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Mark Story: UK's Matt Roark living the dream since beating Vols

Matt Roark living a dream since win over Vols

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 4, 2011 

Over and over and over, Matt Roark uses the same phrase to describe the days since he entered University of Kentucky sports lore as "The Guy Who Stopped The Streak."

"It was crazy, man," he keeps saying.

Eight days ago, it started on the Commonwealth Stadium playing field in the immediate seconds after Roark, a senior wide receiver forced by injuries to play quarterback, led the Kentucky Wildcats to their first football victory over erstwhile rival Tennessee since 1984.

"Everybody ran on the field, and it was chaotic," Roark recalled Friday. "There was so much going on, it was so emotional. Everybody was crying tears of joy and hugging and slapping hands and taking pictures."

Next came the moment when Roark, having directed UK to a 10-7 victory in his first action as a quarterback since high school, realized the jubilant throng around him planned to pick him up and put him on its shoulders.

"I wasn't scared, there wasn't anywhere I could have fallen, there were so many people," he says. "If I would have fallen, I would have just landed on somebody's else's shoulders."

Mostly, there were moments that will become memories that last a lifetime.

Once the revelers let Roark back down onto the turf, there were so many people wanting high fives and pictures with him and one of his wrist bands for a souvenir that, eventually, his father and one of his uncles found Matt and lifted him on their shoulders just to get him off the field.

Says Roark: "It was crazy, man."

In what has been college football's season of scandal, the feel-good story Matt Roark created in Commonwealth Stadium two Saturdays ago is a vastly needed reminder of what can be so invigorating about the sport.

Over the course of one season, has any UK athlete ever traveled such an undulating road to folk hero status as Roark did this year?

During the 2011 Kentucky football season opener against Western Kentucky University, the 6-foot-5, 214-pound product of Acworth, Ga., dropped two easily catchable passes. The next week, Roark had a sure touchdown pass against Central Michigan pass through his hands for another drop.

"After that game, I figured I'd finish my senior year playing nothing but special teams," he said.

For a time, Roark was benched. When he got back on the field, there was a smattering of boos when passes were thrown in his direction.

"I was in a funk," he says.

Yet Roark did not quit on himself or his team. He bounced back with 13 catches against Mississippi State, then seven more against Mississippi. He had more than 100 yards receiving in both games.

Then, in the final game of what had been a disappointing season, UK turned up with both its quarterbacks, Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton, too injured to throw,

In one afternoon against Tennessee, Roark became a genuine Kentucky folk hero. Since, he's been living the life.

A standing O in Rupp

Late Saturday afternoon, after Roark finished describing his 124-yard rushing effort and how a wide receiver playing QB had managed to finally beat Tennessee in post-game media interviews, UK officials asked the senior if he'd like tickets for that night's Kentucky basketball game with Portland.

That is how the guy who heard some boos early in the UK football season came to be standing at midcourt in Rupp Arena making the 'Y' in the Kentucky cheerleaders' ritual spelling of "Kentucky" while basking in an uproarious standing ovation.

"I didn't really know what to expect. I was like 'OK, these are basketball fans. I'm a football player. I'm sure they'll clap (politely),' Roark said. "But once I got out there — before I even started going out there, when I just got out of my seat to go to the court — they started clapping and it just erupted. I didn't expect that."

When he looks at the pictures of that moment, Roark is struck by the look on his face.

"It looks like I am smiling, but I wasn't," he says. "I was laughing. I was laughing to myself like 'Man, this is crazy. I can't believe this.'"

As he walked back up the steps from the court to leave Rupp Arena, Roark got a taste of his new status in the Kingdom of the Blue.

"When we left, we were walking up the steps and people started clapping and yelling for Matt to get a picture or an autograph," says Michelle Holbrook, Roark's mother. "It was pretty darned cool."

Text from Randall Cobb

As you would expect in 2011, a sports hero's popularity takes full life in cyberspace.

In the first days after Roark helped slay the dragon that had so long been Tennessee, he says he got "over 1,000 messages if you combine everything, Twitter, Facebook, texts, all of it.

"Some people write me stories about their family members who were UK fans and how what I did helped them get through stuff," he said. "The deep ones are pretty emotional. I read all of them, pretty much. It's just crazy, man, reading all the comments and messages."

Roark spent the early part of this week replying to everyone who texted him.

"It took me forever to reply to all of them," he said. "A Facebook (message) or Twitter is not as personal as a text. Everybody who texted me, it was pretty personal. I had to reply to all of them."

Hear from anyone famous, Matt?

"Not really," he says.

Pause.

"Well, Randall Cobb."

What did the ex-UK star and Green Bay Packers rookie standout say?

"Just good job. He was proud of me. And, like everyone else, he said 'Thanks for beating The Streak,'" Roark says.

On the post-game radio show that followed Kentucky's victory over Tennessee, UK play-by-play man Tom Leach noted that "Matt Roark should never have to buy a meal in Lexington again."

That overlooks that this particular folk hero has a college kid's dining habits.

"I eat a lot of fast food," Roark said. "So I'll be through the drive-through, and it will be somebody that wouldn't recognize me. So, I have paid for my meals."

Family fun

The best part of a folk hero's life is that it can be shared with one's folks.

In the week after he helped UK squeeze the Big Orange, Roark says, his dad, former Cats defensive back Ray Gover, was "texting me every day. He's (writing) 'Go to this Web site, look at these pictures, look at this video.' He's eating it all up. He loves it."

Roark's mom is from Hazard. Her parents still live there. Betty and Lee Roy Roark "are still living on clouds," Holbrook says of her parents. "Everyone they know has stopped by their house. Or called them."

Riding home to Atlanta after the game, Matt's uncle Anthony Roark says, he "was on my iPhone cruising the net reading every story there was about Matt. It was so much fun."

This week, one of Holbrook's co-workers played for her a voice-mail message left from his in-laws, UK fans who live in the state of Tennessee.

"They were calling after the game and (the guy on the phone) said 'Make sure you tell Michelle we're so proud,'" she says. "These are people I didn't even know who they were. So that's fun."

Run for governor?

Even though his family has deep Kentucky roots, Matt Roark's formative years were spent in Georgia. So he really was not prepared for and doesn't fully understand the outpouring of emotion in the commonwealth that has accompanied UK finally beating UT in football.

"I do not think he completely grasps that," Holbrook says. "We moved away from Kentucky when he was 8 years old. I think it will hit him as he grows older and time goes on. I think he will realize how big it was for Kentucky to win that. He asked me right after the game, 'Why is everybody thanking me?'"

Eight days into the life of a folk hero, Roark says he is getting used to the thanks. There are other things he's becoming familiar with, such as people telling him exactly where they were the last time UK downed UT on a football field.

"I've been getting all kinds of those stories — 'I was 26 the last time, now I'm 53,'" he says of what he's hearing.

The other thing Roark has heard a lot in the past week is career advice.

"People keep telling me I should run for governor," he says. "But I don't like politics."

On Friday, Roark was slated to make a paid appearance here in Lexington to sign autographs.

One week after he was a star in one of the most iconic victories in University of Kentucky sports history, Matt Roark is still making sense of how fate turned so dramatically in his favor on one Saturday afternoon.

"This is the perfect way to go out of college," he says. "A Senior Day, doing something like that, something that nobody expected. It's like a dream. This would be anybody's dream. But it's mine."

It's crazy, man.

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