UK Football

Reaching out to a dying fan, Kentucky Wildcats kicker may have been handed destiny

The two game-winning field goals Austin MacGinnis hit for the Kentucky Wildcats in 2016 were not the most inspirational moment produced by the UK place-kicker this year. What MacGinnis tried to do for Leon Cissell - a fervernt Kentucky football backer who was dying from cancer - “meant everything to Leon.”
The two game-winning field goals Austin MacGinnis hit for the Kentucky Wildcats in 2016 were not the most inspirational moment produced by the UK place-kicker this year. What MacGinnis tried to do for Leon Cissell - a fervernt Kentucky football backer who was dying from cancer - “meant everything to Leon.” mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Austin MacGinnis stood at the front door and knocked. And knocked. And knocked.

The University of Kentucky place-kicker’s father, Kevin, had noticed on a UK football-themed internet message board a street address that had been posted so people could send get-well cards to a cancer-stricken Cats fan named Leon Cissell.

Kevin MacGinnis had a different idea. “My Dad was like ‘I bet it would mean a lot to him if you’d go visit,’” Austin MacGinnis said.

So after his final class on April 12th, the UK kicker got in his car and drove from Lexington to rural Jessamine County.

Now, MacGinnis was standing at the front door of a stranger’s house, knocking away.

When no one answered, MacGinnis got out his cell phone and called his parents.

“What should I do?” he asked.

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Like many UK football diehards, Jason Cissell followed a Twitter account whose address was “Kentucky Football @AndyPopCat.”

“I was following it because it had great Kentucky football info, especially recruiting,” Jason Cissell says.

If there were a high school prospect in, oh, Bozeman, Mont., who mentioned UK in a recruiting story, chances were @AndyPopCat would be the first to tweet a link. On the day of Kentucky’s 2015 Football Media Day, the account retweeted 68 stories/videos about the Wildcats.

A U.S. postal carrier in Jessamine County, Jason Cissell followed @AndyPopCat for months before he found out it was his older brother, Leon Cissell.

“After he told me, it made perfect sense,” Jason Cissell says. “Leon liked getting on the internet to (do) research. He always had his laptop with him. And Leon lived for Kentucky football. It was his passion.”

When @AndyPopCat wasn’t on Twitter, chances were good he was posting on the CatsIllustrated.com premium message board under the same name.

“In the message-board world, ‘AndyPopCat’ was a giant,” says Freddie Maggard, the ex-UK starting quarterback turned local college football media commentator, who befriended Leon Cissell.

The man behind “AndyPopCat” grew up in Loretto in Marion County before coming to Lexington in the early 1990s to work for a cousin’s construction company.

After that job ended “he just kind of did his own thing,” Jason Cissell says. “He’d go job-to-job. If he didn’t like it, he just quit. He just lived the life he wanted. He didn’t have (a) wife or kids. I guess you’d say Leon was a free spirit.”

Neither Jason Cissell nor older sister Paula Mlinar know how their brother chose the pseudonym “AndyPopCat.” Mike Tiller, a close friend of Leon’s, says “He just thought it sounded cooler than ‘Leon Cissell.’”

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The sore underneath the back of his tongue causing him pain, Leon Cissell believed, was being caused by a jagged tooth.

Friends convinced him to go to the UK Dental School in the spring of 2015 to get the problem tooth pulled.

“They took one look at it and said ‘This looks like cancer to me,’” says Tiller.

In May, 2015, that unwelcome diagnosis was confirmed. On June 5, surgery was performed.

“When they went in, they told him ‘We are probably going to have to remove half of your tongue,’” Jason Cissell says. “I think they took three-fourths (of the tongue). Worst part, it had already spread to his lymph nodes. ... When he came out of surgery, the doctors told us his chances were very, very slim.”

Jason Cissell says his brother considered not putting himself through the ordeal of chemotherapy.

“But you have to try,” Jason Cissell said. “He tried to fight.”

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By the time Austin MacGinnis was knocking at the door April 12th, Leon Cissell was staying with his brother’s family.

Other UK football players had reached out to Leon. Tight end Greg Hart messaged Leon, told him linebacker Courtney Love was encouraging Wildcats players to contact him.

As MacGinnis banged on the door, Leon was in the basement with his parents, Rose and Leon Cissell Sr. “I don’t know if they couldn’t hear, or if he just felt so bad, he couldn’t answer,” Jason Cissell says.

Via the cellphone, MacGinnis’ parents suggested he leave a note.

Taking a page from his school pad, he wrote: “My name is Austin MacGinnis and I play football for the University of Kentucky. My family and I heard about your rough going and want to help in any way possible ...”

The UK kicker invited Leon to the Blue-White spring football game four days later, and left his cell number. MacGinnis then left. He says he never knew whether the note had even been received.

By this time, Leon Cissell knew his cancer was headed toward an inevitable outcome. For a guy who had put so much of his life’s passion into Kentucky football, can you imagine what it meant that a UK football player had made a special trip to see him?

When Jason Cissell got home from work, he found his brother animated. “I went to the basement and Leon said ‘You’ll never guess what happened? Austin MacGinnis came all the way out here and left a note,’” he said.

Adds Tiller: “What Austin MacGinnis did for Leon meant more to him than anyone can know.”

The day after getting the note, Leon moved back to his parents’ home in Marion County. He soon passed into a coma. On May 15, Leon Cissell died at age 42.

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There are instances in sports when you wonder if there are larger karmic forces in control of a game’s outcome. For Leon Cissell’s family and friends, the finish to Kentucky’s stunning 41-38 upset of No. 11 Louisville in the 2016 regular-season finale will always be one of those.

With U of L marching toward the game-winning score, soon-to-be Heisman Trophy-winner Lamar Jackson fumbled the ball — without being hit — where UK’s Love could fall on it.

That allowed the UK offense to put MacGinnis in position to boom the 47-yard field goal that produced the victory.

Whether coincidence or destiny’s handiwork, it was the guys who reached out to “AndyPopCat” who became the heroes at the end of UK’s biggest football win in eons.

“My brother,” Jason Cissell says, “would have loved that.”

TaxSlayer Bowl

Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

TV: ESPN

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

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