For 16 players, Saturday’s game will be bittersweet — win or lose.
Regardless of the perception of how much or how little these players have contributed to the UK football program, or whether the Cats defeat Vanderbilt and become bowl eligible for a school-record fifth straight year, one thing is certain: the 16-man senior class will don Kentucky blue for the last time in Commonwealth Stadium.
“It will be an emotional game for all our seniors,” UK head coach Joker Phillips. “We’ll start talking about that. We want to play on those emotions.”
The Cats’ up-and-down season has mirrored what many of these seniors have experienced during their collegiate playing careers. Each senior has blazed his own path and each senior has a unique story to share.
For fifth-year defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin, one of only four players (Marcus Davis, Mike Hartline and J.J. Helton are the others) on the roster to experience a season that didn’t end with a bowl game at UK, the emotions associated with senior day started to flood his body at the hotel the night before the Charleston Southern game.
“I don’t if it has hit a lot of the other seniors, but it’s really hit me,” Lumpkin said. “I was just sitting there by myself thinking ‘Man this came and (went) so fast’ and I want this team to go out on a winning note, especially this senior class, because they’ve all been through everything, ups, downs, criticisms…they kept pushing to try and improve this program every year.”
Others, like senior tailback Derrick Locke, hoped that his final year would be injury-free, but a shoulder stinger has forced the speedy back to miss the past four games and prevented him from making the kid of sustained impact he had finally hoped to make this year after three injury-riddled seasons.
Locke said he will play this Saturday against the Commodores, but that the day-to-day uncertainty of not knowing when the feeling in his arm would return was brutal.
“Man, it was rough knowing that this was my last year to show what (NFL) scouts needed to see and to do what I needed to do,” said Locke, who added that he was scared for that his future at the next level might be compromised when doctors told him it could be months before he got feeling back in his nerve.
“This is my life, if I can’t play what am I going to do? I’ve got my degree, but that’s not the route I want to go, let’s be honest,” he said
For other players, like reserve defensive tackle Shane McCord a soon-to-be four-year letterman who never quite solidified a starting role, their degree will likely be most important considering Saturday might mean the final football game of their careers.
“I’ll probably feel a rush of everything, it’ll be an emotional Cat Walk,” McCord said.
How all of these players reached this point and what they overcame may be different, but when they take to the Cat Walk, all of them will walk united, for a fleeting moment, down the same path for a final time.
“It will be different going out with those guys before the game,” Phillips said. “I’ve been through a lot with all those guys. Been to all of their homes, been able to see their parents and see the growth of each one of them.”