UK Football

The tree planted at Commonwealth Stadium to help a grieving family heal

After his son, Steven Dearborn, an enthusiastic Kentucky football tailgater, died at age 40 last spring from head injuries suffered in a fall in his home, Gary Dearborn contacted UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart to see if a tree honoring Steven could be planted near where he had tailgated in Commonwealth Stadium’s Orange Lot. Three days later, a UK official contacted Gary Dearborn to say yes.
After his son, Steven Dearborn, an enthusiastic Kentucky football tailgater, died at age 40 last spring from head injuries suffered in a fall in his home, Gary Dearborn contacted UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart to see if a tree honoring Steven could be planted near where he had tailgated in Commonwealth Stadium’s Orange Lot. Three days later, a UK official contacted Gary Dearborn to say yes. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Even when the Kentucky Wildcats football game kicked off at 7:30 p.m., Steven Dearborn would set up his tailgate at Commonwealth Stadium by 8 a.m.

“We’d beat the parking attendants a lot of the time,” says Beverly Dearborn of tailgating with her husband.

Part of the early arrival was due to the magnitude of Steven’s setup: Four tents, an electric generator, a satellite dish, TVs, tables, chairs, and, of course, a grill.

The bigger part of the early arrival was that, of the thousands of UK football fans who tailgate, none may have relished the experience more than Steven Dearborn.

“It seemed like he knew everybody in the (Commonwealth Stadium) parking lot,” ” says John Lee, a boyhood friend. “I’d go to his tailgate and he’d be introducing me to ‘He’s the coach at so-and-so’ or ‘I know them from so-and-so.’”

Once things were set up, you’d usually find Steven working the grill, decked out in a blue UK shirt and a Mississippi Rebels visor.

As Western Hills High School juniors, Steven and Lee had gone to Ole Miss on a campus visit. “I think we both saw the image of what we thought a southern, state university should be,” Lee says. “We knew we’d found the place for us.”

For the rest of Steven’s life, that created a quandary when his childhood favorite team, UK, played his college alma mater. “He’d apologize to everyone,” Beverly Dearborn says, “and root for Ole Miss.”

At the tailgate, once the burgers, hot dogs and/or chicken were grilled — “We tried to keep the food simple,” Beverly says — then chances were you’d find Steven in a chair, TV remote in hand and contentment on his face.

“The last three years, I think Steven may have actually gone into Commonwealth for one game,” his father, Gary Dearborn , says. “And that was not an indication of his interest (in UK football). He was interested. He just loved the whole tailgating experience so much, he’d keep it going.”

Understanding Steven’s love for Saturdays spent at Commonwealth Stadium, you can imagine, as the 2016 UK football season approached, how jarring it was for the Dearborn family to think they’d be tailgating without him.

Sometime in the night/early morning hours of April 29/April 30, Steven — who worked for the Kentucky state government in its Office of Technology — got up to use the bathroom.

No one knows why, but he fell.

In falling, he hit his head.

“He had a massive blood clot on his brain,” Gary Dearborn says. “UK (Hospital) operated that Saturday morning (April 30). He lived through the week. Then he passed.”

Steven Dearborn was 40 years old.

As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, what follows a death is a trying series of “firsts.” First birthday of the deceased. First Thanksgiving. First Christmas.

For the Dearborns, the thought of their first UK football season without Steven was wrenching.

Gary Dearborn, a former high school football coach at Franklin County and school administrator at Harrison County and Pendleton County, came up with an idea he thought could help.

He emailed UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart — who he did not know — to ask if his family could plant a tree in memory of Steven in the Orange Lot where they now tailgate.

“I just thought it would help us dealing with the loss,” Gary Dearborn said.

The family wasn’t sure it would even get a reply. “UK is such a big machine,” says Beverly Dearborn. “When Gary told me what he’d done, I was afraid he would be disappointed.”

UK senior associate AD Kevin Saal replied to the email two days later with a yes.

“I was flabbergasted,” Gary Dearborn says. “Sometimes, the public has a perception that the (UK) athletics department is all about money. Our family can testify otherwise.”

It takes a while for UK’s bureaucratic wheels to turn, but the Wednesday before Kentucky’s 2016 home football finale with Austin Peay, university personnel planted a tulip poplar near the E.S. Good Barn building in memory of Steven Dearborn.

On the day UK played Austin Peay, the Dearborn family held its own ceremony at the tree. Gary was too emotional to speak, so Steven’s older brother, Kenny, stepped in.

The family spread some of Steven’s ashes, then dropped a small commemorative plaque to mark “Steven’s tree.”

Nothing is permanent on a university campus, of course. Yet in the coming years, as long as the wind whistles through the leaves of a certain tulip poplar on football Saturdays, “we will feel like Steven is still there tailgating with us,” Gary Dearborn says.

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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