Mark Story: From Tebow sack to the beard, Taylor Wyndham's UK career unique

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 22, 2012 

The problem — one of the problems — with a football season such as Kentucky (2-9, 0-7 SEC) has endured in 2012 is that the darkness overwhelms all the light.

Nineteen Kentucky Wildcats seniors will end their college playing days Saturday at Tennessee. Among that number is a player, Taylor Wyndham, who has had one of the more unique careers in modern UK football history.

Many Kentucky fans first "met" the undersized defensive end from Swansea, S.C., on the night of Sept. 26, 2009. That is when the then-little used redshirt freshman emphatically introduced himself to Tim Tebow.

The Wildcats were trailing defending national champion Florida 31-7 in the third quarter when Tebow dropped back to pass. Wyndham came off right end unblocked and found himself with a clear path to a college football icon.

The Florida quarterback got crushed, hit his head on the knee of a teammate while falling and wound up motionless on the Commonwealth Stadium turf.

Unaware that Tebow was down, Wyndham was running toward the UK sideline when he noticed the vibe was off. "The entire stadium went silent," Wyndham remembers. "I turned around and knew something bad had happened."

Eventually, Tebow got up, but he was wobbly. He spent that night in a Lexington hospital with concussion-like symptoms.

Wyndham's hit was on the most famous college football player of the 21st century and came at a time when the issue of head injuries in football was reaching critical mass. So ESPN showed the video of the play over and over and over and over.

That's why it is possible that other than — maybe — star quarterbacks Tim Couch and Andre Woodson, Taylor Wyndham has been shown more often in ESPN highlights than any UK football player ever.

Penchant for big plays

When he was still an assistant to Rich Brooks, Joker Phillips found Wyndham while on the recruiting trail in South Carolina. The player, then a 6-foot-4, 205-pound linebacker, was playing for a victory-challenged high school team.

"My school was really small. We went, like, 3-7 two years in a row," Wyndham said. "I wasn't really expecting too much (recruiting attention). But Coach Phillips told me that a lot of the (coaches) around my area were talking about me and telling him he ought to come see me."

Joker did, and liked what he saw enough to invite Wyndham to visit Lexington for a game during the 2007 season. It was Kentucky against No. 1 LSU.

"I came up for that LSU game when (Kentucky) beat them," Wyndham said. "The next day, Coach Phillips called me and said they were offering me a scholarship. I'll never forget it. It was awesome."

Once Wyndham got to Lexington full time, the UK brain trust redshirted him in 2008 and decided his best position would be as a pass-rushing end in UK's base 4-3 defense.

In 2009, Wyndham followed up his sack of Tebow with more big plays. On his first trip to his home state as a UK player, Wyndham set up a Kentucky field goal by stripping the ball from South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia.

In the 2009 season finale against Tennessee, it was Wyndham who recovered a late Luke Stocker fumble and gave UK a last-gasp chance to win. Against Louisville in the 2010 season opener, Wyndham forced a fumble in what was Phillips' first game as Kentucky head man.

Still, after two seasons as a smallish (6-4, 242 pounds) 4-3 end, Wyndham's world was flipped when UK brought in new defensive coordinator Rick Minter and a 3-4 base defense for 2011.

Suddenly, Wyndham — not big enough to be a 3-4 down lineman; not fast enough to be a linebacker — was a man without a position. "I was like, 'Where am I going to fit in?'" he said.

This season began with Wyndham still in no man's land. But after a UK defensive debacle in the season opener at Louisville, the decision was made to find a way to get the South Carolina product back on the field.

Wyndham was installed in the starting lineup in the role as hybrid outside linebacker/rush end.

"When we inserted Taylor in the starting lineup over the last 10 games," Minter said, "he's played like a champion for us."

The beard

When your team is going toward 2-9 and the head coach toward getting fired, it's not exactly a joy ride for players.

Amidst UK's tumult, a grooming decision by Wyndham has injected some fun. On a dare during Kentucky football's pre-season camp, Wyndham decided he would go the entire season without removing any facial hair.

He has not shaved since Aug. 2. Now, he looks like the son of Sasquatch.

In an upset, not everything a male college student does is designed to appeal to female college students.

"They hate it," Wyndham says of the reaction among women at UK to his beard. "I've only gotten compliments from, like, one woman. All the rest are like, 'You should shave it. You look homeless. Like a mountain person.'"

It's not just younger women who are not grooving to the beard. "His grandmother (Gloria Wyndham) absolutely hates it," says Melanie Wyndham, Taylor's mom.

Some time next week, the original dare met, Taylor plans to take razor to massively shaggy beard.

"I'll be back to my clean-cut, young-boy look," he said, smiling.

Helping kids

As an unusually eventful Kentucky football career ends, Wyndham's life plan is to enter "the family business."

His father, Kurt, is a high school math teacher. His mom is a school librarian. His sister, Jessica, is a registered nurse but is going back to school to become an art teacher.

Taylor's aim is to become an elementary school teacher.

"I want to teach third or fourth grade," he said. "The main reason I want to do it, I just want to be a positive male influence. There are a lot of people nowadays, a lot of single mothers, and what I want to do is provide a good influence (to children with no male in the household) and get them off to a good start."

Even in the darkness of this UK football season, there is light if you're willing to find it.

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

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