Mark Story: Getting to know — again — the owner of the 'UK leg'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 16, 2012 

Last weekend, word broke via the media that a Florida seafood company had discovered a prosthetic leg in the Gulf of Mexico that had a Kentucky Wildcats logo on it. According to the reports, it belonged to a guy named Fred Robinson.

When I saw the stories, the memory banks began whirling.

Wait a minute. I know a Fred Robinson.

Back in the day, the guy I knew as Freddie Robinson was a year ahead of me at North Hardin High School, played football.

Oh, it couldn't be the same guy ...

"It's me," Fred Robinson Jr., North Hardin Class of 1981, said via the phone Thursday. "It's been a wild couple of weeks. And I'm very happy to have my leg back."

The case of the UK leg lost at sea began over Memorial Day weekend. To escape suffocating heat, Robinson, now a Crestview, Fla., resident, took his boat out on the Gulf of Mexico with friends.

"It was like 96, really hot," he said. "So I stopped the boat and dove into the water, trying to cool off."

Swimming in water about 20 feet deep, Robinson began to feel suction pulling his prosthetic leg. "It came off and the water was so deep, I was like, 'Well, that's gone,'" Robinson said.

That was a blow for the former football player. He has other prosthetic legs — "every one I have has something (with) UK on it," he says — but the one he lost "fit the best and caused me the least amount of pain to wear," Robinson said. "It was my favorite."

I hadn't spoken with Robinson since high school, though we are Facebook friends. The Freddie Robinson I knew at North Hardin was a good football player, but what I remember most about him was a large, outgoing personality.

His has the kind of ebullient, resilient outlook you'd want to have if, in middle age, you were faced with a life-altering misfortune.

Robinson, now 49, says he was working as a structural engineer for Wal-Mart in the Boston area four years ago when a co-worker operating a large fork lift accidentally ran over his right leg.

"I remember in the hospital them giving me my options and saying the best thing for me would be to amputate my leg," Robinson said. "I told them to do it."

For about a year after the accident, "it had me pretty down," Robinson said. "But if you let it keep you down, you're letting it win. I decided I was not going to let it win."

After the accident, Robinson moved to Florida.

In the heart of Gator Nation, the guy who studied at the University Kentucky and spent a year as a walk-on running back in the UK football program is a defiant Wildcats backer.

Once, during a Florida-Kentucky basketball contest, Robinson went out to watch the game and says somebody stole the UK tire cover off the back of his vehicle.

"UK's my school," he said. "Down here with all these Gators fans, I bleed (UK) Blue all the way."

Featured on the prosthetic leg he lost in the Gulf of Mexico, Robinson has both a Wildcat and the interlocking UK logo.

When a shrimper for Willingham's Seafood captured Robinson's missing leg in its nets late in the week before last, the UK identifiers helped bring the leg back home. "They thought they'd found part of a dead body," Robinson said of the shrimpers. "They were shook up. They turned the leg over to the sheriff."

Soon, Robinson got a call from his prosthetic company.

After law enforcement contacted them, the Hanger Orthopedic Group quickly figured out to whom the "UK leg" belonged. The medical company told Robinson that the $30,000 leg was at the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Department waiting to be claimed.

"I couldn't believe it," Robinson said.

After he retrieved the leg Monday, Robinson visited Matt Willingham, owner of the seafood company that found it, to thank him.

Amazingly for a leg that spent a couple of weeks submerged in the Gulf of Mexico, Robinson says it is little worse for wear.

"I had to clean it real good, get a lot of barnacles off it," he said. "But carbon-steel titanium does not rust. Only the screws had rusted a little bit."

Robinson still has family in Radcliff, where both his parents and a younger sister live.

A father of two college-age boys, Robinson will soon marry for a second time.

If he chooses, he can wear his recovered UK leg — his favorite — to the wedding.

"I've got the leg on right now," Robinson says. "I love having it back."

There's a lesson here. The next time you read media reports about a guy losing a college sports-themed prosthetic limb in the Gulf of Mexico then getting it back, pay attention to the name. Might just be a guy you went to high school with.

It's a small world, after all.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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