If the pandemic year was hard on every college football program, it was harder on Kentucky. In May of 2020, promising linebacker Chris Oats suffered a stroke, from which he continues to recover. In November, beloved offensive line coach John Schlarman lost his battle with cancer, passing away at age 45.
"One of the side effects from his treatment, his cancer treatments, were blisters," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "He could barely walk, and he was just really struggling. One of you in the media asked him and did a story and just said, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you continuing to go out there and coach this football team?' And he just simply said, very matter of fact: 'For the team. Just for the team.'
"Obviously, that's a mantra that stuck with me and stuck with our football team that we will carry forward."
One of Kentucky's team leaders has faced his own adversity. Fifth-year senior defensive end Josh Paschal is a cancer survivor himself who went through three surgeries and 13 months of immunotherapy treatments for a malignant melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer, on the bottom of his right foot.
Not even halfway through his course of treatment, Paschal returned to the field to contribute toward the end of Kentucky's 10-win 2018 season. Now he's a self-described "old head" who feels a responsibility to lead the Wildcats in honoring Schlarman's memory and supporting Oats in his recovery.
"I just try to be the light because it could be a time or it could be a moment where a player could be going through something where all they can see is darkness," Paschal said. "You want to be able to shed a light to someone.
"That's what I try to do. I try to bring the energy wherever I go. We could be running sprints and be dead tired, but you're going to see me smiling and see me
having fun. That's something I take personally. I just want to be able to be the light to guys on the team."
Stoops called Paschal, who's played in 40 games for Kentucky, starting 25 of them and compiling 21.5 tackles for loss, "a terrific football player, a terrific young man, a great leader in our program." He's a pretty good storyteller, too.
Paschal lightened the mood considerably on his way out of the main media room Tuesday. He shared a story about appearing on "The Today Show" to discuss how important it is for young people to be vigilant about skin abnormalities. That's where he met megastar Jennifer Lopez, a k a J.Lo.
"I'll set the scene for everybody, all right?" Paschal said. "I was outside the dressing room because all the famous people and the actual commentators are right there. So J.Lo keeps coming in and out. So my mom, she keeps fan-girling and everything. She loves J.Lo. And I'm like, all right, it's not that big of a deal, but in my mind, I'm thinking, 'It's J.Lo, it's J.Lo, it's J.Lo.' I keep seeing her.
"So she's changing because she's performing that day. She's changing, and she's coming back, and she's walking up the stairs, and I just look up. I was looking at the stairs, and I look up, and we make complete eye contact. And she winked at me. I hope that wink was real because I've been telling this story ever since it happened. When I tell you I melted, I melted."
So did everyone listening.