Mark Story: Cats vs. Vols helps life go on after family's tragedy

Kevin Atwood, left, and his wife, Tracie, posed at their daughter Layton's locker Tuesday at University Heights Academy. Elizabeth's locker was right in front of her twin sister Layton's.
Kevin Atwood, left, and his wife, Tracie, posed at their daughter Layton's locker Tuesday at University Heights Academy. Elizabeth's locker was right in front of her twin sister Layton's. Danny Vowell

"Joker was in Hoptown a couple of weeks ago. I believe he is as passionate about beating Tennessee as I am. That is saying something, too."

— e-mail message from Kevin Atwood

Of everyone who swears allegiance to the Kentucky Wildcats, who burns with the most desire to see UK finally beat Tennessee in football?

Believe it or not, the answer probably is not Joker Phillips, not Randy Sanders, not even Randall Cobb.

In the entire state of Kentucky, no one loathes the fact that UK football has lost an astounding 25 years in a row to Tennessee more than Kevin Atwood.

For years now, the bank vice president in Cadiz has filled my e-mail box with missives — sometimes funny, always frustrated — about Kentucky and its quest for the ever-elusive football victory over Tennessee.

On the final Monday of March, when most of the commonwealth was rehashing UK basketball's NCAA Tournament loss to West Virginia the previous Saturday, Atwood had a very different focus.

"OK, it's time to start thinking about football again, specifically BEATING TENNESSEE," he wrote.

Yet what he wrote next was a jarring departure from his normal topic and tone.

"My 16-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Atwood, was killed in an auto accident coming home from the UK vs. UT basketball game in February. ... She LOVED UK and hated UT, just like her daddy. ... "

This year, as the game approaches, the one guy in the state of Kentucky who most craves an (Big) Orange football crushing is dealing with a swirl of emotions.

"Now that the shock has worn off, we've had a few chances to smile about Elizabeth. Her last game was a chance to see Kentucky whoop the Big Orange."

— e-mail from Kevin Atwood

Excitement filled the air in the Atwood family's Christian County home on the afternoon of Feb. 13, 2010.

Kevin Atwood and his wife, Tracie, are the parents of twin girls.

If you'd asked those who knew them both, they would have said Elizabeth and Layton looked just alike. Yet they weren't exactly identical twins, Layton standing some 5-foot-11 and Elizabeth 5-5.

On this Saturday, Elizabeth's boyfriend, George Barnes, a University of Kentucky student from Hopkinsville, had two tickets for the UK-UT basketball game in Rupp Arena.

Because Cats-Vols was ESPN's featured Saturday night game, it would not tip off until 9 p.m. It was going to be a long night since George and Elizabeth were going to see the game in Rupp, then drive home afterward to western Kentucky.

Kevin was just getting home from work at the Bank of Cadiz & Trust Co. as Elizabeth and George prepared to leave.

"I love you, Dad," she said

"I love you, too, babe," was his reply.

"As normal as it could be," Kevin says now.

In Lexington, George and Elizabeth saw John Wall score 24 points and Eric Bledsoe 16 as UK whipped Tennessee 73-62.

By the time the young couple was ready to head back home, snow had begun to fall. What was normally a 31/2-hour trip was going to take longer on this night.

It was around 4 a.m. when Kevin and Tracie got the phone call that fills every parent with dread.

George's father told the Atwoods there had been a car accident on the Western Kentucky Parkway and his son was in the Madisonville hospital.

The call ended without the Atwoods knowing what Elizabeth's situation was.

On the rushed trip he and Tracie made to the hospital, Kevin says he never considered the worst.

At the hospital, a Kentucky state trooper met the couple. "Are you Mr. Atwood?" he asked.

Told that he and Tracie were Elizabeth's parents, the trooper got straight to the hard facts.

"There's been an accident," he said. "She didn't make it."

Barnes had fallen asleep at the wheel. His car drifted toward the median, hit a guardrail and overturned several times before coming to rest upright in the median.

Thrown from the car, Elizabeth was pronounced dead at the scene.

"Elizabeth was a four-year letter winner in softball at University Heights Academy and was about to start her junior season. They have erected a blue cross just outside the center-field fence at UHA with her name on it. Fitting that it is (UK) blue even though the school's colors are green and gold."

— e-mail from Kevin Atwood

In his days as an undersized right guard for the Christian County High School football team, Kevin, now 48, had played alongside a tackle named Steve Pardue.

Though he recently stepped down from the job, Pardue has been well known to UK football fans as head coach at LaGrange (Ga.) High School. Wesley Woodyard, Braxton Kelley and Randall Burden (and many others) are among the players from LaGrange under Pardue to come north to play for Kentucky.

Once he got word of the death of his friend's daughter, Pardue called on his connections at UK.

Within days, Atwood got consoling voice-mail messages from Phillips, the Kentucky head football coach, as well as UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. He still has them saved on his cell phone.

John Calipari wrote a note. Kentucky cheerleading coach Jomo Thompson sent a UK cheerleading outfit autographed by his entire squad.

"I'm nobody. They didn't have to do for us what they did," says Atwood, a Western Kentucky University grad who attended law school at UK. "It meant so much to us."

A tiny private school with a high school enrollment of some 120 in grades 9-12, University Heights Academy was devastated by Elizabeth's death.

"The hardest thing I've dealt with in more than 40 years in education," says UHA Principal Pam Nunn. "Elizabeth Atwood was a leader in the school. She had that rare gift of being able to say exactly what she thought without it hurting other people's feelings."

As is often the case with high school friends who live apart as adults, Pardue says he didn't know Atwood's children.

When he came back to Kentucky for Elizabeth's funeral, Pardue says he happened to visit the Atwood house at a time when only Kevin was home.

"He showed us her room and after that, I felt like I knew her," Pardue said. "She had all these motivational sayings up in her room."

Inside Elizabeth's closet, there were a cluster of inspirational words: Anyone can die; have the courage to live. The only one that can turn your situation around is you. When the ball doesn't bounce your way, you have to find a way to bounce back.

One other thing Pardue noticed. "She must have saved the ticket (stub) from every UK game she ever saw," he said.

Though she played softball at UHA, Elizabeth's passion was competitive cheerleading. Her goal was to become a member of UK's perennially national-championship winning squad.

At 5-5 she fretted that she was too tall to be a cheerleader at Kentucky. "But she had decided she was going to UK and would figure out a way to make it," Kevin says.

At Elizabeth's funeral, Kevin says he got up and asked a grieving town not to blame Barnes for his daughter's death.

"It was an accident," Atwood said. "George would have never done anything on purpose to hurt one hair on Elizabeth's head. He loved her. We see him as our son."

In the aftermath of a teenager's death, it takes time to make sense of things.

Kevin says his family obviously wants Elizabeth to be remembered at UHA, but also doesn't want the focus on her sister's death to ruin Layton's senior year.

Shortly after the accident, Kevin says Tracie remarked to him that the death of a child often proves insurmountable for a marriage.

"I said, 'We owe it to Elizabeth to make sure that doesn't happen to us,'" he said.

"I gave Joker a copy of the program from Elizabeth's funeral. It had several of the motivational quotes that were posted in her room. If the UK football team will embrace just a few of them, the mighty Vols will be no more."

— e-mail from Kevin Atwood

Having felt a real-world loss so acute, Kevin says he "treasures UK sports even more now. Probably because of the way they were so kind to us after Elizabeth's (death)."

So on Saturday, the guy who says he "hates the color orange" and who has long filled my e-mail box with pleas for Kentucky to beat Tennessee in football, has invited Barnes to his house to watch on TV as the Cats try yet again to take down the Vols.

Together, they will spend a Saturday missing the girl they both loved and rooting for the team for which she will never have a chance to lead the cheers.