Mark Story: Kentucky football fans riding high after 'The Streak' ends

After 26 years, long-suffering fans celebrate big

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 29, 2011 

For 14 years, the bottle of Maker's Mark with the orange seal sat in the back of Peggy Gabriel's Lexington liquor cabinet gathering dust.

In 1997, while in Tennessee for a family obligation, Peggy and her husband, Jim Trammel, popped into a Chattanooga liquor store looking for a hostess gift. There, they spied a display of Maker's Mark bottles sealed in vibrant Tennessee Volunteers orange.

They bought one and, that same day, made a pledge: They would not drink from the bottle until the Kentucky Wildcats next beat Tennessee in football.

So they waited. And waited. And waited. And waited ...

Then, on Saturday, what seemed like it would never happen, happened like a bolt from the blue.

Kentucky — at the end of a disappointing season; with its top two quarterbacks too injured to play; and a wide receiver, Matt Roark, running (literally) its offense — threw off 26 straight years of Tennessee domination with a 10-7 victory.

At long last, Gabriel broke that orange seal.

"It was a bit surreal," she says. "I remember thinking, 'I can't believe I'm finally going to find out what this tastes like.' "

For the true, blue-blooded Kentucky football fan — especially those who live in or near the state of Tennessee — 26 straight losses to a school they want to consider as a rival was sports hell.

Saturday was salvation.

Dave Kempf, a Mayfield native who has lived in the Nashville area since 1980, says he endured "years of pot shots from the Tennessee fans. It's been brutal."

On Saturday, not long after Taiedo Smith's interception clinched Kentucky's victory, Kempf got decked out in a Kentucky-blue hoodie and headed for a local sports bar. His buddy, Marc Dublin, rolled in sporting a UK shirt chanting "The Streak is over! The Streak is over!"

That wasn't the best part.

"The Tennessee fans, they didn't say a word," Kempf says. "They were completely silent. It was great."

UK graduate Ben Scott, a banker in Gatlinburg, Tenn., had the misfortune of moving from Kentucky to Tennessee in 1985.

That means he lived in the Volunteer State for all 26 of the consecutive UK football losses to UT that comprised The Streak.

"It was horrible," he says.

On Saturday, watching Kentucky spend almost the entire game trying to preserve a narrow lead, "I left hand prints in the arms of my chair," he said. "We'd been close so many times. I kept thinking 'What is going to go wrong?' "

Nothing did. Now, Scott has plans.

The Saturday Knoxville News-Sentinel featured a cartoon that showed "My Old Kentucky Rest Home" with an old man in a chair surrounded by children. Part of the caption read "Grandpa, tell us about the last time the Wildcats beat the Vols?"

Scott says he will take that illustration, pair it with Sunday's Knoxville paper filled with the stories of UK's win over UT and have them framed side-by-side.

"I've waited for this moment for so long," he says.

In Franklin, Ky., just on this side of the Tennessee state line, Matt Morris promised in 2007 that if UK beat Tennessee in football, he would put a billboard in his front yard with the final score on it, light it in blue lights and leave it up all year.

Well, did he?

"I didn't, I didn't," he said. "I had family over and, to be honest, I'd been pretty disappointed in the (Kentucky) season. Then when I heard they were using Roark at quarterback, I was like, 'They're not even trying to win the game.' And then, after all that, this is the year they did it. It's amazing."

The happiest guy in the state of Kentucky after the Cats stopped Rocky Top likely wasn't Joker Phillips, Mitch Barnhart, or even ex-UT players turned Kentucky assistants Randy Sanders and Tee Martin.

It was probably Kevin Atwood.

For Atwood, a Cadiz banker, the UK quest to beat UT in football became something of a personal holy grail.

On the final Monday in March, 2010, when most of Kentucky was still mourning UK's loss to West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament for men's basketball, Atwood sent out an email saying "it's time to start thinking about football again, specifically BEATING TENNESSEE."

Last Saturday, having brought his father, Don, to Commonwealth Stadium to see Cats-Vols as an early birthday present, Atwood was in the house for the moment he had long envisioned.

Is there any way the reality could live up to his imagining of the moment? Are you kidding?

"It was awesome, it was awesome, it was awesome," Atwood said. "I feel like I won the lottery."

Back in Lexington, Calvary Baptist Church Associate Pastor Hank Ellington promised a church youth group way back in 1985 that he would shave his beard off if UK beat UT in football that season.

When that didn't happen, Ellington promised he would not take razor to beard until the next time the Big Blue defeated the Big Orange, whenever that was.

That beard (which he kept neatly trimmed) grew for 26 years.

On Saturday, it met its demise. As the final seconds ticked off the game clock, Ellington says, the people seated near him in Commonwealth Stadium began approaching and saying " 'You finally have to shave.' Everyone knew about it."

By around 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Ellington says, what became more than 100 emails and Facebook messages started coming in asking about the beard. "A lot of people seemed to think I wouldn't follow through," he said.

He did.

When he walked into church Sunday, his face was as smooth as a baby's bottom.

"There was like 30 seconds of raucous applause," Ellington says. "Several people were standing up. All these people, they'd been waiting all this time. Really, I don't think it was about me. ... They were just glad (The Streak) had finally gone away. It's really not a rivalry unless you win every now and again."

The day that Rocky Top finally stopped meant Peggy Gabriel at long last found out what the Maker's Mark that was so long stored inside the bottle with that orange seal tasted like.

"It really had a bite to it," Gabriel said.

For Kentucky fans, after 26 years of Big Orange hell, few Wildcats victories have ever carried a stronger "bite."

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