impressions of next year's Kentucky team and even a little advice to the next crop of Cats.
Megan Broderick was a standout in tennis and later cross country before graduating from UK in 2012. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Former UK tennis and cross country standout Megan Broderick is taking her professional career to the next level. Just a year after graduating from Kentucky, Broderick has found a home coaching at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York City, while also working part-time for ESPN's production department at the Grand Slams.
Tennis may be Broderick's focus now, but that wasn't always the case for the multi-sport athlete.
Broderick's natural athletic ability allowed her to try her hand at almost every sport imaginable growing up, including basketball, gymnastics, soccer and, of course, tennis. However, playing competitive soccer and tennis at the same time is no easy feat, so at age 12 her parents told her to make a choice. Giving up soccer was tough, but Broderick committed to tennis and started traveling the country playing in tournaments.
Coming to Kentucky
The Wisconsin native moved to Tampa, Florida, when she was 15 years old and continued to pursue her tennis career. She started drawing attention from elite college coaches around the country, but wasn't satisfied with her early recruiting visits.
"I took my first four, and nothing really felt like it fit," said Broderick. "I came home and my dad mentioned that the UK coach was very interested in me. I was hesitant at first because I didn't know much about Kentucky, and I thought it was just out in the middle of nowhere. But I took a trip and I fit in really well with the team. Lexington was a good fit for me."
Aside from excelling in tennis and later cross country, Broderick gained more than just athletic accolades while she was at UK. Her five years as a student-athlete are a big reason why she has already had such a successful career after college.
"Just playing sports for a college teaches you a lot of discipline, and you have to interact with a lot of people throughout the day," said Broderick. "It really teaches you how to communicate with people and how to deal with diversity. Also, you're meeting people from around the world. It's been through those connections that I've been able to do other things and reach other opportunities."
Broderick's relationships with her college teammates helped broaden her outlook and build connections with people around the world, which has no doubt helped her in her professional career.
Megan Broderick works as a coach at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York City. (Photo via Megan Broderick)
Life after graduation
Anyone who knows Broderick will tell you that she is a fierce competitor, so it's no surprise that after she graduated in 2012, she hit the ground running. She began working for John McEnroe Tennis Academy - known commonly as Sportime - in New York City as a coach for young kids hoping to follow in her footsteps.
After a year of coaching, she also became good friends with John McEnroe's younger brother, Patrick, who has helped her pursue her career in broadcast journalism.
"Through him I got connected to the production manager at ESPN, and they had some spots as 'runners' for Wimbledon," said Broderick. "So I took the job and went to Wimbledon for three weeks doing a lot of small work."
Broderick may have spent many mornings doing "run-downs" or getting coffee for the staff, but she also gained a lot of valuable experience in the world of television.
"It really opened my eyes to what goes on behind the scenes and see if this is something that I want to pursue," said Broderick. "I met the commentators and was able to have conversations with a lot of people at ESPN. It connected me to more people and pushed me in the direction I want to take my career."
Broderick returned from London and was relocated to one of Sportime's locations in the Hamptons, where she is back coaching. However, she plans on taking another part-time job with ESPN at the U.S. Open in New York City at the end of August.
What comes next?
Megan Broderick worked behind the scenes for ESPN at Wimbledon this summer. (Photo via Megan Broderick)
Once again, Broderick is approaching a crossroads in her career. She may not have to choose between coaching or broadcast just yet, but she is definitely looking toward the future.
"I think that coaching is amazing, and it's something that I have a lot of passion for," said Broderick. "At the same time I do see myself pursuing a broadcast career. I think that going to Wimbledon and working for ESPN reaffirmed that. "
Meanwhile, she is using her experience at Wimbledon to help take her coaching career to the next level.
"I'd never had time to see a grand slam from start to finish," said Broderick. "It helped me as a coach because I could watch matches live and see and hear different things than I would on TV. It gives you an insight to what the players are dealing with and what really goes on day-to-day at the tournament."
She also got to see how much work goes into putting together a grand slam and gained an even greater appreciation for the production staff, whom she referred to as the "real superstars."
"You have people who are producing the match live and people trying to get certain angles and see expressions during all the matches," said Broderick. "It kind of added a little bit to the whole experience."
A word of advice
Not every student-athlete gets a chance to pursue his or her passion beyond college, but Broderick has always kept her dreams in sight.
On one tennis trip while she was at UK, the entire team decided to purchase lottery tickets at a gas station on the side of the road. After purchasing the tickets, Broderick and her teammates discussed what they would do if they won the lottery, which forced her to think about what she wanted to do with her life.
"You have to ask yourself, 'If I had the means to, what would I be doing right now?' " said Broderick. "I think you should always have that outlook. That nothing can stop you from reaching your goals if you really want them."
Broderick has used this theory with her tennis students as well.
"I ask some of them why they play tennis, and they always answer the same way I did, 'I don't know. I just love it,' " said Broderick. "I think that's how it starts. You realize it's a part of you, and it makes it easier to want to give back to the sport. It's really rewarding."
Although she isn't a permanent employee of ESPN just yet, Broderick is taking her own advice and pursuing her love of tennis to the fullest. Meanwhile, she is enjoying her coaching career and her new life in New York.
"At this point in my life, it's somewhere I can see myself for a few years," said Broderick. "I think New York City has a lot of motivated and career-driven people. It inspires you everyday to go after your dreams and get things done."
Clearly, Broderick has taken that inspiration to heart.
Maclin Simpson helped deliver basic necessities to residents of Ethiopia on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This week, eight Wildcats are taking part in a service trip in Ethiopia. Throughout the week, the student-athletes will take turns describing their experience. Please note that these posts are the personal reactions of the student-athletes and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics. With the travel party set to return to the United States on Monday, Maclin Simpson writes about what he saw on Sunday.
Maclin Simpson (swimming and diving)
I woke up this morning feeling mixed emotions about the day ahead. On one hand, I was excited for another opportunity to serve the people of Ethiopia with a group of friends I would consider family. On the other, I was anxious because I knew that my expectations were about to be shattered into a million pieces, yet again turning my world upside down.
The day started just like any other. We had breakfast at the guest house followed by a quick meeting before we set out. After reconfirming our flight information, we had about an hour or so to kill so we made our way over to the zoo. I use the term "zoo" loosely because it isn't comparable to anything you would find in the U.S. More or less it was just one massive, circular cage with about ten lions that looked like they could eat any one of us without a moment's hesitation. Regardless, it was still a cool experience.
Then it all changed.
The moment that we got out of the van at the community center, we were swarmed with loving children. It was unbelievable to see the pure joy in their faces just to hold our hands and walk with us. Our task was to fill bags with assorted basic necessities and deliver them to widows and other families. Throughout our time there, the one thing that was constant was how gracious these amazing people were. It didn't matter who we were, just that we came. To them, we were an answered prayer and a gift from God. Every home that we visited (most were about half the size of a dorm room, dark and housing up to seven people) we prayed over the people about whatever physical or emotional discomfort was troubling them. Each time, without fail, they would tell us how much they loved us and prayed that God would bless us and our families. It's incredible that a village and people in such desperate need of financial capital were so content with human capital. The last home we visited was of a widow who suffers from tuberculosis; Jarrod Polson and I literally had to chase after her because she was so excited to invite us into her home and introduce us to her children. We sat, prayed and shared a hug that could have lasted a lifetime. It is those types of moments that make me realize how much of a gift from God life truly is and how much I take for granted on a daily basis. We all left that village changed and with memories that we will never forget.
Tomorrow is our last day here. I am going to miss this place and will forever be grateful for the opportunities given, experiences had, but most importantly for the people that I have met and the relationships I have formed.
Tiara Phipps bonded with Ethiopia natives playing soccer on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This week, eight Wildcats are taking part in a service trip in Ethiopia. Throughout the week, the student-athletes will take turns describing their experience. Please note that these posts are the personal reactions of the student-athletes and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics. Tiara Phillips writes about Saturday's activities.
Tiara Phipps (gymnastics)
Day four was like nothing I've ever experienced, which seems to be a common theme for this entire trip.
9 a.m.: We left the Addis Guest House to head for the soccer fields for what we thought would be our forte: sports. The weather was unfavorable, but not one thing stops the Ethiopians from experiencing life.
9:27 a.m.: One of our translators, an incredibly intelligent mind who has never set foot in a school, told us his story. It's incredible that a young man who learned English in an orphanage, who was thrown into the wild at age 7, and experienced so many things we couldn't even imagine, is as receptive, generous and protective as anyone could ever hope to be. This is one of the huge examples for me of what it takes to be Ethiopian. STRENGTH. The people of this country grow more beautiful to me each day, but it's not an expected beauty, it's unintentional, unorthodox and a beauty that's truly a blessing to witness. We reach the fields after a walk through livestock, and immediately see the kids. They are already passing the ball, and getting dirty and into the game that's king in their nation. Our family is such a mixture of athletes from different sports that we had no idea what to expect from each other when playing soccer, but nevertheless it was fun. We started passing with the children and it's incredible how universal sport is. We speak two completely different languages, yet I was never uncomfortable hitting the ball with my head to a complete foreigner and the same for them with me.
12:45 p.m.: "They're better (at soccer) with their shoes off than we are with cleats on." A hilarious statement by Stephanie Fox at first, but an analogy at second glance. They experience more permanent happiness than I have ever seen with less than I have ever seen. After being made to look foolish by the Ethiopians, we took a little hike to the top of the mountain to find an incredible view and a perfect spot for a mini photo shoot session. The boys took a couple bro pics, and the girls smiled big, then we made fools of ourselves and loved every second of it. Later, after some slight misunderstandings and stop and goes to find a restaurant, we decided on a cultural place with great food and even better entertainment.
7:58 p.m.: This dancing is so athletic, it hurt my shoulders just watching them have the time of their lives with absolutely no breaks. Finally, Jarrod Polson got his shot at being the hero as one of the dancers approached our table, a chant broke out and I'll just say that video is one to watch.
This culture and the lessons it has taught me will stay with me forever, just like I hope the people I've met on this trip will never fade in my memory. I just want to say that I'm blessed beyond belief to be on this trip with this amazing team of people I'm sad I have to leave soon. This little group has become like a little family, and I appreciate every single one of them.
Every single thought on an Ethiopian's mind no matter the situation this entire trip has been on God blessing us, but we are simply His hands and feet. In spite of everything they absolutely need, they need us to be blessed. It's unfathomable the amount of love I'm developing for this country, this team and this culture. With that being said, I thank everyone for their prayers and pray that God blesses every single one of you.
Eight UK student-athletes spent their third day in Ethiopia on Friday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This week, eight Wildcats are taking part in a service trip in Ethiopia. Throughout the week, the student-athletes will take turns describing their experience. Please note that these posts are the personal reactions of the student-athletes and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics. Friday's blogs are from Emma Brown and Liz Breed.
Emma Brown (women's soccer)
"It's not about how big or small the gift, it's that you came."
Keeping my eyes open, providing my hands for a purpose and my heart to a people has given me an understanding of how time, words and relationships impact the world around you. How can you recognize the importance of a moment until it has slipped through your grasp, elusive as air? How can you feel the weight of words, both as heavy as they are light? How can one woman's thank you slow your heartbeat and warm your soul? "It's not about how big or small the gift," she said. "It's that you came." If you're pondering these same questions as I am from the confinements of a guest house in Ethiopia, I'll let you in on my newly discovered secret. Love, compassion, reflection, connection, that's how.
Our coach teaches us that every moment could be "the one" - the one that wins games or costs you your season. That is why you prepare and train and repeat, because you never know when that moment might come. The moment may be fleeting, like a shooting star streaking across the sky, brilliant and blinding and exceptional. Or maybe your moment was meant to be infinite, changing the blueprint of your life permanently. As our translator Kaleab relayed one woman's message to our group I realized the gravity of the moment I was in. The weight of words so lightly uttered in a dark and damp space that carried meaning that was just beyond the surface, if you were willing for your heart to find it.
In that epiphany-induced moment I came to learn much about humanity and myself. It's there as Africa's constant reminder to me - an action we think is so small can actually be something much bigger than us, our ideals, and the hopes we hold for each other. It's not necessarily about the amount of money we give or the food we hand out, it is that we cared enough to just give them a new shot of life, new wind under their wings. It's not that the difference you make is one that changes everything, but that you had the courage and compassion to take the first step towards something better.
Yesterday was about learning lessons for me, and today I was thankful for the lighter feeling that a day of sightseeing and shopping provided. It was a beautiful day to decompress and unburden some of the heaviness from the previous day. Nice weather throughout most of the day gave us the opportunity to "haggle" for gifts and glimpse some of Addis Ababa's landmarks. Even as the rain came we still had a great lunch and scarf extravaganza, where the boys were taught valuable lessons in how to pick out the right color scarves to complement their girlfriends and wives (really boys are about as clueless to the difference between pastels and prints as you would think, and that is not a new lesson for anyone). I'm excited for what tomorrow will bring and thankful for the time I've been allotted in this amazing country.
Liz Breed (women's golf)
You think you've prepared yourself for things outside of your comfort zone, but when you're out there, there are no words. There is nothing you can say to aptly summarize what you've seen.
Today we went shopping; we were tourists today. But shopping here is nothing like shopping at home. You barter and trade for the lowest price possible. (The American dollar is worth about 18 Ethiopian birr, which is the money system). There are young boys with trays of gum, begging for money. Adult men are following you to sell you maps or belts. All you can do is give a firm "no," and keep moving. You stick to your guns and show no mercy. If you do, they swarm. It sounds scary, but it's not. It's excitement of a different kind.
After shopping, we went to a coffee shop. Picture: Starbucks, Ethiopian style. The colors and ambiance were the same, the drinks were the same, the baristas were wearing green aprons. It's the same thing...and just as good.
After coffee, back to shopping.
All in all, it was a fun day. Just...different.
Being in such a different culture has been overwhelmingly amazing and terrifying at once. You hear about it, but it's never what you've imagined. You could never prepare for a trip like this.
Neal Brown made his official return to Commonwealth Stadium at April's Blue/White Spring Game. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Neal Brown had always thought about coming home.
Even after the Danville, Ky., left Kentucky in 2000, he still followed the Wildcat program. As Brown raised a young family and his career took him all over the country, the idea of returning to his roots flickered in the back of his mind.
This offseason, it became a reality.
"You always think about coming back but you never get your hopes up too much in this business because it's crazy and it's unpredictable," Brown said. "It just so happened that the stars aligned last December and it all worked out and I'm thankful for it."
As Brown suggests, he wasn't going to drop everything at the first opportunity to come home. As one of the promising young minds in college football, Brown had his future to think about. In order to put on UK blue again, the former wide receiver would have to be convinced.
To complicate matters, coming to Lexington to serve as offensive coordinator wasn't Brown's only opportunity this winter. Multiple schools courted him and some even thought of making the 33-year-old one of the youngest head coaches in the country.
Mark Stoops, meanwhile, stood aside. He knew he wanted Brown and he made that clear, but Stoops gave him time to sort through process. In the end, Stoops' quiet patience was his masterful final sales pitch. It showed Brown that Stoops only wants the best for those around him.
" 'This is a good guy. This is a good person. This is a guy that understands what we're doing on a day-to-day basis.' " Brown recalled telling his wife. "I said, 'I can work for him. I want to work for him.' "
With complete faith in Stoops' vision for the UK program, Brown signed on as the second assistant on the new UK staff on Dec. 10. Over the three days that followed, two more former Cats joined him.
First was John Schlarman. The former All-Southeastern Conference UK offensive lineman signed on to coach Wildcats at his former position and had feelings similar to Brown's about coming back to the Bluegrass and being close to extended family in his native Ft. Thomas, Ky.
"It's something that you hope for, you keep your fingers crossed someday you will have that chance but you really never know if it's going to come or not," Schlarman said.
Chad Scott. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
About 48 hours later, a third former Cat got that chance as running backs coach. Chad Scott - who played at UK from 2000-01 - is the only one of the three not originally from Kentucky, but joining Stoops' staff still felt like a homecoming.
"For me, I'm from Plant City, Fla., and I came 1,500-1,600 miles away to start my career," Scott said. "It's like coming back home to be honest with you. I really almost feel like I'm going back to my house. I know where I'm going, I know how to get around."
His wife, the former Shambrica Jones, played basketball at UK. Excited about being so close to her beloved UK Hoops program, she took over all the logistics of the move while Scott hit the recruiting trail.
"When I got this opportunity, my wife said, 'Just go, I'll handle everything,' " Scott said. "That's what I did. I came here and she stayed back I was here for about two and a half months before she came."
Unlike Scott and his wife, Brown, Schlarman and Scott weren't classmates at UK, but their stories intertwined.
Schlarman was first to arrive. He was a four-year starter from 1994-97 and Brown - a lifelong UK fan - can recall watching him play in both high school and college.
"I think it's a good lesson for our guys and if you just work hard and continue to get better at your craft, you can be an All-SEC player," Brown said.
As he always hoped, Brown came to Kentucky as well, starting his career the year after Schlarman graduated. In Brown's final season, 2000, Schlarman joined the UK staff as a graduate assistant. Watching Brown establish himself on the team, Schlarman was reminded of himself.
"He came in and worked hard, nothing was given to him and he had to earn every opportunity that he got while he was here," Schlarman said. "I was a little along those same lines."
Scott, meanwhile, arrived in 2000 as a gifted back, rushing for 611 yards and earning All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team honors.
"We knew he was very talented from the word go," Schlarman said. "He was really fast back then and he's probably really fast still but I remember him being an explosive and dynamic running back. He went out there and worked hard and did some really good things very early in his career."
John Schlarman. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Brown and Scott recall Schlarman as a quiet coach learning his profession back then, but they have seen his evolution firsthand. The three coached together at Troy from 2007-09 with Brown serving as the offensive coordinator for the final two seasons.
"When he came to us at Troy he was coming in as the guy that had been a graduate assistant in college and was a high school coach," Brown said of Schlarman. "Because he was a part of some really good offensive units, I think he's a more confident coach now."
In Schlarman's mind, that goes for Brown and Scott too. Watching them now, Schlarman still sees the players he remembers working with as a graduate assistant. But now, all three have become fully formed coaches.
"I think they always have a little bit of the same characteristics that they carried as players but as a coach you have to kind of get more vocal and that sort of thing," Schlarman said. "I think all of us have evolved in that regard. You have to coach and get your ideas across to those guys and not just worry about our little area."
Schlarman was separated from Brown and Scott from 2010 when they left for Texas Tech, but they are together again in a place they know well. When they were first hired by Stoops, fans and media talked extensively about the value of having three coaches so intimately familiar with the school on board.
Having been on the job, the three offensive assistants agree.
"I think just being familiar with everybody always helps," Schlarman said. "There's not that get-to-know-you period quite as much."
Brown, Scott and Schlarman have known their surroundings from day one. They know their way around campus and they see familiar faces daily, but that doesn't mean everything feels the same.
Though they all saw success as players and were members of some of the best UK teams in recent memory, the mood around the program is unmistakably different. They still haven't coached in a game yet and there's untold amounts of work yet to be done, but they all agree it feels like something big is happening.
"There was excitement around the program when I played, but the excitement around this program now is setting new heights," Scott said. "It's unbelievable."
The success the new staff has already had on the recruiting trail is certainly a part of that. So too is the passage of House Bill 7 that approved UK's pursuit of Commonwealth Stadium renovations. But when picking out a single highlight from his time on the job so far, Brown didn't hesitate in passing over both.
The Blue/White Spring Game is the easy choice.
An estimated 50,831 were in attendance for the annual scrimmage, giving UK the sixth-highest spring-game attendance in the NCAA in 2013. Looking around at the hundreds who came out early for the Cat Walk and the thousands who packed Commonwealth for the actual game, Brown saw a fan base taking ownership of its role in rebuilding the UK program. Nothing could be more exciting than that.
"I think it's a huge thing that the fans need to understand," Brown said. "Our fan support plays a huge role in the success we are going to have on the field and the success we have in recruiting."
From his childhood as a fan to his playing days and even to his time coaching at other schools, Brown has always believed in Kentucky football. Events like the spring game are bringing a lot more people to his side.
"Guys want to be part of that," Brown said. "Guys want to go where there's excitement and energy and those things could be felt that night. That was a huge day for UK football and I think it will pay off in the future."
This story appeared first in The Official 2013 University of Kentucky Football Yearbook, which is available for $10 at Kentucky outlets like Kroger, Fan Outfitters and most bookstores right now. To purchase it online, click on this link.
This week, eight Wildcats are taking part in a service trip in Ethiopia. Throughout the week, the student-athletes will take turns describing their experience. Please note that these posts are the personal reactions of the student-athletes and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics. For perspective on Thursday's activities, we turn to Angelica Whaley and Brett Johnson. Angelica Whaley (track and field)
Angelica Whaley of UK track and field works interacts with locals in Ethiopia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
We began our second day here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, bright and early at 8 a.m. local time with breakfast and then headed to a local community center. There, we met a case worker that is the head of a sponsorship program for impoverished families. We found that our main task for the day was to deliver mattresses to families that were in need - a task that seemed so simple to us but meant so much to people who piled leaves on the ground as a form of bare minimum cushion from the ground. The first woman to whom we delivered a mattress and frame to was a recently saved, HIV-positive mother of one young boy. The joy and appreciation in her face was like an unexpected gift to me; she was so gracious. Her son who was about 2 or 3 years old was literally a bundle of joy who smiled and pranced around everywhere. To have what we, as Americans, would call "nothing" and to live as if he had everything in the world in the way he laughed, smiled, giggled, and played was truly a blessing to see. We gave him a small toy, nothing extravagant, and the way his face lit up is something that I will never forget. The way all the children's faces lit up even more when we gave them toys period was a sight to see; it was pure, unadulterated happiness.
We traveled to a nearby city named Kai Afar to deliver another mattress to a local widow. The outside of her house was plastered with mud but had a definite structure to it unlike many of the "huts" and "shacks" that we've seen thus far; her neighborhood is considered to be a part of the more urban area. She was so warm and welcoming. Once we gave her the mattress, she insisted that we come in her home and have a seat. A few of us eagerly piled in as she rummaged about, rearranging the small amount of furniture that she had so that we all could fit. She was beyond gracious and didn't know much English but one phrase that she was completely familiar with was "thank you." She constantly said "I'm very, very thank you." She prayed for us and told us that we were a blessing to her and that she loved us. She said it meant so much that we came such a long way to deliver her a mattress. She shared with us that she suffers from an internal disease that affects her nervous system, and it often times causes her to be sick. Also, she shared with us that she has three children, one of whom we met book-in-hand in her home. Three people were sleeping on the twin-sized makeshift bed she had when we got there, but tonight, she and her family will sleep more comfortably with an extra mattress on the ground. We offered to pray for her, and she agreed, but she asked that if we pray for her, pray for her extended family members as well.
After our prayers, she thanked us again and again and began to cry. She revealed to us that at times, she felt as if God didn't know her and that he forgot about her. She shared that all the times that she was sick, no one came to see her or help her with her family, but we came. She said that we were her treasure. What we did for her was greater than the mattress, and it was greater than the simple toy that we gave her neighbor. We became a tangible confirmation of her faith. She was at her breaking point with her situation, and God used us as a blessing for her life. The entire visit was emotionally heavy and left many of us in tears; it was incredible to feel God move in that way. Through everything, she has had steadfast faith, and through us, God was able to show her that He takes care of all of His people. It is important to know that here in Ethiopia, religion is everything, compared to America where religion is somewhat "lost."
Nothing but love was felt but little did she know she was truly as much of a blessing, if not more, to us as she said we were to her. She is a beautiful soul inside and out. Through it all, she continues to put others first. She is truly a woman of gold, and I will never forget those soft, endearing eyes. A mattress brought us together. It is the donation of a plain, old mattress that has deeply impacted my life. Even with all the miles apart, it is our love of Christ that will keep us together (as said by our new friend). And she is completely right.
We spent the rest of the day building relationships, giving small toys to children, and giving away coffee and sugar to many poor women at the community center. They tell us that it's not how much we brought but that we came. We came 9,000 miles to spend time with them, and they were so thankful. You often hear them say "ameseginalehu," which means "thank you" in their Amharic language. The same young boy whose mother received a mattress, later greeted us with hugs, plants, and flowers - gifts that have proven to be the sweetest I have ever received and will cherish forever. Everyone constantly says, "God bless you," and we said the same in return, but God is blessing us all along this journey.
Lastly, we drove an older woman that has sickness in her legs that even makes walking to her home difficult. She is on the waiting list for a sponsor who can change her life emotionally, spiritually, and economically. Sponsorship only costs $35 U.S. We prayed for her, and she was gracious like all the other women with whom we came in contact. As of now and as a group, we are waiting to see if it is acceptable for us to sponsor her.
Today was a day like no other day I will experience in my life. We've asked ourselves questions like "How can they do this?" or "How can they live that way?" But, I've realized why would they question their lifestyles if they have never seen, heard or even thought differently? This world is all they know, and even still, they, as a people, are happier and more peaceful than any place in America. They are patient and loving people who live in a place where men can walk hand in hand as a sign of love and respect for one another with no judgment. These people are too busy with survival to spend all of their days judging one another. I love this culture. I love these people. Compared to our country, they may be "poor" outwardly, but they are wealthy in their hearts and spirit.
Brett Johnson (men's tennis)
Brett Johnson is spending this week in Ethiopia with seven fellow Wildcats. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
"Selam" (Hello), "Ameseginalehu" (Thank you), "Simi man new?" (What's your name?) and "Cint amete new?" (How old are you?), were just a few phrases that came in handy today. After some wonderful morning quiet time, outstanding breakfast and a quick run, we began our "never going to forget this day" journey.
We started off the day a little differently than expected. We made our way over to the community center to soon realize the supplies for the day were not yet ready. Pastor Mark thought it would be a good idea to go on over to the bank to "quickly" convert our U.S dollars to Ethiopian birr. We had everyone put all their money in a bag, and Stephanie Fox was elected to be our money representative. So Pastor Mark, Stephanie and I make our way into the bank, expecting a five-minute exchange. Oh no! After 45 minutes Stephanie was still in the back "exchanging" money. Not what we were expecting, but everything ended turning out fine.
Upon receiving a phone call from the representative for the community center saying the supplies were ready, we headed back to the center. We loaded up several beds, several pillows and many sheets. We were ready to go serve. Our first stop was to a single mother, who was currently working a quick shop. We pulled up to her "shop" and I look over and I see a gleaming smile on this woman's face. She hurried over to the van to meet us all. After several minutes of talking, eating her biscuits and prayer with her, we were off to a small town called Kai Afar not realizing what some of us considered "a day we will never forget."
Pulling into these tin-roofed, plastic-covered homes, we arrive in Kai Afar. Several of us get out to deliver the mattress, pillows and sheets. We duck our heads, and enter this mud-covered home and are ushered by this joy-filled widow to "sit down and get comfortable." After small talk with this widow and her youngest daughter, our hearts begin to melt. We asked the lady if there was any prayers we could say for her and she proceeded to tell us about a dysfunction in her nervous system. She was in severe pain, but we would have NEVER guessed it! She seemed as if she had the whole world in her hands! The joy and positive attitude that this woman had and the faith she had that God would provide was astounding and it brought all of us to tears. When praying for her and praying for healing, we were all a wreck. After hugging and saying our good-byes, my eyes were opened to a reality. How much do I need to be thankful? This woman had NOTHING, yet seemed as if she had EVERYTHING. I was excited to see where God would put us next.
It was around lunchtime and we all were ready to eat. We ate at a rodeo restaurant, where many of us had authentic food. With our bellies full, we were ready to keep serving. We made our way back over to the community center where we distributed sugar and coffee to the mothers. Again, they couldn't stop thanking us and blessing us. Upon hearing stories from several of the women, a very special one stood up and shared her story. She was also a single mother, in need of money and a sponsor, because she is unable to work because of severe pains in both her legs and an HIV-positive diagnosis. Several of our hearts went out to her. Some of us drove her back to her home and were able to pray for healing and that an opportunity would open up for someone to sponsor her. Yet again, never would have guessed anything was wrong in her life because she was bubbly and always smiling and hugging. Again, how much do I need to be thankful?
It was beginning to get late so we all decided to head back to the guest house, where some of us realized we still had a lot of energy. So we asked Rock Oliver to take us to the gym to get a late night workout in. To say the least, I'm going to be super-sore in the morning. This concluded our wonderful Thursday. We all want to say thank you for the prayers and thoughts, we are continually driven by the joy these people express. Our hearts are captivated by their sincerity and thankfulness. We are excited to see God at work the rest of the trip!
Mark Stoops was joined by Governor Steve Beshear and U of L head coach Charlie Strong at the Governor's Cup Luncheon on Wednesday. (Jake Most, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops has had a busy July, but not for the reasons he'd prefer.
The Kentucky head coach is in the middle of the preseason crush of non-football responsibilities. He has appeared at Southeastern Conference Media days, taken part in the ESPN "Car Wash" and spoken at more functions than he'd care to count.
Serving as the face of a program for the first time, Stoops is getting more comfortable in the role by the day. But while he certainly enjoys talking football, Stoops would rather be coaching it.
"I'm getting anxious to get in that room and be in there for long periods of time and to help this team win some games," Stoops said at the Governor's Cup Luncheon on Wednesday.
With fall practice set to start in a little more than a week, Stoops doesn't have much longer to wait. Nonetheless, he still has a few events to get through, namely the Greater Louisville UK Alumni Club Wildcat Kickoff Luncheon on Friday, UK's Women's Clinic on Saturday and the Kickoff Luncheon on Aug. 2.
As excited as Stoops may be to shift his focus to coaching, he's thankful to be in demand. He knows how important fans are to what he is building and he's aware of the value of publicity, but none of that will matter much if UK can't deliver substance to accompany the flash.
"You want to get out so much you appreciate all the people that support you in all corners of the state and in all communities," Stoops said. "You want to get out and you want to get back to them and just give them some exposure to yourself and your program. But there is a balance."
Stoops is learning quickly to prioritize.
"I think there is a time when you have to say no, and I hope people understand that," Stoops said. "Because it's time to put your kids, put your program, put your players in the best position to be successful."
Stoops excited to be part of UK-U of L rivalry
Even though their showdown won't take place until the third game of the season for both Kentucky and Louisville, the Governor's Cup Luncheon is all about the instate rivalry. Because of that, Stoops spoke at length for the first time about U of L and what the annual game means to him.
In fielding questions, Stoops abandoned coach speak.
"Let's face it: It's important," Stoops said. "All you folks are here to talk about one game that's our third game into the season."
Stoops has coached in big rivalries before - Florida/Florida State and Arizona/Arizona State, to name two - so he doesn't hide from the meaning of those games. For that reason, he wants to see UK-U of L continue.
"I think it's very important," Stoops said. "It's important to everybody. We all enjoy the rivalry, and we all embrace the rivalry. It's very important. I know how important it is to people of this state. With that being said, I can't control things. Our administration fights to keep some things in perspective as far as scheduling goes in the SEC. But if they expand, I don't know."
It's impossible to know exactly what the future holds, but at least in the short term, UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart doesn't see UK-U of L going anywhere.
"I don't think we're going to nine conference games at this point in time," Barnhart said. "Through 2015 or so, we're solid, maybe 2016 ... somewhere in that range. We're not going to be at nine for a while and if we are, that's another conversation down the road. But I don't sense that's an issue for us."
Stoops: 'It was time' for Commonwealth upgrades
Within months of Stoops being named head coach, Governor Steve Beshear - who was in attendance Wednesday - and the Kentucky legislature approved plans to renovate Commonwealth Stadium and the Nutter Training Facility. Since then, those upgrades have become an important part of Stoops' recruiting pitch.
"Our administration, the commitment that we have, the commitment that we have from the governor's office and so on from the renovations that are going to take place was needed," Stoops said. "And people are excited about that."
Stoops has big things on his mind in the coming years for Kentucky football, goals that likely wouldn't be realistic without the facility improvements.
"Well, it was needed," Stoops said. "It was time. So, our facilities are adequate to win some games, but the level that we want to take our program to, they were needed."
Wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord started it, and the Yahtzee craze has picked up steam with every recruiting win for Kentucky. On Wednesday, Stoops had a great (and rules-compliant) answer when he was asked whether he actually plays the dice game.
"What do you think we're so excited about on Twitter?" Stoops said. "Absolutely, we play Yahtzee. I'm pretty good, but Coach (Vince) Marrow, he's kind of the best."
UK collected 50,000 signatures from coaches and staff for a season ticket mailing campaign. (Photo via @UK_KFund on Twitter)
During the summer, the Joe Craft Center is supposed to be relatively quiet as coaches and staff recharge between sports seasons.
But for two days in early July, visitors would have never known. On Friday, July 5 and Monday, July 8, the hub of UK Athletics was home to a flurry of activity.
Tables and dozens of chairs were set up the lobby for two separate "parties," but staffers weren't gathering for a birthday or some other celebration. Instead, employees from all over campus joined in a collective effort to "recruit" football season ticket holders. Taking a cue from Mark Stoops and his staff, the UK marketing department collected five signatures on 10,000 cards.
To accomplish the momentous task, nearly everyone - including myself - grabbed a stack of cards and signed. Rachel Lawson brought her entire staff over from the softball offices. John Robic emerged from men's basketball to take a big handful. National champion rifle head coach Harry Mullins kept his seat until the final cards had five signatures.
That's 50,000 signatures that ranged from athletics high rollers like basketball coach John Calipari and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart all the way to "Kathy in the business office," (Assistant Athletics Director of Marketing and Licensing Nathan) Schwake said of Kathy Fletcher, an accountant.
There were more than a handful of different messages that went out to a select list of about 5,000 fans, mostly young alumni and previous season ticket holders who didn't renew dating to 2009.
Some will get 10 letters, some will get 20 letters and a select few will get 50 or more letters.
One card says: "We know you've got what it takes. Be early. Wear blue. Get loud."
Another adds: "Coach Stoops is recruiting the best players. We're recruiting the best fans. We want you on board for 2013 and beyond."
The campaign is the latest in a continuing effort to capitalize on the social-media presence of the Big Blue Nation. Just like with Super Bowl commercial and magazine ads in Sports Illustrated and Time, UK is relying on fans who received mail to spread the word.
"We're trying to focus on things that are going to make an impact, that are worth more than the actual value of the project," Schwake told Smith. "Hopefully some additional buzz that's created will be worth the cost."
Eight UK student-athletes arrived in Ethiopia on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This week, eight Wildcats are taking part in a service trip in Ethiopia. Throughout the week, the student-athletes will take turns describing their experience. First up are Jarrod Polson and Stephanie Fox on their long voyage to Africa and their first day serving.
Jarrod Polson (men's basketball)
We started our journey to Ethiopia around 10 a.m. ET on Monday morning. We drove to the Cincinnati airport where we took off for Washington, D.C., arriving around 430 p.m. After checking into the hotel near the airport, we had the wonderful privilege of taking a three-hour tour around D.C in the "fun van," as our driver called it. We were able to see most of the famous attractions including the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and even got a glimpse of the White House. During the tour, we were fed both a countless amount of information and some cheese puffs that were out of this world. Once done with that escapade, we proceeded to partake in the "last supper," as we liked to call it. We chose to go to the Cheesecake Factory and were not disappointed. Knowing that we probably wouldn't have an American meal for at least a week, we took the honor of each ordering an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. After stuffing our faces, we came back to the hotel and rested up for the journey ahead.
The next day we woke up around 6:30 a.m. so we could catch our 9:15 a.m. flight. After purchasing a comfortable neck pillow and a hearty bagel breakfast, we boarded the plane and began our 13-hour flight to Ethiopia. Fortunately, it wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting. The seats were pretty spread apart and after watching three movies, taking a few naps and reading a little bit, we finally landed in Africa promptly and safely. It took a while to get out of the airport because we had to go through customs. Once the particulars were done, we checked into the Addis Guest House. It didn't take long to see such a culture change from America to Ethiopia. One of the big things that I wasn't even expecting was the driving. Ethiopia is actually a very busy place to drive, and it doesn't help that there are hardly any lines on the road and people literally are walking in and out of traffic, even on the "highways." We quickly learned that it is kind of a free for all, as drivers do not stop for pedestrians, even if they are literally a few feet away from them. I also should mention that I heard more car honks today alone than I have in my entire life.
Anyways, after getting settled into our rooms we ate a quick breakfast right there at the guest house and got ready for the day. We drove to one of the poorer areas in Ethiopia and helped out with covering a woman's house with plastic as it wasn't keeping the rain and wind out very effectively. A few of us went into the house and that's when it really hit me how underprivileged some of the people are. This house was about the size of a bedroom and was occupied by a few sheets and blankets for a bed, some old pots and pans and that's about it. It was hard not to feel bad for the woman, but the crazy part was just how joyful she seemed to be and thankful for what we were doing. Talk about a wakeup call!
My favorite part of the day by far was getting to meet my new buddy Alamiyoo. Funny story: As I was hammering some nails into the wood to keep the plastic up, a little 10-year-old boy came up to me and pretty much showed me how it was done. I'll be honest, I was a little mad at first because he was showing me up and making me look pretty worthless, but we soon became really good friends. I got to play a lot of "games" with him (mainly raising my hand up and seeing how high he could reach it or teaching him how to do the "Dougie") . Alamiyoo and all the other children we got to play with really taught us a good lesson. Here they are living in houses with dirt floors and plastic walls, hungry and thirsty most of the day, and they were some of the most joyous people I have ever met. I can think of so many times where I complain about the littlest things, and these kids have nothing and still have huge smiles on their faces. Today as a whole was very shocking, and I'm certain that the people of Ethiopia are going to help us out way more than we could ever even think of helping them, simply through the joy they show in the worst of circumstances.
Stephanie Fox (women's tennis)
We started out adventure in Ethiopia when we arrived at the airport at 7:30 a.m. Many of us got very little sleep but were still ready and excited for the day ahead. We arrived at our hotel - The Guest House - and after breakfast headed to work.
Our job was to insert plastic wrapping around two houses that helps keep wind and rain out. This is very important because it is winter in Ethiopia and rains nearly every day! The people were very grateful and it was a great time working with them to help improve their living situation as best we could.
The families were great and I think a lot of us would agree a huge highlight of the day was the children we spent time with at the houses. They were all vibrant and full of energy! I can already tell this trip is going to help each of us grow and I'm so thankful to experience this with other UK athletes. Can't wait to experience the rest of the trip!
You've read here about Erik Korem, who is leading UK's innovative High Performance program. Now, check out this video profile of Corey Edmond, who is playing an important role in those High Performance endeavors as strength and conditioning coach.
Standing at a healthy 6-foot-11, 260 pounds, Johnson has always been bigger than just about anybody else he's ever played against. He was 6-4 in seventh grade, and he sprouted to about 6-8, 6-9 by the time he was in eighth grade. He was always the big kid everybody tried to grab on to when he got the ball in the paint, the kid that parents would complain about being unfair competition for their 5-10 child.
Unlike some of Kentucky's recent big men, most notably Anthony Davis, Johnson didn't learn the game as a guard and blossom into a low-post threat. He's been a traditional center from day one, and he's never shied away from that.
"I was a little uncomfortable with my body just growing into it," Johnson said. "Once I got adjusted to it, it was great."
He isn't one of those big guys who wish they were a guard deep down, or one of those lanky forwards who like to roam the perimeter and try to shoot 3s or take his man off the dribble. That's not who he is.
Johnson is a center through and through. In a day and age where players want to be known for their versatility and ability to play at multiple positions, Johnson embraces his position in the paint. He knows he's best at beating the opposition on the block with his strength. Perhaps that's why (high school coach Kevin) Boyle has praised him so often for his basketball IQ.
"I like it," Johnson said. "I like rebounding. I like banging down low. That's what I do best, so why would I try to go away from it? I use it to my advantage."
Those words have to make UK fans happy, as will most everything he has to say in his interview with Eric Lindsey as part of the "Meet the Wildcats" series. Check out the full story to read about Johnson's relationship with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, why he chose Kentucky and the pride he takes in making his family proud.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- More than seven months in, Mark Stoops has essentially created a checklist for starting a head-coaching tenure.
He hired a coaching staff with a mix of Kentucky roots, knowledge and enthusiasm. He has established momentum on the recruiting trail with a record first signing class and the makings of a follow-up that could be even better. Along the way, he has both unified and energized a fan base.
"Everything has been positive," Stoops said. "From the moment I arrived on campus at Kentucky, I just felt so good about the support. The people are starving to have a good football program."
From the outside looking in, the change seems to have happened almost overnight. The student-athletes and coaches who live and breathe Kentucky football know otherwise.
One word is coming to define UK football under Stoops, and it's nothing to do with taglines ready-made for a billboard. It's all about process, and it took Stoops just six sentences into his opening statement at his press conference at Southeastern Conference Media Days on Wednesday to say so.
"We understand there's a lot of hard work that lies ahead, but we're embracing that process and working hard each and every day to improve this team," Stoops said.
While outsiders are wondering where UK's 2014 class will finish in final recruiting rankings next spring or where the Wildcats will be among the SEC pecking order five years from now, Stoops, his staff and players are thinking about the here and now. They're not bogged down in the enormity of the task at hand, instead thinking about the next workout, the next film session, the next practice.
"(Stoops) always tells us it's about the process and you just gotta win each process, starting with the winter," Donte Rumph said.
No one understands that better than Rumph.
Four years ago, the defensive tackle was in his second year at Fork Union Military Academy working to qualify so he could follow through on the National Letter of Intent he signed in 2008. Now, he's recognized among the top defensive tackles in the league and was one of three seniors to represent his team at SEC Media Days.
The journey has been a long one, but Rumph hasn't reached this point by thinking about far-off goals.
"You don't focus on the future," said Rumph, whose "Uncle Rumph" nickname was revealed on Wednesday. "Everything is a process in life, just like with me getting here. It's a slow process, but I finally got here and it makes you appreciate things more too. I enjoy the process and I embrace it and I'm just honored to have Coach Stoops."
Rumph and fellow Media Days representatives Avery Williamson and Raymond Sanders are all seniors, which could have made learning the personalities and system of a new staff a daunting prospect. But thanks to Stoops' process-driven approach, it's been tough but manageable.
"It's difficult, but you have to change what you're doing to get different results," Sanders said. "That's something that's happening and I'm glad to be a part of it. I wish I could start all over. It's new, but it's nothing that we can't handle as seniors."
UK is now nearing the end of the summer, during which Stoops and his assistants are unable to work with student-athletes due to NCAA rules. That means getting bodies right through the High Performance program - all three players in attendance reported major improvement across the team in that area - and, above all else, establishing what will be demanded come fall.
"I think having that great work ethic, that great understanding of what it takes to be successful and being consistent with that," Stoops said.
Though there's much work ahead, Stoops is fairly pleased with the attitudes of the players on his roster, particularly those he elected to bring with him to Birmingham, Ala.
"If you ask all three guys who are here, they're tired of losing," Stoops said. "They want to be put in a position to be successful and that's what I love about this team. I know we've had to make some changes and dismiss some players and we'll continue to work on our character as a football program, but I'm very excited about them. They want to be led in the right way. They're working extremely hard and they have a positive attitude."
Those three seniors have completely bought into the process mentality, and Williamson even has a metaphor to prove it. Inspired by High Performance coach Erik Korem, UK's star linebacker compares it to "slow cooking."
"You've gotta put the meat in first and then dice up the potatoes, put the seasoning on and it takes a while," Williamson said. "It's a process for everything. You can't rush big situations like this. It's slowly going to take place and I feel like that's what we've been doing over these last few months."
Rumph, Sanders and Williamson also understand that they won't be on campus when some of the seeds they are planting each day bear fruit. At the same time, they don't want to hear too much talk about the future. The 2013 season, after all, is the first of the processes that will define the Stoops era.
"We expect to do big things," Rumph said. "We expect to win every game. We never train to lose. We're trying to stay humble, stay on the grind and we're blue-collar workers. We work hard every day. We're just trying to take it day by day."
Mark Stoops won't coach a conference game for more than two months, so Wednesday will have to serve as his introduction to the Southeastern Conference.
Stoops will take seniors Donte Rumph, Raymond Sanders and Avery Williamson to Birmingham, Ala., for the annual spectacle that is SEC Media Days. On Wednesday morning, the Wildcats will rotate through interviews with various outlets, culminating in Stoops' press conference in the main media room.
Cat Scratches will be traveling with Stoops and the three student-athletes and will have complete coverage throughout the day, from photos and behind-the-scenes information on various social-media platforms to a live blog during Stoops' press conference to video and features stories after the fact. This post should tell you everything you need to know about how to stay updated. Leave a comment below with any additional questions about UK at SEC Media Days.
Live video coverage
WatchESPN will be live-streaming Stoops' SEC Media Days press conference at approximately 10:50 a.m. ET. Watch it live here. Live blog
If you either can't watch the live stream or want to supplement your viewing with an interactive chat about UK football, join our live blog below. It will be active beginning a few minutes before Stoops' press conference and will last through the end of the 30-minute question-and-answer session.
Continuing his series of "Meet the Wildcats" features with John Calipari's latest bunch of newcomers, Eric Lindsey of CoachCal.com posted his profile of Julius Randle on Tuesday morning.
Randle is the top-rated recruit in Kentucky's historic 2013 recruiting class and is already being included in conversations about the nation's top players. Those are lofty expectations for a player who has been on campus for barely a month, but Randle's drive should allow him to handle the hype.
The story touches on the two sides of Randle, his return from an injury during his senior season and why he decided to come to Kentucky:
When Randle committed, the headlines centered on the historic class he had just made at Kentucky, but history had nothing to do with his decision to come to Lexington. Player development and the chance to win were the main reasons the 6-foot-9 forward went with the Cats.
"Ultimately I wanted to win," Randle said. "That was the biggest thing. I wanted to be developed. I feel like this was the place that I could be developed. I feel like the system, how Coach Cal plays ... I feel like it fit me way too well."
From the moment Coach Cal first recruited him to the frequent text messages he exchanges with him now, Randle knew Calipari was going to push him to be the best.
"I don't need anybody to baby me," Randle said. "I came here to be coached. I came here for somebody to push me and make me be the best player I can be. I feel like with Cal and his staff, that's what I'm getting here. That's why I love it so much because I know they're not going to short-change you."
Each summer, Mark Stoops goes home to Youngstown, Ohio to spend time with his family and return to his roots. This July, Kyle Tucker from the Louisville Courier-Journal was there with him for part of the time to find out who, where and what made Stoops who he is today.
The result is this story that was posted in Sunday's paper. It explores Stoops' roots in detail, from his relationship with his brothers - also now coaches - to his time as a player at Iowa to his relationship with his late father. It's a long read, but well worth your time.
Here's an excerpt:
All the Stoops boys wanted to do back then was shadow their dad. Especially Mark, who constantly picked his dad's brain about strategy.
"He was a tag-along," Dee Stoops said. "He lived in the locker room. 'What's so special about a locker room?' I'd say to them."
Like his father, Mark was good at just about all sports. He was a standout in football and baseball at Mooney, bonding with his dad most over the latter because Ron Sr. was the school's baseball coach. But Mark went on to play football at Iowa, following in Bob's and Mike's footsteps.
"He's one of the all-time great people that I've ever had the honor to coach," said Hayden Fry, the Hawkeyes' Hall of Fame former coach. "Very intelligent, great personality, a leader on the football team. He wasn't real large -- probably 170 pounds then -- and yet he played like he weighed 200. All those Stoops boys were that way. It was in their bloodline.
"Frankly, I never thought he'd be anything but a football coach."
The C-J also produced the following video to go with the story. Take a look:
Miles Simpson started 11 of UK's 12 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2012. (Josh McCoy, UK Athletics)
For Miles Simpson, this summer has been a learning experience that extends beyond the walls of a classroom.
While most students spend their summers enjoying a break from a grueling school schedule, the UK redshirt junior linebacker has been busy dedicating his time to his sport, his classwork and the community.
The kinesiology major first visited the Boys and Girls Club in downtown Lexington as part of a practicum for class last year, and immediately began bonding with some of the kids. As a result, Simpson decided to become a member of the Boys and Girls Club staff, spending his summer working its daily camp.
Although handling over 70 kids is no easy task, Simpson has enjoyed his experience thus far.
"It's fun to be around them," he said. "They can look up to me, not just as a friend, but as a positive role model."
For a lot of the children who attend the camp, Simpson's presence has meant a great deal.
"They think it's cool I play football, and they see me everyday so I'm someone they can count on," said Simpson.
Not only has Simpson - who totaled 70 tackles during the 2012 season, his first as a starter - been able to teach the kids about what it takes to be a college athlete, but he's learned a little bit from them as well.
"They've taught me to have a lot more patience. If I didn't have patience I'd constantly be yelling at them or telling them what to do," he said. "I've learned to listen to both sides of the story."
Throughout the week, Simpson and the other staff members and volunteers take the kids on field trips to local parks, swimming pools and the occasional movie. One of the more rewarding moments came when he was able to help encourage one of the kids to jump off the high-dive at Woodland Park after spending about 10 minutes building up the boy's courage.
While Simpson may only work the afternoons at Boys and Girls Club, his days begin around 6 a.m. with football workouts and often don't end until after a 7 p.m. tutor session. Simpson's focus this summer is establishing himself as a key cog in Mark Stoops' first Kentucky defense while continuing to progress toward graduation.
"It's hard to balance work with school and football," he said. "Some days I have to come in earlier for football because I have class right after, then I have to go to work straight after that. It's really tiring."
Even though he admits that some days at work are tougher than the rest, Simpson, who first began working summer camps for YMCA Camp Ernst in Burlington, Ky., hopes to continue working with kids in the future.
After pursuing his football career after college, Simpson aspires to be a personal trainer, and would enjoy helping young kids and high school athletes reach their full potential.
"I want to help them get to the next level," he said.
Terrence Jones joined the 1,000-point club in just two seasons at Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With their signing of star free agent Dwight Howard, the Houston Rockets have been the talk of the NBA this offseason. Houston surprised last year, reaching the playoffs, and many believe the addition of Howard will push them into the NBA's elite.
Not figuring much into conversation about the Rockets has been Terrence Jones. Houston took him at No. 18 in last year's draft and he spent his rookie season bouncing between the D-League and the Rockets - the path General Manager Daryl Morey often opts to use with his first-year players.
But if the NBA Summer League is any indication, the Rockets will be hard-pressed to keep Jones out of their rotation as they look to contend for a title in 2013-14.
Jones has led Houston to wins in all four of their games this summer, averaging 15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.0 blocks and 0.8 steals. His biggest game came in the Summer League opener when he dominated in an 88-80 win over Philadelphia to the tune of 24 points and 12 rebounds. Check out highlights, an interview with Jones and the box score here.
Since that game - when he converted 9 of 13 from the field - he has struggled a bit with his shot, but has continued to produce by getting to the foul line. He has attempted seven or more free throws in three of his four games and got to the line 14 times in a 92-76 win over Brooklyn on Thursday.
Dwight Howard is all the rage in Houston right now, but with his signing (and even before it) the development of Terrence Jones has become a key story line. The Rockets offense hummed along last year thanks to an emphasis on spacing the floor and getting high-efficiency shots -- 3s, layups, and free throws -- early in the shot clock. The best offensive results for Houston often came when some type of stretch 4 (Marcus Morris and then later Chandler Parsons) was inserted into the lineup. When one of those two played power forward, it brought a player into the frontcourt that could be a threat from behind the arc and also attack the rim off the bounce. Parsons, however, can't be expected to man that position for an entire season, which is where Jones comes in.
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward out of Kentucky has been a beast for Houston this week. Jones has spent the majority of his time living at the free throw line, bullying his way to 29 attempts through three games, including 14 yesterday against Boston. Jones is enough of a threat from the 3-point line (he's 2-of-5 this week beyond the arc) that defenders must play him for both a shot and drive. When given the opportunity to attack a closing defender, Jones has showed off an ability to attack in straight-line drives with both speed and power to great results. His finishing could use some work, as Jones virtually never uses his off hand (he's had one right-hand attempt by my unofficial count), and it costs him a handful of layups and three-point-play opportunities. But even with that drawback, Jones has easily been one of the best players here this week and is making a strong case to belong in the Rockets rotation.
Jones had his moments last season, getting substantial minutes in April when he played in Houston's final eight regular-season games, scoring in double figures four times as the Rockets made their push for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Second-year players often see the biggest bump in production, so Jones could be in line for a breakout season on a really good team.
John Calipari addresses fans at the 2012 edition of Big Blue Madness. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Let the countdown begin.
On Wednesday, UK announced on Twitter that Big Blue Madness - the annual event that tips off the men's and women's basketball seasons - will be on Oct. 18. This year, it won't be the first practice of the fall because of the NCAA's extended practice schedule, but it will still be the same show fans have come to expect.
Those hoping to attend will be able to obtain tickets on Saturday, Oct. 5 at 7 a.m. ET at the Memorial Coliseum ticket windows or online at UKathletics.com or Ticketmaster.com. Fans wishing to pick up tickets in person can begin lining up at 7 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Oct. 2. Tickets will be free, but a small service fee will be applied to online tickets.
Additional information about Madness 2013 - including parking, broadcast and start times - will be announced at a later date.
Women's soccer junior Arin Gilliland is spending July training with Portland Thorns FC of the National Women's Soccer League. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In just a year, life has changed drastically for Arin Gilliland.
Last summer, the star defender/forward was in the middle of an intensive rehabilitation process. She suffered a torn ACL and partially torn meniscus in the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament and was hoping her surgically-repaired right knee would be healthy for the start of her sophomore season. Whether she would regain her All-SEC form, Gilliland had no idea.
This summer, those concerns have melted away. Gilliland is spending July with Portland Thorns FC, a professional team playing in the National Women's Soccer League's inaugural season. She won't take the field for any games, but she will participate in all other team activities.
Instead of doing strength and flexibility exercises by herself, she'll be practicing with the likes of Alex Morgan, Rachel Buehler and Tobin Heath - all three members of the United States National Team. A slight improvement.
"Oh my gosh, you have no idea," Gilliland said. "It's a million times better."
It all came about in a hurry.
UK head coach Jon Lipsitz was in Portland, Ore., visiting family when he caught up with John Galas, an assistant with the Thorns. Galas explained how the team had brought in top college players to train and be introduced to a professional environment, asking whether UK had any candidates. Without hesitation, Lipsitz told Galas all about Gilliland, the versatile rising junior who starred at both outside back and forward, scoring a team-best 21 points. Lipsitz knew what that kind of experience could mean for a player of Gilliland's caliber.
"In order to continue her to her highest potential, which I believe is a full national team player, she is going to have to continue to take these journeys and these challenges to find out the next level," Lipsitz said. "To train and be with some of the best players in the world is going to show her what being a professional is all about."
Gilliland - in San Diego for Under-23 National Team camp at the time - hesitated even less when Lipsitz called to ask whether she was interested.
"There really wasn't any thinking to do," Gilliland said. "I just said, 'Yeah, I'd love to.' "
So Gilliland, following a three-week family vacation in Hawaii and a brief return to Lexington to work UK's day camp, paid her own way to Portland due to NCAA rules on July 1. Within hours, she was at a bowling alley to celebrate Christine Sinclair's birthday with the Thorns.
"What was so weird is it wasn't even like they were famous," Gilliland said. "They were just normal girls and this is their everyday life. It was kind of cool to see the different aspect of them."
Her month in the Northwest is going to be about a lot more than just team outings though. From practice to film sessions to weight training, Gilliland will be there.
"I get to be a part of the team as much as I want to be a part of the team," Gilliland said. "If I wanted to not go to film, I wouldn't have to go to film. Or if, the next day, I didn't want to go to weights, that's how it goes. But obviously I'm going to go to everything because with an opportunity like this, you don't just pass it up."
That kind of attitude is exactly why Lipsitz knew Gilliland would thrive in Portland. Gilliland has been a standout from the moment she set foot on campus, but something about her was different in 2012.
"One of the things that people don't get to see because they aren't with Arin every day is how dramatically she has changed off the field in the last year," Lipsitz said. "She has changed with how she has taken care of herself, from nutrition and sleep to finding times to recover and her daily commitment to being a professional has totally changed in the last year."
As unpleasant as last summer may have been, coming back from that knee injury had a lot to do with that change in Gilliland's mind.
"Not being able to play and having to sit the sidelines and getting a glimpse of what it's like to be the player on the bench and to be in that supporting role kind of opened my eyes," Gilliland said. "It really helped me mature as a soccer player. I'm more organized, I'm more punctual and all of the aspects I was missing I feel like it's really contributed to making me an all-around better player now."
Now, Gilliland is in the middle of an experience that Lipsitz hopes will show her what's next.
"I want her to see what being a professional truly means so that she can see the steps that she next needs to take and has models in order to do that," Lipsitz said. "I think having players that she can model herself after is very important in our country no matter what field you want to be in."
Somewhat ironically, the first step in that process has been Gilliland coming to understand just how similar she is to her role models. By getting to know players she's long idolized on a personal level, Gilliland's goals of playing professionally and eventually making the national team seem much more accessible.
"It kind of makes it almost real for me, to know that it is possible," Gilliland said. "These girls are just like me and every other girl with aspirations and dreams to do this with their life."
In the short term, Gilliland is looking to prove to herself and everyone else that she's capable of competing at the highest level. Portland has just three healthy backs on its roster, creating an opportunity for Gilliland to do just that.
"During training I'm going to get a lot of looks," Gilliland said. "I want to get my name out there and show them what I can do for this team and maybe in the future possibly coming here. My main goal is just to show I'm capable of playing at this level right now, so two years from now they can only expect more."
On a more personal note, Gilliland wouldn't mind taking on the most famous women's soccer player in the world either.
"Other than that, I definitely want to go 1-v.-1 with Alex Morgan," Gilliland said. "I mean, who doesn't?"
John Calipari will once again have an elite backcourt. The combination of freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison along with James Young and sophomore Alex Poythress makes the Wildcats' perimeter exceptional. This season's Kentucky backcourt will be big, athletic and physically mature.
Andrew Harrison has the size and strength to play through contact as well as create for his teammates. Aaron Harrison is a capable shooter, though he must let the game come to him. Young is a rangy, big-time shooter who will excel in the dribble drive. Poythress is a hybrid slashing wing who has improved his shot-making since arriving in Lexington. He shot 58 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range last season.
Vince Marrow has played an important role in Kentucky's recruiting efforts since he was hired to coach tight ends in December, winning prospects over with his enthusiasm and belief in the UK program. The video above - in which Marrow talks about his relationship with Mark Stoops, among other things - gives you a chance to get to know him yourself.
Alexandra Morgan competed for the USA Development Team in China in June (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics).
Rarely does a student-athlete have the opportunity to represent her country and travel overseas to compete against some of the top talent in the world. In June, Rising senior Alexandra Morgan of the UK volleyball team got to do just that.
Thanks to Bring It Promotions, a program that helps create a connection between the United States and other countries across the globe through the game of volleyball, Morgan was chosen for the BIP/USA Development Program, a team of 12 players that would travel to China to play "top professional teams in and around Shanghai and Beijing," according to bringitusa.com.
This would not be Morgan's first trip overseas for the sport of volleyball, however. Morgan took a foreign trip with her UK teammates in the summer of 2009 to Europe for two weeks. But despite that, little could prepare her for the experience in China.
Morgan was gracious enough to journal during her time in China to share with the Big Blue Nation. Here is Morgan's experience in her own words:
Monday - June 17
Today was mostly traveling. We got out and explored some in Shanghai. I was surprised by how desperate they were to get you to buy their items. A lady followed one of my teammates down the street and waited for her for 15 minutes while she looked in another store. She yelled at her, "You give me money!!!"
The food was as expected: very different. I've eaten mostly rice and bread. A lot of things are vinegar-based. A lot of things sound familiar but aren't even close to what we have in the U.S., like pancakes. We arrived in Huaian City and are staying at the Huaian State Government House. We've gotten a lot of pictures. It's very hot and it not uncommon to see men with their shirts off and their pants undone.
Tuesday - June 18
Today we explored Huaian City. It seems like a poorer city. We walked around looking for supermarkets for water and snack bars. Some odd customs: the babies wear clothes with slits in the front and back instead of diapers.
We had practice in an un-air-conditioned gym and it as terrible. For dinner, we had a banquet with some members of the Chinese Government. They like to drink and they really wanted us to dance... So we did! We did "The Wobble" and the "Cha-Cha Slide" and they loved it! They served a table full of food and turtle was one of the dishes. Also, the eel was pretty good.
Team USA with members of the Chinese government.
Wednesday - June 19
Today I tried pig tongue. It wasn't too bad. We went to Wal-Mart, which was similar to Wal-Mart in the U.S., but they didn't have as much. The scores of the games we played tonight: 21-25, 20-25, 13-25. We played OK, except for the third set.
Morgan with Team USA in Huaian City.
Thursday - June 20
Today we went sightseeing. We saw a famous lake as well as a famous garden (Qingyan Garden). We traveled with the same government members that we ate with Tuesday night. We had a police escort everywhere and soldiers to keep us safe. Everyone was very excited to see us and they wanted a lot of pictures with us.
Friday - June 21
Today wasn't very eventful. We woke up, ate, had serve and pass, ate, played, then ate again. We did go to a mall (accidentally) because the cab/cart driver couldn't understand where we wanted to go. We ate at Pizza Hut, which is a very nice sit-down restaurant in China! We almost got kidnapped on the way back, though (Taken 3)!!!
Saturday - June 22
Today we traveled from Shanghai to Beijing. We had a quick practice and American food for lunch! The banquet was tonight. There was great food. We are now staying at the Aloft Hotel in Beijing. It is very nice and has many more people that speak English here! Our first game here is tomorrow night.
Some Chinese delicacies Morgan experienced.
Sunday - June 23
Today we went to the pool. The cold water felt GREAT!
Monday - June 24
Today was our last game. We lost in three like we did every other game. We all went to this dance club called Vix. There was no one there when we got there, but they loved us and soon after, it was PACKED!!! We hung out with the PAC-12 girls too.
Wednesday - June 26
Today we woke up early to go to the Great Wall. There were about 1,000 steps we had to go up, then we walked awhile through the wall. It was very pretty and I signed a wall in one of the towers. We rode toboggans down the wall which was very fun. After the wall, we went to The Forbidden City. It was very big, pretty and old. The guide told us a lot of cool facts. Last, we visited Tiananmen Square which was very cool also. We ate dinner at some restaurant that was famous for their roasted duck. It was very good!
Morgan strikes a pose in front of a building in the Forbidden City.
Once again, CoachCal.com is rolling out a series of summer features profiling UK's incoming class. This year, there are eight new Wildcats, so Eric Lindsey is going to be writing for a while.
Leading off the series is guard Dominique Hawkins, the Kentucky native who parlayed a superb run in the state tournament into a scholarship offer from John Calipari and now a spot on the team. Now, he's playing pick-up at the Joe Craft Center and living at the Wildcat Coal Lodge living the life so many young Kentuckians dream of.
Before that magical Sweet Sixteen run, UK was nothing but a pipe dream for the Kentucky-born guard. He had been in contact with nine different schools and had scholarships offers from a few of them, but the only time Kentucky had contacted him and watched him was at practice the week before the state tournament.
Hawkins' cousin Marquis Estill, who was on staff at the time as an undergraduate assistant coach, was in ears of every UK coach telling them they needed to give Hawkins a look. In the midst of a season in which the Wildcats lacked toughness and that special will to win, Hawkins seemed to have the missing ingredients, Estill told the staff.
Still, Hawkins had no clue that his on-court perseverance would give him a shot. His mother did, but she wasn't going to take a chance and tell her son.
"She never told me because she doesn't want me getting nervous," Hawkins said.
Believe it or not, the football season is less than two months away. Starting with Southeastern Conference Media Day in 10 days, we'll have plenty to talk about here on Cat Scratches, but ESPN is firing up the conversation a little early.
3. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Jr., Kentucky: He's moving from outside linebacker, but Dupree has been one of the best pass-rushers in the league the past two years. He has nine sacks in two years and had 12.5 tackles for loss last year. Dupree has exceptional speed off the edge and should be even more dangerous with his hand in the ground this fall.
4. Donte Rumph, Sr., Kentucky: He's been a steady player for the Wildcats over the years and with players around him getting better, he should be able to have even more freedom up front. He only had six tackles for loss last year, but posted four sacks. He can be very disruptive in both the run and pass game and with help from new coach Mark Stoops, he should really excel in his final year with the Wildcats.
8. Kentucky: There is a lot of experience, starting with seniors Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and Tristian Johnson at defensive tackle. Rumph, who is coming off of a spring shoulder injury, is the best of the bunch and recorded six tackles for loss and four sacks last year. Cobble is finally starting to reach his potential, and should improve on his three tackles for loss and two sacks from last year. Johnson started nine straight games to end last season. Alvin "Bud" Dupree has nine sacks in the last two years and is moving from linebacker to end this year. Helping him will be junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith, who had an exceptional spring. Incoming freshman end Jason Hatcher will also get a chance to play immediately.
Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot earned a reputation for their defensive lines at Florida State and it appears they have some talent with which to work in their first season at UK. Particularly if UK can create some depth from among the likes of Farrington Huguenin, Thomas Chapman, Christian Coleman, Langston Newton and others, line play could be a strength.