Bittersweet honor

Flight 5191 crash victim, former player remembered at Saturday’s game

Returning to the same field that Jon Hooker played on just six years ago is hard enough for former UK baseball head coach Keith Madison. But to see the former player’s name on the old scoreboard in right field at Cliff Hagan Stadium almost brought him to tears.

“I can’t hardly look at it to be honest with you because it makes it real,” Madison said. “There are times when I think of Jon that I actually momentarily forget that he’s gone. But when I see that up there, it makes it very real.”

Madison was one of several friends and family members in attendance for a ceremony to honor Hooker before Saturday evening’s UK-Vanderbilt game.

Hooker, who played at UK from 1997 to 2001, was one of the 49 victims who died in the Comair Flight 5191 crash near Blue Grass Airport on Aug. 27. He and his wife, Scarlett Parsley, had married just hours earlier and were headed to California on their honeymoon.

Hooker’s mother, grandparents, brother and former coach all took part in the ceremony.

The honorary emblem on the old scoreboard in right field was dedicated to Hooker during the tribute before the game. Fans also joined in a moment of silence, which was then followed by the presentation of a commemorative game ball from current head coach John Cohen.

Although it’s been nearly eight months since the crash, the Hooker family could hardly bring themselves back to the place where Hooker used to play.

“It’s a little surreal actually,” said Kelli Gray, Hooker’s aunt, who spoke on behalf of the Hooker family. “One of the things I’ve really been thinking about while I’ve been here tonight is how little boys dream about playing for the University of Kentucky and he actually got to realize that dream.

“To look out there at that emblem, not only does that represent him, but it kind of represents that those dreams can come true for anyone.”

The emblem, a baseball with the flight number written inside of it and  Hooker’s name written around it, joins two other names on the scoreboard — Madison’s and that of former UK player and Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet-type thing,” Madison said. “It’s tremendous that the UK baseball program and the athletic department are honoring him. It’s a joyous occasion really.”

The former coach was one of 26 friends and family who attended the ceremony, including Parsley’s father, Johnny Parsley.

After playing under Madison for four years, Hooker transferred to Eastern Kentucky University where he finished his undergraduate degree. The Cleveland Indians then drafted Hooker, and he later signed with the Chicago White Sox as a free agent.

Hooker’s baseball career ended in 2004, and he moved back to his hometown of London, Ky., where he did social work at a doctor’s office, helping drug addicts through rehabilitation. After marrying Parsley, he planned on moving to Lexington to be with his wife, said Austin Madison, Keith Madison’s son and Hooker’s former teammate.

“I got a picture of Jon and Scarlett in my office and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about them,” Keith Madison said. “I try to pray for his family everyday, and I don’t want to forget. I want to remember.”

Coming back to Hagan Stadium was especially difficult for Hooker’s mother and grandparents. The last time they were there, they were watching Hooker play the game he loved so much, Gray said.

Hooker always maintained a level of dignity and character, Gray said, and she hopes people will always remember him for his “beautiful soul.”

Madison hopes people won’t remember Hooker as somebody who played baseball and died in a plane crash, but as someone who was “truly a selfless person.”

A tribute on the right field wall will remind them.

“It’s a very classy thing, but at the same time it brings back memories that are very difficult,” Madison said. “I think it’s a wonderful thing that the athletic department is doing. I’m glad they’re doing it and I’m just thankful and honored to be a part of it.”