Mike Federspiel was born to be Blue.
His father, Joe, was an All-America linebacker (AP second team in 1971) for the Kentucky Wildcats during the John Ray era.
After Joe's 10-year NFL career ended, Mike more or less grew up attending UK games in Commonwealth Stadium.
The family has pictures of Mike as a little boy posing with the UK Wildcat mascot. Mike remembers being in Commonwealth when Kentucky beat Alabama (1997) and the fans tore down the goal posts. He was there for the seven-overtime loss to Arkansas (2003) and the epic upset of No. 1 LSU ('07).
Never miss a local story.
"From the time I was in the sixth, seventh grade, I probably went to every UK game," Mike Federspiel says.
Every UK game right up until the time Mike Federspiel, born to be a Wildcat, committed to play linebacker for Western Kentucky University after a Kentucky scholarship offer didn't come.
So you understand why, when UK and WKU open the college football season Thursday (late) night in Nashville, it will be a little unsettling for both the Hilltoppers backup linebacker and his dad.
It won't be as surreal as a season ago when the Cats blasted the Hilltoppers (63-28) in Commonwealth, where Joe Federspiel's name is among those in the stadium's ring of honor.
Mike Federspiel recalls running on the C.M. Newton Field before the game "and it did feel a little weird, being back there on the other team," he says. "I remember being on the field and looking up at my dad's name on the stadium."
That same night, Joe Federspiel found himself in Commonwealth rooting against his alma mater for the first time in his life.
"It felt really funny, really strange," Joe says, "There I am sitting in Commonwealth in a red (WKU) hat. I was sitting in the Western section and looking right at my name. But what are you going to do? It's my son. Of course I'm rooting for him."
Good player, bad teams
Joe Federspiel, 61, spent his playing days at UK and then in the NFL in a strange sort of football purgatory. A very good player for Kentucky, the three Wildcats teams he played on (1969-71) finished 2-8, 2-9 and 3-8.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 1972 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints, Joe became a standout. He started every game the Saints played for five straight seasons. In 1975, he recovered a whopping five fumbles.
Yet in his entire time in New Orleans (1972-80), the Saints never had a winning season. In 1979 they came close, going 8-8. The next year, the team collapsed to 1-15. Even getting out of the Big Easy didn't help. Federspiel spent his final NFL season with the Baltimore Colts in 1981; they went 2-14.
"My last winning year was 8-2 at DeSales High School in Louisville," Joe Federspiel said.
For someone who was a quality player, all that losing had to be sapping.
"It was," Joe Federspiel says. "I went years with the Saints, the coaches were always in a foul mood. There were always lots of players coming and going. It just drains you after a while, it really does."
Help from Dad
When his NFL career ended, Joe came back to Lexington and eventually launched his own insurance firm and became a Southeastern Conference football referee.
As Mike grew up, he played basketball, baseball and football, even dabbled in soccer. Yet by the time he was deep into his high school career at Henry Clay, Mike was concentrating on football and had become a hard-hitting linebacker — like his dad had been.
In his final two seasons (2007 and '08) with the Blue Devils, Mike twice led the city of Lexington in tackles, forced 12 fumbles and picked off five passes.
"I wanted to go to UK," Mike says. "But that didn't happen, and I was OK. (At Western), I got a chance to play Division I, and I got a chance to play in-state."
During his true freshman year (in which he redshirted) in Bowling Green, circumstances gave Mike reason to understand what much of his dad's football experience had felt like.
The 2009 season was Western's first in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Hilltoppers didn't win a game. David Elson, the head coach with whom Mike signed, was fired with three games left in the season.
"That's when what my dad went through in his career really hit me, and it helped me," Mike said Thursday. "He told me that, sometimes, you are in a situation out of your control, but what you can do, is you can keep working hard, doing what you should do, trying to be the best you can be. He told me that's what he did all those years with the Saints. He just said whatever was going on around me, I needed to take care of my business."
Last season, as WKU went 2-10 in Willie Taggart's first season as head man, Mike was used primarily on special teams. He recorded two tackles.
This year, the 6-foot-3, 231-pound sophomore says he worked hard in the off-season with Western's strength and conditioning coaches trying to improve his foot speed. "It's going well," he says. "The team is going to be a lot better. I feel like I've played pretty well. My goal is to get some (defensive) snaps this year."
The guy who more or less grew up attending UK football games has let himself at least dream of what it might be like if WKU could upset his hometown school Thursday under the bright lights in Music City.
Says Mike Federspiel: "It would be nice to be able to come home and talk a little smack to my friends instead of always having to take it. I'd like that."
Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or firstname.lastname@example.org.