Buffalo Bills’ players, coaches, and team officials kneeling in prayer at Paycor Stadium after abrupt and chilling ending to Monday Night Football (Photo Credit @BuffaloBills).
(CINCINNATI, Oh.) – It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
In what was shaping up as a game for the ages, Bengals versus Bills on Monday Night Football abruptly ended on a chilling note. Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field after making what looked to be a routine tackle. After the collision, Hamlin—a second-year player out of Pittsburgh—popped back up on his feet but fell immediately to the turf a split second later.
The Buffalo Bills later confirmed that Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest following the hit. His heartbeat was restored on the field, and he was transferred to UC Medical Center for further testing and treatment. He is currently sedated and listed in critical condition.
Talk about scary. In one fell swoop, the overflowing record crowd at Paycor Stadium went from a night of anticipated merriment to several hours of abject horror.
For coaches, players, and their families, it had to be surreal. NFL players are a different breed of tough. They’re desensitized to broken bones, torn ligaments, and concussions as part of what they do. This injury, however, was different. Life or death is not part of the job description. You could see the shock, anguish, and concern etched on the faces of everyone on the sidelines. Imagine being Hamlin’s mom, escorted from her seat in the stands into the waiting ambulance taking her precious son to his unknown fate.
For media members in the press box, confusion reigned. We came to cover a football game matching two of the top teams in the league in their hunt for playoff seeding. We didn’t sign up for this. It’s difficult in that moment of chaos to process reliable truth with the rampant speculation around an unconfirmed medical prognosis. All of a sudden, everyone in the media room had a medical degree, or at least a relative working at the local hospital texting furiously with the latest breaking news on Hamlin’s condition.
According to my notes, the tragic moment occurred at the 5:58 mark of the first quarter with the Bengals leading 7 – 3. I’ve watched a lot of professional football over the years. During that time, I’ve never seen a stretcher and ambulance summoned so quickly. Medical personnel furiously attended to Hamlin for about twenty minutes while the 67,000 or so looked on in stunned silence.
Five minutes after the ambulance pulled out, we all got the word that “the game was temporarily suspended until further notice.” Forty-five minutes later, after discussions with both teams, the NFL officially postponed the contest. During the next hour, people filed out of the stadium in a very orderly fashion, fully cognizant and accepting of the fact that no more football would be played that night.
In the tunnels underneath the stadium leading to the locker rooms, we witnessed players consoling each other and hugging their family members. Understandably, we had no access to any players, coaches, or administrative personnel.
“I don’t care who you are, you are not coming down this hallway,” said one Bengals’ official.
The evening was a stark reminder that as much as we love the NFL, the league embraces a brand of competitive violence that always leaves the door slightly ajar for these types of potential tragedies.
To be fair, however, this incident was indeed different and somewhat unique. I’m old enough to remember the Darryl Stingley paralysis in 1978, or Joe Theismann’s gruesome ankle injury on Monday Night Football in 1985. The Mike Utley, Ryan Shazier, and Tua Tagovailoa injuries are all nightmarish events. They’re all part of tragic sports moments everyone wishes never happened.
This was worse. Don’t get me wrong—career-ending injuries are awful. Life-altering paralysis is unfathomable. The long-term effects of CTE are becoming exposed as a living hell. But they simply don’t compare to the immediate acuteness of what we all experienced tonight.
Hamlin’s injury was akin to Hank Gathers collapsing and dying on the basketball court. Thirty-three years later, I still can’t get that image out of my mind.
I doubt if I’ll ever be able to dismiss this one either.
Dr. John Huang covers professional sports for Sports View America. This post first appeared on SportsViewAmerica.com. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.
Bill Owen enjoys his last official day on the job at his beloved Rupp Arena (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – If those Rupp Arena walls could talk, I’m sure they’d sound a lot like Bill Owen.
Owen, President and CEO of Lexington Center Corporation for twenty-two years, retired from his position as chief cook and bottle washer for one of Lexington’s most iconic and recognizable public-gathering facilities on December 31, 2022. A big Kentucky basketball fan, Owen appropriately spent his last official day on the job—at Rupp Arena—watching the Wildcats dismantle their in-state rival, the Louisville Cardinals.
“You can’t grow up in Lexington and not be a Wildcat fan,” Owen explained. “When I was in high school, I had a paper route, and [UK Athletics Director] Bernie Shively was one of my customers. Once a month, I would go to Memorial Coliseum and walk past Coach Adolph Rupp’s office, and Bernie Shively would pay me my $3.20.”
Growing up Blue
As such, Owen’s connection to Lexington and the University of Kentucky was solidified early on. Born in Gainesville, Georgia, Owen moved to Lexington when he was only two years old. His father served as head pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, so the preacher’s kid grew up in the Ashland Park area of the city, attending Cassidy Elementary, Morton Junior High, and Henry Clay High School.
Owen would naturally go on to attend the University of Kentucky. After graduating with a degree in history (class of ’73), he surprisingly found himself working in commercial real estate development and asset management. Six years learning from Wallace Wilkinson (before he became governor) and another six years working with the renowned Webb Brothers honed his business skills to a tee. That led directly to Owen taking on his Chief Administrative/Financial Officer role for Lexington Center Corporation in 1991. Nine years later, when Tom Minter retired, Owen took on the role of President and CEO.
Lexington Center Transformation
If you somehow hadn’t noticed, the Lexington Center recently underwent a transformative facelift under Owen’s dedicated watch. The project was unique—not a mere renovation, mind you, but rather a virtual complete replacement and restoration. Because most indoor sports venues traditionally have short shelf lives, you won’t find many comparable basketball arenas like Rupp—not only surviving, but still relevant and thriving forty-five years after initial construction.
“They blew up Charlotte Coliseum after only nineteen years,” Owen ruefully recounted. “I’ve got underwear that’s older than that.”
In today’s climate, working with a daunting $310 million budget is nothing to scoff at, and Owen made sure every penny of it was properly distributed and allocated in this latest rebuild. The result is a brand spanking new looking Lexington Center, a shining beacon of pride within the local civic, arts, and business communities. None of that would have been possible without Bill Owens spearheading the charge.
And what a fabulous charge it’s been. Big-time concerts, memorable sporting events, and world-renowned visitors are all part of Lexington Center Corporation’s rich and vibrant pedigree crafted during Owen’s sparkling tenure.
The parade of concerts featuring A-list celebrities visiting Rupp Arena is long and lengthy—everybody from Paul McCartney to Elton John to Tina Turner. Owen specifically remembers being wound tighter than a banjo string the time he booked Turner. When it came time for her sound check the day of the concert, the “queen of rock ‘n’ roll” was nowhere to be found. It turns out her limo driver had mistakenly taken her to Louisville instead of Lexington. Fortunately, with the help of a police escort and a slight curtain delay, the Rupp audience rocked for a full two and a half hours as Owen looked on in relief.
Then there was the Garth Brooks concert on Halloween weekend in 2014. If you remember, Brooks played four performances over two nights in front of 70,000 adoring fans. Over the years, Owen admits to becoming somewhat celebrity desensitized, but he remembers meeting Garth backstage and talking about their kids attending the same colleges.
“By gosh, here I am standing here talking to Garth Brooks, and it’s like I’m talking to another dad I just met at a tailgate,” said Owen, himself a proud father of three.
The very next night, however, it was back to reality as the University of Kentucky hosted Pikeville in a college basketball game. When it came to Rupp Arena, there was never a dull moment.
“What that building contributes to the community,” Owen gushed. “Obviously it’s the home of UK Basketball, which is its marquee and our most important relationship—but for the community and for the state of Kentucky, it’s so much more. You can’t underestimate its impact. Being able to stretch its life well beyond its peer group, that’s kind of special.”
As far as basketball games at Rupp, Tayshaun Prince’s five three-pointers to begin the game versus North Carolina stands out prominently in Owen’s mind. Hosting NCAA tournament games also provided quite a thrill. Coincidentally, Owen served as the official scorer’s table representative when Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad was upset by Texas A&M in 2007.
“Had Pitino not done that, we would have never heard of Billy Gillispie,” Owen quipped.
Not to be outdone, the Lexington Convention Center has had its share of grand moments and distinguished visitors as well. President George W. Bush came a calling for the Little League International Congress in 2010. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama also made visits to the Lexington Center during subsequent years.
“Growing up in Lexington, I think of our little burg of a community,” Owen reflected. “But yet, here we are hosting sitting and former presidents in our convention facilities. It’s something you think about. Our organization met that challenge. I guess that’s one of the things that’s significant with the Lexington Center’s staff. As an organization, we met every challenge. I can’t think of a thing that we were ill equipped to achieve. And now opening this really grand new facility, that’s kind of the zenith of it.”
And finally, there’s the Opera House, one of the smallest theaters in the country that still offers its patrons a touring Broadway series. The city bought it through Lexington Center Corporation, renovated it, and gave it new life.
“I’m reminded of the line from The Wizard of Oz,” Owen said. “Dorothy, with tears in her eyes, looks at the Scarecrow and says, ‘I think I’ll miss you most of all.’ And they put that on a plaque on the entrance to the Opera House. And it’s next to a plaque where the original founders and board of directors of Lexington Center Corporation are listed. And to think that my name is up there with them. That’s very humbling—particularly for somebody who grew up here.”
Lest you think Owen’s tenure was all sunshine and roses, think again. Two of the most significant world-wide crises occurred on his watch.
For Owen, 911 resulted in many sleepless nights. As a public assembly building manager, he spent countless hours poring over those endless reviews by Homeland Security. Think about it. That fateful Tuesday morning in 2001 forever changed the manner in which people gathered for concerts, conventions, and ballgames.
Covid-19 threw Owen an even bigger haymaker.
“March 12, 2020, for me was the day the earth stood still,” he recounted. “We’re in the second day, first game of the girls’ Sweet 16 tournament. We had just come off of three record-setting financial years. The arena is deeply under construction…and it all comes apart.”
In one fell swoop, Lexington Center went from one hundred twenty-six full-time employees to, at one point, only seventeen. Personnel decisions are always difficult. After all, it’s your work family. Time after time, Owen had to tell a lot of good friends that they couldn’t work there anymore. That was especially tough.
Tensions with UK
Here’s something I perceived was even tougher on Owen. Over the years, it’s been well documented that the city of Lexington and the University of Kentucky have engaged in a tireless (and often bitter) tug of war over ownership rights to Rupp Arena. Should a downtown location be the major community focus, or would an on-campus facility better serve the needs of the university? With so much at stake financially, it’s natural for friction to develop between the two negotiating factions, especially when they possess different end goals.
And yet, Owen kept his cool and remained philosophical through it all—the fickle fate of his beloved arena forever at the mercy of an unexpected regime change, a newly elected public official, or the ever-shifting whims of the state legislature.
“I’ve been married fifty years,” he told me. “UK has been in this building forty-six years. Our relationship with UK as our tenant is not unlike my relationship with my wife. It’s not like it’s been fifty years of wedded bliss and everything great. Nor has it been fifty years of combat and conflict. There’s been a share of both. But overall, both of us are a lot better off because of the relationship. And that’s kind of the way we are with UK. There are times when it’s been more of a business relationship. And other times it’s been more of a partnership.”
Who’ll Steer the Ship Now?
At age 71, Owen appears fully prepared for the upcoming retirement transition. In 2018, Lexington Center Corporation entered into a booking and management agreement with OVG, Oakview group. The California based private management company fully took over operations in October of 2021 and has since become the new Bill Owen—just as the old Bill Owen dutifully served out his term as Director of Construction in order to complete the final phases of the building project.
Understandably, Owen has a few reservations about an out-of-state corporate entity making future decisions regarding his community treasures.
“I’ve had to make my share of decisions,” Owen acknowledged. “In twenty-two years as CEO here, I’ve made an awful lot of decisions with my head. But I’ve made some with my heart too. Can you develop that if you don’t have a personal connection with the community? You probably can, but it’s easier to develop if you’ve got that connection.”
On a personal level, I can’t see Bill Owen sitting on the couch watching Netflix and eating Bonbons. You never know, though. Everyone has their own way of dealing with major life changes.
“You can prepare for retirement every way but emotionally,” Owen said with a wry smile. “You can’t prepare emotionally until you experience it. I’ve worked steadily since I was fifteen. I got my last paycheck a week or so ago. I told my wife, ‘I’m not getting a paycheck anymore.’ That’s an adjustment.”
Owen’s wife, Debby, hates to fly, so large-scale travel most likely won’t be an adjustment problem in the years to come. Although they own some Florida property, Owen assures me he’s staying put in Lexington. He may do some consulting. A distillery docent or a horse farm tour guide aren’t out of the question, either. Most importantly, Owen just enjoys spending time with his three-year-old grandson, L.J.
“He’s taken over without firing a shot,” Owen joked. “Had I known they’d be so much fun, I would have had them first. It’s nice being close to family. I’m blessed with that.”
Thoughts Regarding Legacy
Sitting in the concourse of Rupp Arena, I asked Owen about leaving a legacy. What were his most significant professional accomplishments? How did he want others to remember him as he walked out the door?
“That’s a tough question,” he answered pensively. “I managed to be a part of keeping the torch lit. And improving all of our facilities—Rupp Arena, the Convention Center, the Opera House primarily—and extending our facilities’ contribution to the city, and to the community for a long while.”
Owen then whipped out his phone and showed me a picture of a brand-new street sign on the private driveway connecting Manchester Street to the Rupp Arena garage. The sign said “Bill Owen Way.”
“That was bestowed on me just two weeks ago,” he said. “I’m very proud of that. I’m very humbled by that.”
The Importance of Faith
Appropriately, I concluded my chat with Owen about a topic very near and dear to his heart—his Christian faith. Over time, I’ve interviewed a lot of successful individuals, and I’ve noticed one thing in particular. People of faith are somehow different. There’s a special aura surrounding them. That was certainly true of Owen. Through all his business successes, the son of a Baptist preacher always managed to keep spiritual things at the front of the line.
“I’ve grown up in the church,” he said. “I was active in leadership. I taught Sunday School. A personal faith and belief in God and reaching him through a Savior in Jesus Christ for me is an important part of my life. It always has been. The hope of something grander after this life is something I was taught, something I believed—and still believe.”
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.’”
Congratulations, Bill Owen, on your retirement.
A very hearty “thanks” to you and your talented and dedicated staff at Lexington Center Corporation for always meeting the challenge!
Kentucky’s starting point guard, Sahvir Wheeler, has been a lightning rod for criticism (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Most sports fans love an occasional juicy quarterback controversy. How about, then, a point guard controversy? Not since the days of Saul Smith has Kentucky Basketball experienced the vitriol and venom currently coming Sahvir Wheeler’s way.
Smith, if you remember, was the son of then UK coach Tubby Smith. Arguably, Saul had decent point-guard skills, but many passionate UK fans thought he just wasn’t a Kentucky caliber point guard. Not only did he take up a valuable slot on the roster, but his presence alone discouraged other more talented point guards from even considering the Wildcats.
The taunts and jeers directed toward Saul by opposing fans in hostile road venues were downright legendary (and not fit to print). That shouldn’t really surprise anyone. What really was surprising were the insults and epithets hurled at Saul by supposedly loyal UK fans.
Wheeler, for those who haven’t guessed, is the current starting point guard for the No. 13-ranked Kentucky Wildcats. A transfer from Georgia—playing in his second season for Coach John Calipari—Wheeler led the Southeastern Conference in assists for the past two years in a row. Listed at 5-9 and 180 pounds, the senior from Houston, Texas, has the necessary skills to thrive at the collegiate level. His statistical accomplishments thus far speak for themselves.
I’m not saying the level of disgruntlement with Wheeler is approaching anything like it was with Smith during his playing days twenty years earlier. But with the advent of social media, the naysayers are louder, they’re just as insensitive, and everyone seems more vicious than ever.
The rumblings started last year on the trip to Notre Dame. Wheeler played 29 minutes but had as many turnovers (2) as he did assists in Kentucky’s disappointing 66 – 62 upset loss. Left wide open as the game wound down, Wheeler missed all five of his attempts from the field (0 – 2 from behind the arc). To add insult to injury, Irish players in the postgame interviews disclosed the game plan was to let Wheeler take open shots because they knew he couldn’t make them.
Ouch! That’s not good.
The discord with Wheeler escalated throughout the year and reached a peak during Kentucky’s shocking defeat to Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Wheeler and his teammates acted as if they had never played the game. Rushed shots, turnovers, and missed free throws (one a near air ball) with the game on the line led to one of the worst moments in the storied program’s history. Once again, the questions arose about whether Wheeler could hit open shots, make split-second decisions, and lead the team in crunch time.
Enter, this season, Cason Wallace. The 6-4 freshman guard—also from the Lone Star state—has superstar written all over him. Blessed with a maturity beyond his years, and the athletic size and skills to match, Wallace landed in Calipari’s starting lineup with both guns blazing. Although playing off the ball with Wheeler on the court, the silky-smooth Wallace’s shot-making (53% FG, 52% on 3-pointers), ball-handling, and defensive wizardry (22 steals) had people clamoring for him to immediately wrestle the point guard duties away from Wheeler.
Meanwhile, missed open shots (39% FG, 32% 3-pointers), bricked free throws (59%), out-of-control turnovers (15), and a lingering knee injury continued to plague Wheeler during the first nine games of this regular season. In the most recent contest versus Yale, he took more shots (14) than Wallace, Antonio Reeves, and CJ Fredrick—Kentucky’s designated dead-eye shooting trio—combined. Worst yet, Wheeler seemed constantly rushed, pounding the ball well into the shot clock and having to throw up prayer after prayer before time would ultimately expire. Through it all, he only registered one lonely assist.
Scroll through any social media timeline, website commentary, or message board posting, and I’ll guarantee you’ll find a post or two eviscerating Wheeler. To be honest, I’m somewhat embarrassed reading through the stench. He’s a college student for God’s sake. It’s hard enough suffering through daily Calipari tirades in practice. How difficult must it be to endure all this additional mindless drivel from the peanut gallery as well?
Well, it turns out that Sahvir Wheeler is a bigger man than those who are trying to tear him down. I asked him recently how he deals with the constant negativity surrounding his play and about the alleged point-guard controversy brewing among fans and media.
“I think that’s you guys,” he said disarmingly with a smile on his face. “That’s a lot of the media. I’ve never had any friction [with Wallace]. Even last year there were people who said there was friction with TyTy [Washington]. That’s never the case. When there’s a dead ball, I get it. Sometimes, when there’s a rebound, I just run, and Cason has it. I think we just naturally feed off each other that way. We have two aggressive, down-hill guards who defend on both ends.”
That’s truth speaking. Whenever I’m asked about whether I think Wheeler or Wallace should be the point guard, my answer is always, “Yes.” I think Kentucky needs both at peak efficiency to make a run at a ninth national title this year. Let’s face it, we all thought this team would be full of long, athletic, and skilled players running, dunking, and blocking opponents’ shots. We also envisioned shot makers who could fill it up from the perimeter. The team needs Wheeler’s speed to generate all those transition buckets. They also need his passing skills getting the ball into the shooters’ hands.
The stagnant UK offense we’ve seen thus far isn’t entirely Wheeler’s fault. Neither is dribbling out the shot clock and then driving the lane out of desperation. That’s a coaching issue, and one that we all assume Calipari will iron out with Wheeler by March. Remember, Calipari is the Hall of Fame coach making nine million dollars a year. Berating Wheeler privately and banishing him to the bench should be left in his capable hands—not ours.
Plus, Wheeler is smart enough to ignore all the chatter. He’s got a personal Instagram account he uses to deal with NIL. But other than that, all your insults are like water off a duck’s back to him.
“If you guys are saying some great stuff, I have no idea,” he readily acknowledged. “If you guys are killing me, I have no idea. It’s been good. I love the fans. I know the fans who are at the games, they come up to me and show me love. It’s been pretty awesome so far this year.”
I’m not sure I believe Wheeler. After all, he’s only human. I’m sure some of the things he hears is bound to leak through and upset him—especially when it gets personal. But Wheeler’s response and attitude is exactly the resiliency I want in my point guard. The guy’s tough as nails. He has a huge heart. He realizes what it takes to be a winner. With a little more guidance from his coach, the negative chatter should readily subside.
“That’s part of it,” Wheeler willingly conceded. “If you’re not doing anything right, you won’t have anyone hating on you. It’s all part of it. I’ve learned to embrace it, enjoy it, to keep learning and keep on winning.”
Sounds like a guy who has his act together. I wouldn’t worry about him one iota. In the end, Sahvir Wheeler doesn’t care what you or I think. In the game of life, he doesn’t need any of us to set him free.
The problem with NIL (paying college athletes for use of their name, image, and likeness) is that nobody feels comfortable speaking out against it. Seriously, who in their right mind begrudges student-athletes for seeking fair and legal compensation from the massive money-making machine that is the NCAA?
This is America, after all—the land of opportunity, free enterprise, and capitalism. If Will Levis and Oscar Tshiebwe can pull in a million bucks in endorsements alone while throwing touchdowns and grabbing rebounds, then more power to them.
As with every opportunity in life, however, there are pluses and minuses. There is no free lunch. Sure, Will and Oscar can rake in the cash, but if they become fat and happy during their college careers, is that necessarily good for the game?
I know a lot of people who think these current developments are horrible for the game. Sadly, they can’t really speak out coherently against NIL without sounding like old men shouting “get off my lawn” at the top of their lungs. Voicing any opposition to NIL in the current sports landscape makes you look jealous, self-absorbed, petty, and dated.
That is, until you hear someone like Keenan Burton expressing his views. Burton played wide receiver for the University of Kentucky from 2004 through 2007. By the time he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams of the NFL, the Louisville native ranked fourth in school history in receptions, second in receiving yards, and second in touchdowns. Trust me, the guy has credibility.
So, when Burton made an appearance on Alan Cutler’s new show (on WLXG ESPN Sports Radio 1300 and 92.5), he parlayed his personal thoughts into what Cutler termed as “radio gold”—the best NIL take he’s heard thus far.
“What I think is going on is that you have these kids who are not committed to a brand,” Burton explained. “They’re not committed to a school. They’re committed to themselves. Once that school doesn’t tell them what they think they are worth, then they’re not going to go there.”
Burton admits that he would have made a whole lot of money if NIL existed back in his day. But that’s not what drove him. In fact, the concept of NIL would have worked counter to everything he stood for. As a college athlete, Burton knew he needed to stay hungry and properly focused.
“What’s happened with the game right now—especially for a lot of kids—is that they’re totally focused on ‘what can be given to me’ as opposed to ‘what can I earn.’ And I think that’s an issue…It sucks, but it’s just that these kids are not motivated when it comes to the grind.”
That sounds like the age-old issue of ENTITLEMENT creeping into the conversation. Burton lamented that gone are the days when athletes would commit to the brand because they wanted to be at Kentucky to play ball.
“For a kid like me, who didn’t have any offers, but Kentucky came and it meant something to me to put the blue and white on—to put Kentucky on my chest. And I don’t see that in any of these kids. Not to say that they won’t play for the greater good of the university. But if they have to choose between themselves and the school, they’re always going to choose themselves. I could have done that. I could have chosen myself, but I didn’t. I chose the school. It may have hurt my future, but I don’t regret the decision that I made.”
There you have it. It’s not so much the idea that money is changing hands, but that the character, makeup, and fortitude within young people is changing for the worse right before our eyes. That’s the huge downside and worrisome aspect to all this NIL talk.
So, what can be done about it?
Unfortunately, the horse is out of the barn. We’re truly dealing with the Wild Wild West, and Kentucky has been painfully slow in getting in on the NIL action. According to Burton, they’re well behind the eight ball in the nuclear arms race to build up the necessary NIL money to stay competitive.
Kentucky has no football tradition. What’s stopping any school from approaching a Barion Brown or Dane Key and telling them they’re losing their quarterback next year and they have no backup to get them the ball? It’s only a matter of time before they transfer to another school which can offer them a boatload of NIL money.
“The days of guys that really care about the sport—that care about the brand, that care about whether or not they were a part of something special, that’s not already built—those days are over. It’s over. It’s what can you pay me.”
Strong words indeed, but Burton wasn’t finished piling on. He went on to imply that Kentucky’s misfortunes on the gridiron this year may be directly related to the NIL mindset. Remember early on when people scoffed at the notion of jealousy over other teammates’ NIL deals creating all this locker room dissension? No one’s laughing now as human nature rears its ugly head.
“I’m just looking at me, Stevie [Johnson], Andre’ [Woodson], Jacob [Tamme], Wesley [Woodyard], and some other guys making a quarter of a million to a million dollars a year. And I’m listening to an assistant coach who’s making two hundred and fifty thousand? And I’m supposed to listen to you? So, it goes past the game. It goes back to respect. It goes back to am I coachable? Am I teachable? Am I somebody who can be trained, developed? Because I’m not listening to you because I make more money than you make in a year. And I play for you. So, why would I listen to you?”
“I’m sure they’re dealing with that right now with Will Levis. I don’t know how much money he makes. I don’t know what he’s getting in endorsements right now with NIL and all that stuff. But I’m sure there are some guys in that locker room who are like, ‘Nah, nah, nah, no, uh-uh.’ And I hate it because [Levis] seems like such a good kid. It’s no fault of his.”
Burton explained, however, that if Andre’ Woodson made a million bucks while he, Johnson, Tamme, and Dicky Lyons Jr. split a million, there’d be hell to pay in the locker room.
“We’re catching all his passes,” Burton said. “You don’t want to think like that. Obviously when it comes to the grind, that’s what I care about the most. The money would be what it is. But when you’ve introduced it, you can’t unlearn it.”
Cutler ended the segment by asking what Burton would do if he were the commissioner of college football.
“I’d resign,” Burton answered.
Smart man. At the beginning of the process, everybody was clamoring for NIL. Now, people aren’t so sure. Be careful what you ask for. The sport we all love may be imploding—with Kentucky at the bottom of the ash heap.
Our daughter, Katie, got married this weekend. From the very second she was born, her mom and I always wondered if her wedding day would conjure up some bittersweet moments. We figured we’d get sorrowfully choked up watching our one and only child cleave from her parents and unite as one with her brand-new husband.
Sadly, no longer would I be the main man in her life. Even though I loved her first, there was a new sheriff in town. Maybe I’m biased, but I think wedding days are especially difficult for dads with daughters.
Emotions ran high as I saw my little girl in her wedding dress. While standing in an alcove off to the side, my mind played through a kaleidoscope of images of her being born. Immediately after delivery, Katie had trouble breathing. The doctors thought there might be something wrong with her heart. That’s every parent’s nightmare.
I remember the ecstasy of finally bringing her home from the hospital for the first time. Then, as the years flew by, teaching her how to swim, dropping her off at school, and taking her to Space Camp. There were also those god-awful piano recitals, suicidal toboggan rides down Stonewall Hill, and endless treks on our adventure vacations around the globe.
How could it have possibly gone by so quickly? How did she grow up so fast? Why didn’t I savor those precious moments more? I’d say that’s every parent’s lament.
Suddenly, the big moment was upon us. It was as peculiar as it was poignant taking Katie’s hand, walking her down the aisle, and proudly giving her away. As the wedding officiant, it was even more surreal leading the couple through the ceremonial vows proclaiming them as husband and wife. How many other dads get that honor?
Please God, don’t let me mess it up.
To begin the ceremony, I talked about how marriage is more than a legal contract between two people. It’s a holy covenant that God designed between a man and a woman to reflect the relationship between his son, Jesus, and his beloved bride, the church. As such, there are oaths and vows and sacred promises made to one another. There are signs and symbols and ceremony involved in the process. I emphasized to the bride and groom that there was much more to it than just my signature on a page.
Moving forward, I then gave Katie and CJ what I thought was the secret to a successful marriage relationship. The secret is twenty-five percent. Let me explain.
Everyone has heard that marriage is a fifty-fifty proposition, that the husband and wife are equals. But I’m telling you right now that it’s not enough for the couple to meet each other halfway. Fifty percent simply is not adequate. You have to put in that additional twenty-five percent. If both parties go seventy-five percent toward each other, chances are excellent that the marriage will overflow with grace, mercy, forgiveness, and the unconditional love that God desires for it.
And then occasionally when the sh*t hits the fan, one of the partners might just have to suck it up and go one hundred percent of the way.
I’m confident that Katie understands that already. She and I have been through the fire. We’ve battled through some horrific trials together in dealing with Kanisa’s life-altering mental health issues. I couldn’t have survived without my precious daughter. I can’t adequately express how thankful and proud I am of her for always being there for me. We’re as close as a father and daughter could possibly be to each other. And now I’m giving her away.
As the couple exchanged rings and I pronounced them husband and wife, I was struck by the sanctity of the moment. Strangely, there wasn’t a trace of sadness coursing through my mind or heart at all. Rather, the only emotion I felt was a pure sense of joy watching Katie and CJ embark on a lifelong covenental journey together. Kanisa and I weren’t losing a daughter after all. God was blessing us with a pat on the back.
Katie and CJ—on the biggest day of your young lives, I’m the happiest man on the face of the earth.
I traveled down to Mississippi with my good friend and media colleague, Lonny Demaree (right). The Ole Miss fan in between us gave us a personal tour of “The Grove.” The people tailgating were super friendly. Unfortunately, there were just way too many of them.
(OXFORD, Ms.) – When Kentucky first released its current 2022 football schedule, there was one road game I circled immediately. Ever since I started this media gig, a trip to Ole Miss remained at the top of my bucket list of SEC venues to visit. Not only had I never been to Oxford, but stories I heard of tailgating in The Grove were legendary in my mind.
Described frequently as the “Holy Grail of tailgating sites,” The Grove takes on a life of its own during Ole Miss football Saturdays. Geographically speaking, it’s located right in the center of a picturesque college campus and consists of stately oak, elm, and magnolia trees providing the perfect mixture of ambience and shade. What really distinguishes it from any other park-like setting, however, is the massive mix of partygoers and football fanatics reveling within its boundaries on gameday.
When I first walked through the maze of tents, TVs, and tailgaters three hours before kickoff, I was a bit taken aback. I immediately sensed that this place was out of control. Because in my mind, I somehow pictured ornate canopies in spacious meadows filled with aristocratic gentlemen and southern belles. Everyone’s dressed to the nines with unlimited access to their favorite food and drink (think Picnic with the Pops on steroids).
Instead, I was greeted by a virtual madhouse of sweaty football humanity. Frat boys, slick donors, soccer moms, average Joes, grandmas, former jocks, and current drunks all crammed shoulder to shoulder under an assortment of cover you might find in the various tent cities of worldwide refugee camps. It’s only 8:00 a.m., and the area is already so jam packed that there’s no room to walk, turn around, or breathe. Fifty feet into the morass, and I had seen enough.
Life in the press box at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium turned out to be just as unpleasant. With their heartbreaking 22 – 19 defeat at the hands of their Rebel hosts, the Wildcats once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
What was maddingly frustrating for the 12 – 15,000 Big Blue faithful who made the trip down South was that despite the inopportune red zone fumbles, the lack of protection by the O-line, and the kicking game meltdowns, Kentucky still had a chance to win the game at the end. Sure, Barion Brown’s 245 all-purpose yards, Chris Rodriguez’s return to action, and the defense making some critical stops are continued causes for future optimism. But make no mistake—this loss hurts. It hurts really bad.
Many say to rejoice and be glad because Kentucky had never been ranked this high (No. 7 in the nation) before. I say cry and lament because it’s an opportunity squandered as the Wildcats may never find themselves in this lofty position again.
But I’m here primarily to report on the tailgating, so immediately upon hearing the final horn, I hightail it back over to The Grove to meet a few of my friends who have traveled down from Kentucky. It’s a miracle I’m even able to hook up with them amidst the exuberant masses pouring forth from the stadium exits.
We finally settle into our pre-purchased spot at The Grove, our feet navigating the mound of dry dirt and dirty straw masquerading as the plush carpet of green grass I had previously imagined in my dreams. As reality hit, I realized there would be no chandeliers nor champagne, no caviar nor Cuban cigars. Maybe I was still sulking from the Ole Miss beatdown, but to be honest, The Grove was ridiculously overrated. The tailgating around the bucolic rolling hills surrounding Kroger Field—with plenty of room for cornhole and tossing footballs—was far better in my mind.
Then suddenly, I noticed a subtle change in my mood. As I chatted with my friends and they introduced me to their friends, I discovered that the thoughts of despair surrounding Kentucky’s loss magically dissipated. This was exactly what the doctor ordered. No longer was I lamenting “what could have been.” Now I was savoring the moment—good times with good people, good food, and good conversations. The final score no longer mattered. Enjoying the journey is what ultimately counts.
Here’s what I learned on my trip to Oxford. When experiencing The Grove, it’s not about the fancy tents, or the majestic oaks, or the renowned party atmosphere. It’s more about the company you keep. Seriously, you can have a fabulous time tailgating under an asphalt bridge. Just make sure it’s with people you like and care about.
For that reason, I hereby anoint Kroger Field as “the mecca of tailgating sites.” I’ve been to the “holy grail.” Trust me, Kentucky Football tailgating is as good as it gets.
During the Dallas Cowboys’ nationally televised opener in 1979, the lead CBS announcers introduced the ever-popular NFL franchise as “America’s Team.” I didn’t like the reference back then. Forty-plus years later, the moniker still resonates with me like a root canal gone bad.
I’ll confess, I’ve always rooted fervently against the Cowboys. I’m not really sure why. I just knew that in my mind, Coach Tom Landry was public enemy number one. Back then, there was a lot NOT to like about the Cowboys. While Bob Lilly and the “Doomsday Defense” stalked you like evil personified, Roger Staubach and Cliff Harris stayed busy eating your lunch.
Deep down inside, I suspected my outright disdain for the Cowboys was based on envy, jealousy, and discontent more than anything else. Dallas was good, and the teams I cheered for were not. Their fans were loud, supportive, and passionate. In return, Cowboys’ management spared no expense in treating everyone like kings. One marketing gimmick—the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—became (and remains to this day) every schoolboy’s fantasy dream come true.
To add insult to injury, my best friend growing up was a die-hard Dallas fan. Week after week during football season, he’d subject me to endless taunts, tales, and torment about how great his team performed. Honestly, he got to me. I loathed those stupid lone star helmets so much that I became a Washington Redskins fan for life.
Despite my deep-seated issues with the green-eyed monster, I’ve always wanted to attend a Dallas Cowboys’ home football game. When the Cowboys popped up on the Bengals’ schedule this year, I knew I was destined for Jerry World.
AT&T Stadium sits like an other-worldly UFO rising majestically from the flatlands of northeast Texas. With its massive size, unique architecture, and oversized high-definition scoreboard, the entire structure screams “overcompensation.” Nevertheless, the Jerry Jones’ monstrosity remains one of the premiere showcase venues of the NFL. Built in 2009 at a cost of over a billion dollars, the one-hundred-thousand-seat arena still retains much of its initial luster and draw.
Hospitality wise, it’s by far the best stadium venue I’ve encountered in all my travels. The natives are friendly, and the media buffet is sublime. Prime rib, barbecue brisket, grilled asparagus, and the lobster mac and cheese are all tantalizingly laid out before you as the main event unfolds. Finish strong with the dessert bar, and a diabetic coma is sure to follow. Food in Texas never disappoints.
As I’m stuffing my face like an eating machine, the same couldn’t be said for the Bengals’ dismal performance out on the field. For the second straight week, an unproductive offense and an inconsistent O-line resulted in six Joe Burrow sacks on the way to another crushing, last-minute 20 – 17 defeat.
To make matters worse, the Cowboys entered the contest with a backup quarterback, just one starting NFL caliber receiver, and the entire left side of their O-line nursing injuries. Still, the Bengals couldn’t capitalize. The AFC champions thus start the season at a stunning 0 – 2 while embarrassing themselves at the hands of the team I despise most.
Together with Kentucky Basketball’s loss to UConn in the 2014 Final Four, my two trips to Jerry World have both been crash and burns. I keep telling myself, however, that it’s not the result but the journey that counts. The truth is that AT&T Stadium remains a sight to behold. Fill it with 94,944 crazy Cowboy fans waving white towels, and even I have to admit that it becomes something magical and surreal.
I asked Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy in the postgame interview about all the hype and hoopla.
“You go out there pregame and see the white towels on the seats, it brings a smile to my face,” he explained “They’re on it. There’s nothing like these Cowboy fans. Just from the time you arrive, all the way through, what an incredible atmosphere today. What a competitive arena they create for us. The stadium was rocking today. They did a phenomenal job.”
When it comes to America’s Team, it really is all about the fans. McCarthy should know. He’s had the privilege of coaching both the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys—two organizations at the top of the NFL food chain when it comes to fan appeal.
McCarthy’s words made one thing crystal clear. Passion in sports is a two-way street. Fans care most about a team when they know that team cares for them. Love them or hate them, that’s certainly been the case in Dallas all these years.
Thank you, Jerry Jones, for the wonderful hospitality. I still can’t stand America’s team, but I sure as heck loved your barbecue brisket.
Is watching Cincinnati take on Pittsburgh in an NFL/MLB doubleheader on consecutive days awesome…or weird?
(CINCINNATI, Oh.) – You might say I’m a glutton for punishment. After watching the AFC Champion Cincinnati Bengals stumble out of the gate against their hated divisional rivals from Pittsburgh, I decided to stick around the Queen City for another day and watch the lowly Reds take on the even lowlier divisional rival Pirates. You might call it the Cincinnati versus Pittsburgh doubleheader from Hell. It’s a one-two punch for the desperate sports fanatic with way too much time on their hands.
The contrast between an NFL opening day spectacle (where Cincinnati is coming off their magical Super Bowl LVI appearance) and a regular weeknight MLB clash (where the perennial bottom feeding Reds are squaring off against their fellow cellar dwelling Pirates) couldn’t be greater.
On the football side, you’ve got 65,000 or more fans jacked, packed, and stacked three hours prior to kickoff—tailgating in the most ridiculous manner possible. They’re hunkered underneath overpasses, spilling over into concrete parking garages, and scrunched creatively into all these urban nooks and crannies.
Navigating through the morass to the stadium gates was no small feat. Parking alone can set you back fifty bucks. Engaging with all the drunks, panhandlers, and obnoxious terrible towel-waving Steeler fans further robs you of your dignity.
Once inside the sanctity of the Paycor Stadium press box, however, the NFL experience was definitely first class. As always, the hospitality, food, and locker-room access easily rated five stars in my book.
Unfortunately, the Bengals didn’t uphold their end of the bargain on the field, squandering away several opportunities to win after turning the ball over five times, missing a chip shot field goal, and getting a potential game-winning extra point attempt blocked in the process.
You had to feel bad for Bengals fans. They came into the season with such high expectations (rightly so), only to be punched in the mouth right out of the gate. I’m not sure if it was the alcohol speaking or what, but I heard several threats uttered by disgruntled patrons exiting the stadium that probably needed to be reported to the FBI. There’s nothing like passion for your NFL team, or outrage when they crash and burn.
On the baseball side the next evening, the mood and circumstances couldn’t have been more different. Even with the never-ending construction along the I-75/I-71 corridors, getting downtown was a virtual snap. You could park right next door to the stadium for a mere $12 a pop. Is there tailgating in baseball? I didn’t notice any drunken revelry on my casual stroll in.
Looking around the field-level seats on a leisurely Monday evening, I spotted a lot of young families with children, numerous couples on dates, and the usual mix of baseball die-hards donning Joey Votto jerseys. Conspicuously missing was the boisterous group of Pirate fans usually seated along the third-base line. It seems that even Yinzers have their limits.
When the game finally started, there were the obligatory loud cheers when Aristides Aquino blasted a two-run homer in the bottom of the fourth inning, but other than when the Reds closed out an inning, you could easily have mistaken the crowd noise for a casual summer night watching the fireflies on your back porch. The Bark in the Park promotion only added to the backyard-like ambience, especially when the number of furry four-legged friends easily outnumbered the hairy two-legged variety.
For the record, Cincinnati (56 – 83) lost to the Pirates 6 – 3, but the reality is that none of the 12,083 in attendance at Great American Ballpark really cared who won or lost. The Reds were mathematically eliminated from the National League Central race on Saturday. With their loss this evening, their elimination number for a wild-card spot is rapidly dwindling as well.
Remember, the Reds must win seven of their remaining 23 games to avoid the dreaded 100-loss season. After their disastrous franchise-worst 3 – 22 start, it’s miraculous they’re even poised to make that final run. It’s also ironic that despite the fact the team stinks to high heaven, there are still more fans in the stands by far than you’ll see at church on Sundays.
I guess the overarching lesson for me these past two days is that sports—for many—remains a welcome distraction. It doesn’t matter whether your team’s in the hunt or just playing out the string, it’s the experience of following them faithfully that counts. Unless your livelihood is based solely on winning or losing, consider it a blessing to be able to just regularly sit back, to cheer on the victories, and to lament the defeats. All the better if you can spend time doing it together with friends and loved ones.
In the end, there’s nothing at all wrong with passion for sports, as long as it’s not misdirected toward others or taken to extremes. In fact, passion for sports is totally awesome. I’m convinced it’s good for your psyche. It’s certainly not wasting your life away—even if you’ve spent that entire life as a loyal Cincinnati sports fan.
Here’s the last photo Dr. Durbin and I took together.
It’s been a tough week.
Today I attended the funeral of Dr. Douglas Durbin. Doug was my former business partner. We successfully practiced orthodontics together in the central Kentucky area for over twenty years.
Back in 1995, when I completed my orthodontic residency at the University of Kentucky, Doug already had an established practice here in town. My dream was always to practice in Lexington, but the opportunities for new graduates at that time were slim to none. Upon the recommendation of a mutual friend and colleague, Doug took me in without batting an eye and gave me that chance of a lifetime. For that I’m eternally grateful.
You don’t spend twenty years working intimately with someone and not get to know them. After all, business partnerships are like marriages. With all due respect to his beloved bride Gina, Doug really had two wives during our two decades together. Trust me, I knew Doug well. He had a big, compassionate heart.
Personality-wise, Doug and I were polar opposites. He was bold, brash, and confident. I was quiet, unassuming, and self-conscious. Somehow, we made it all work. That’s not to say I didn’t want to wring his neck at times (and I’m sure he wanted to do the same to me). But at the end of the day, I knew he was always acting on what he thought would best benefit our patients, staff, and practice.
I still can’t believe he’s gone.
Whenever a well-known person suddenly passes, it’s always a shock to my system. John Lennon, Princess Di, and Kobe Bryant come to mind. You always picture those icons as living forever. I thought the same about Doug. He’d be the one writing about me—not the other way around. For anybody that knew him, the guy was larger than life, like a real-life Captain America always swooping in to save the day. It’ll take a while for his death to sink in.
As we grieve, here’s what I want everyone to know about Doug. He did everything with gusto. He treated every single task—however menial—as if it were the most important duty on earth. Sometimes that attention to detail and persistent over analysis drove me nuts. Yes, he was often arrogant, pompous, overbearing, and bombastic in arguing his points. But I seldom felt uncomfortable because I knew exactly where he stood. I admire people with passion and conviction, and Doug was certainly passionate in what he believed.
As you might expect, a person such as that is also extremely competitive. Doug always wanted to be number one. I often wondered how we could coexist as equal partners within the same dental practice. Wouldn’t he always be looking to build himself up in front of our patients and staff at my expense? During one of our long discussions at the end of a grueling work week, I asked him about just that. His answer surprised me.
“There’s no competition between us,” he said. “I consider you totally a part of me.”
I didn’t necessarily understand it at the time, but looking back in hindsight, I can see where Doug always had my back. It really was like a marriage to him—united together in one flesh. Brotherhood, solidarity, and esprit de corps. Loyalty meant everything to him. What more could you ask from a colleague or friend?
At the end of his life, Doug had his priorities in order. He loved the Lord, he loved his family, he loved practicing orthodontics, and he loved his country. You might say he went out in a blaze of glory, completely at peace while surrounded by loved ones with all his priorities totally intact (although he’d never admit to the United States being “intact” with Democrats still in office). He was extremely proud of his military service.
Last but not least, Doug would have wanted everyone to know that he was an Eagle Scout. He once told me he valued his scout badges more than his orthodontic degree. It’s not surprising then that one of his favorite Scripture verses comes from the book of Isaiah.
“But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” –Isaiah 40:31
Douglas Drymon Durbin—my Christian brother, orthodontic colleague, fellow patriot, and friend—a superhero of sorts to all who depended on him.