UK Football

Family broken, knees battered, UK football player finds way to ‘just keep living life’

With his fingertips, he gently traces the discolored lines.

Some are older wounds guarded by hardened, darkened tissue.

Some are wounds still soft from his most recent surgery.

These raised dots and lines — scars from five surgeries in three years — tell the story of how Alexander Montgomery’s college football career ended.

But there are other scars, ones that can’t be so gently traced, that have shaped who he is and who he will become.

Those scars tell the story of a lifetime of isolation, rejection and acute pain for the University of Kentucky wide receiver.

“He had a tough life,” Montgomery’s former high school coach Mark Guandolo said. “He basically raised himself.”

Montgomery, who can remember in photographic detail every catch in every game he’s ever played, has lost track of the number of different couches and floors that he slept on as a kid growing up in south Florida.

Any place felt like home to him when his own home was cluttered by chaos.

And moving around from couch to couch meant he never had to let anyone get close enough to hurt him again.

It was self-imposed solitary confinement.

“I blocked things off,” Montgomery said in describing his complicated life before he arrived at UK in 2013, a promising freshman wide receiver. “Just keep living life. Just pushing things aside. You’re not supposed to push them aside, but that’s what I do. That’s what I had to do.”

A life of constant conflict

When players arrive at Kentucky, they are asked to fill out biographical questionnaires for the team media guide.

These basic questions provide insight into Montgomery’s tumultuous life.

Where most players list their parents, he put “grandson of Ruby Montgomery.”

On the question about the thing he can’t live without? His grandparents.

It’s literally true. He might be dead if not for Redell and Ruby Montgomery.

When he was an infant, one of Alex’s uncles found him home alone with only his 2-year-old sister there to watch him. Blood poured out of a gash on the side of his head.

Relatives took Alex to the hospital and then he moved in with his grandparents.

“When my uncle picked me up he said I grabbed him and didn’t want to let go because I didn’t want to go back to that house,” Alex said, noting that his mother, who had too many responsibilities too soon, had been out with her boyfriend.

It’s one of many difficult stories in his life involving his mother, who had him at age 21, the fourth of her eight children.

Life with his grandparents wasn’t always easy. Alex had constant conflicts with his grandmother.

“My grandmother took care of me,” he said of Ruby. “She took care of us and fed us every meal of the day. That was important to her. But she never wanted us in the house.

“She just had that mean side of the good cop-bad cop. Granddad was always the good cop.”

In third grade, Alex came home from school to find that half of his siblings were gone and so were all of their things.

His mother, who had DNA tests done, had taken the children who belonged to her boyfriend at the time and left the others behind, he said.

“We stayed with my grandparents because she didn’t want us,” he said with a glassy stare. “Crazy, right? ... She was just going to give us away, so our grandparents were like, ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

It is a hurt he still struggles to explain some 14 years later. His mother has wandered in and out of his life, sometimes taking money, always leaving him wanting more, he said.

“When you’re a kid, it’s so hard not to trust your mom,” he said. “Everybody used to talk bad about my mom, and I’d defend her.”

He’d ask her about his father, whom he still doesn’t know, and she would say that his grandfather was the only father he needed.

On that, his mother was correct.

“I really didn’t talk to anyone but my grandfather,” Alex said of Redell. “He supported me, always made me feel happy and special.”

A man of deep faith who attended church regularly, he made Alex a believer. He encouraged him in school and sports.

A series of phone calls from family one day in the middle of school challenged that faith and nearly extinguished Alex’s desire to go to school or play the sports he loved.

Tumors, including a large malignancy that had overtaken his abdomen, stole his grandfather away when Alex was 16.

Redell Montgomery, 71, never even told his grandson that he was sick. “For years, he was sitting there dying and we didn’t know about it.”

Without a warning or a goodbye, the only person who made Alex feel special was gone.

“When he died, it killed me,” Alex said quietly. “That side of the family died for me, too.”

‘He’s just special’

For more than a month after his grandfather passed away, Alex stopped going to classes at Cypress Bay High School.

“I used to sit down anywhere and just start crying because he was gone,” Alex recalled. “I didn’t care about school anymore.”

People close to him reminded the versatile player that his grandfather would want him to be happy, to get a degree, to make something of his life.

So Alex went back to school. Off and on for the final two years of high school, he lived with Kevin and Diane Mancino and their two children.

He’d met Kevin, a youth football coach, when he was in middle school. Like most people who spend any amount of time with Alex, the Mancino family was taken with the boy.

“He’s a sweet kid and has the biggest heart in the world,” Kevin said. “We’ve helped as much as he has accepted it. He’s part of our family.”

It took a long time, but Alex eventually shared stories of mental, physical and emotional abuse. Sometimes after disagreements, he would pack up his navy blue duffel bag of belongings and walk away only to move back in with them again later.

“He usually pushes people away when they get too close,” Mancino said. “Me and my wife promised him no matter what he did, we would never reject him.”

Getting a fresh start at Kentucky with Mark Stoops was important for Alex. The coach grew especially fond of the wide receiver during the recruiting process.

In his first weeks as UK’s new head coach, Stoops visited Ruby’s house in Fort Lauderdale. It was a rough neighborhood filled with drugs and violence, the coach recalled.

He also laughed as he recalled getting an earful from Ruby, who mocked Stoops’ bow-legged saunter, a product of his bum knee at the time.

“She was imitating me, ‘Look at you coming in here with that bow leg and all that,’ kind of making fun of me,” Stoops said. “‘You look like you think you’re hot stuff.’”

Kentucky desperately needed wide receivers, and Stoops saw something desperate — and exceptional — in Alex.

“You spend five minutes around the kid and you know he’s special,” Stoops said. “He’s just special.”

Moving on

When he got to Kentucky, Montgomery struggled in some ways and excelled in others.

On the football field, he was starting to show potential, playing in eight games in 2013 with 16 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns.

“That kid was going to be good,” said tight ends coach Vince Marrow, who coached inside receivers at the time. “He wasn’t a laser, but he was smart enough and knew how to catch the ball and track the ball over the middle. He would’ve been a real good guy for us.”

But then a freak injury on a celebratory leap in the end zone cut short his freshman season.

“You can’t even see it on video,” Montgomery said of his first of three anterior cruciate ligament tears. “I’ve watched it a thousand times — all the views on YouTube — all you see is my leg and I fall.”

Stoops went out on the field and had to force Montgomery to let the trainers evaluate his injured leg, which also included a dislocated kneecap.

Life after surgery was hard, and Montgomery walled himself off again. The golf cart would come to his dorm to pick him up for a rehab session and he’d ignore the calls. He opted instead for weeks holed up in his dorm room with pizza and Mountain Dew.

“Isolating myself was the worst thing I could have done,” he said of the behavior that ultimately cost him the next season, too. “But I’ve always been in isolation.”

Eventually, Montgomery improved enough to get back on the field in 2015. Never really himself again, he played in nine games mostly on special teams before suffering a second ACL tear on a punt return at Vanderbilt.

“The second one happened and it was, ‘S---. This kid’s going to go through another thing?’” Mancino recalled thinking.

Stoops, who had a full knee replacement surgery himself, would meet Montgomery in the rehab room and they would work together. That time created an unbreakable bond between the two men.

“Made a big-time connection,” Stoops said. “I was busting him because he was too soft the first time he had his (knee problems) because the rehab hurts and he didn’t push hard enough in his rehab.”

That common bond connected them in a meaningful way that has been rare in Montgomery’s life.

“I love Stoops,” he said. “I really do. I love Mark Stoops. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around.”

As Montgomery, 22, was trying to work his way back this season, he had another setback in practice.

“I was standing right there when it happened,” said teammate and roommate Jeff Badet. “We was doing a drill and I saw it from afar, and I was like, ‘Oh, man. Not again.’”

It’s the same reaction of nearly every person who knows Montgomery and knows of his previous scars.

“Alex, God has challenged you once again,” Mancino said he told Montgomery. “You can either fall by the wayside or keep going. I don’t think you’ll fall by the wayside. Don’t give up. He still has something special for you.’”

Stoops met with Montgomery before this most recent surgery and told him that no matter the outcome, he had a place at Kentucky.

An exploratory scope of the knee showed a third torn ligament, which doctors repaired. It ultimately ended Montgomery’s playing career.

“What he’s gone through with all the injuries, me and my wife don’t know how he survived mentally,” Mancino said. “Never mind everything else, but now he’s overcome the dream of not being able to make it to the NFL.”

Maybe he will, though, as a coach instead.

Stoops asked Montgomery to join the Kentucky coaching staff as a student assistant next season while he finishes his degree, which he’s on track to do next year. The wide receiver has healed enough to travel with the team to Florida for the TaxSlayer Bowl on Dec. 31.

“He’s been through so many injuries and it’s been a tough road for him,” said Stoops, whose family stood with Montgomery at his impromptu Senior Day last month. “I love him.”

Coaches, friends and teammates say there’s a quality about Montgomery that draws people to him. It likely will make him successful at whatever he does, maybe even coaching.

There were cultural and language barriers when Montgomery went on a service trip to Ethiopia in 2015, but UK’s Jason Schlafer couldn’t get over people’s immediate reactions to the wide receiver there.

“Just a calm presence, people want to be around him but they don’t really know why,” said Schlafer, who helps coordinate the trips. “He’s not overly charismatic, not funny all the time, but you still want to sit right next to him.”

Stoops sees it, too. Montgomery has a quality that the head coach saw in someone close to him that he lost, too.

“Alex leads in a very quiet way; that’s what makes people special like that,” the UK coach said. “My father was a lot like that where he made a big impact on people very quietly.”

This next chapter has a lot of unknowns for Montgomery.

But he believes, just as his grandfather did, that everything happens for a reason, that all his scars eventually will heal.

“I believe in God and everything’s in his hands,” Montgomery said. “I’m putting Jesus first, which makes a lot of things easier. It makes me giving up football a lot easier. I know there’s better out there for me.”

TaxSlayer Bowl

Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech

When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 31

Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

TV: ESPN

Records: Kentucky 7-5, Georgia Tech 8-4

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