UK Football

Once abandoned himself, Kentucky linebacker never leaves a teammate behind

Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Courtney Love (51) during University of Kentucky football practice at the new UK Football Training Center off Alumni Dr. in Lexington, Ky., Monday, August 22, 2016.
Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Courtney Love (51) during University of Kentucky football practice at the new UK Football Training Center off Alumni Dr. in Lexington, Ky., Monday, August 22, 2016. cbertram@herald-leader.com

He stood on the sidewalk outside of a Burger King.

His quivering hands matched only by his quivering lips, the 11-year-old boy held a cup with a few coins in it. He quietly asked for spare change as people went in and out the glass door.

A car across the parking lot idled nearby with his father inside.

Cory Love adored his son, but he had to teach him a lesson.

“You might as well start practicing now,” the former U.S. Marine had just finished telling Courtney, his son.

“He cried and cried. I said, ‘Nope. You start practicing right now.’ If you’re going to be a beggar and not do your school work, this is what you’ve got to look forward to when you get older.”

Courtney Love had gotten in trouble at school for mouthing off to the bus driver. His grades had been plummeting.

The younger Love remembers that lecture well: “He told me, ‘You want to get grades like a bum? You want to act like a bum? Then go be a bum.’”

It’s a whopper of a tale, but it’s one that both father and son are comfortable sharing now.

“It was tough, but in the long run I thank him and thank God he was in my life and did that for me,” Courtney Love said. “He was the one that raised me and put me in this position I am today.”

People see Courtney Love and see Kentucky’s 6-foot-2, 242-pound broad-shouldered and even broader-smiled middle linebacker.

To a man, coaches and teammates call him a charismatic, selfless, encouraging leader of the defense.

Faye Madison sees all of that, too.

But she also still sees the little boy.

“I don’t want anyone to think he’s had an easy life,” said Madison, part of the vast village that helped raise Love. “He hasn’t, far from it.

“Maybe people think it’s been easy because he’s always been a football star, but not at all. He was abandoned. He had to find his own way in so many ways.”

‘Stepping stones in life’

When Courtney Love was 8 years old, he ran away from home. He always had a complicated, difficult relationship with his mother and had hit his breaking point.

So one night, he jumped out a window and walked to a relative’s house and called his dad to come and pick him up.

“That’s pretty much the last time I was there,” Love said of his nearly nonexistent relationship with his mother.

The linebacker doesn’t expound much about what led up to his split with her, just saying: “She just didn’t have things going right with her. She was young.”

So he moved in full-time with his dad, a strict disciplinarian who had a lot of rules. Growing up without a father himself, Cory Love wanted to make sure Courtney never felt that pain.

“That’s not a good feeling for me, and I didn’t want to put that on no kid of mine,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for any kid feeling like that.”

A few months ago, Courtney saw his mother at his sister’s graduation. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but he’s been going to counseling and working with UK’s team chaplain to find his way to forgiveness.

“I don’t think it could ever get to a point where we’re bosom buddies and things like that,” he said of his relationship with his mother. “I just feel like she missed so much of my life.

“She’s my mom, but my great grandmother, my grandmother and Faye, those are my real mothers. Those are the people who nourished me and kept me warm.”

Courtney especially had to lean on those special women in his life, his grandmother, Sandra Penny, and his great-grandmother, Rose Allen, who passed away within 10 months of each other last year when he was sitting out at UK after transferring from Nebraska.

It was Madison, Penny and Allen that had to pick up where his dad left off when Cory Love went to prison for two years on drug conspiracy and trafficking charges for events that transpired in the 1990s.

“When his dad went away it was hard, it was a struggle,” said Madison, who was in a relationship with Cory for a time. Her children from previous relationships and his form a group of eight brothers and sisters for Courtney.

“Blood couldn’t make us any closer,” Courtney says of his siblings, four younger, four older. “They’re awesome. … We’ve been through so much together.”

When Cory was in prison for those two years, Madison worked multiple jobs. She wanted to keep Courtney at the private school where he was thriving, so she made an arrangement with the principal to pay tuition each year with her tax refund checks.

It was during that time when Cory was in prison that Courtney really had to become a man.

“Courtney was mischievous, but once his dad went away, I think that changed,” Madison said. “He didn’t act out. He was hurt, granted, but he took that role as the man.”

Courtney was the only boy in the house full of sisters, and Madison was working midnight shifts to make ends meet for the family. “We were home alone a lot,” he said. “We just had to grow up and do our own thing and really mature.”

There’s no choice but to grow up when something like that happens and you’re a young kid, explained UK senior safety Marcus McWilson, Love’s cousin.

“His dad and my dad were incarcerated together at that time” and involved in the same incident, McWilson said. “Definitely caused him to grow up a little bit more, me to grow up a little bit more on both our parts because we didn’t have a father figure that was there all the time. There are stepping stones in life.”

Second chances

When Cory Love got out of prison, he made the most of his second chance and started offering them to others.

He’s now the successful owner of an industrial cleaning business in Youngstown, Ohio, that services General Motors, Ford and other factories. He hires guys freshly out of prison.

“He’s a big deal,” Courtney bragged on his dad. “His story is nuts, the way he went from where he was at and starting out to where he is now as he’s a successful business owner.”

Cory Love didn’t stop being hard on his son. There were still lots of rules in the house, but the one that has stuck most with Courtney wasn’t even that hard to follow.

If his son wanted to have a group of friends over, he wasn’t allowed to just invite his football player friends.

If that happened, “then I’ll be shutting the party down,” Cory Love told his son. “If the band members aren’t there and regular kids that don’t play sports, then there is no party.”

Treat all people the same. Find a way to relate to all people was the message.

It’s something the woman he calls his second mother saw his senior year at Cardinal Mooney. Even as Love was receiving accolade after accolade and multiple scholarship offers, she said he was often seen helping freshman teammates cut tape off their feet after games.

He’d carry equipment, do whatever was asked.

“There’s nobody that’s going to be left behind when we’re on the same team,” Courtney said when asked about it. “I don’t want anyone to think, ‘He’s some big jock, so he’s too good. I want to treat everyone on every team the same.’”

It’s that mentality, that ability to relate, that discipline he had that has made Love a natural leader for Kentucky’s defense.

“He’s a different kind of kid,” fellow transfer linebacker De’Niro Laster said of Love. “Just a natural leader and he cares more about others than they care about themselves.

“At first it was hard for some of our teammates to understand when Courtney would get on them and everything, but Courtney just wants to win and he cares about other people a lot more than he cares about himself.”

Redshirt freshman linebacker Eli Brown said to listen closely at practice.

“You can hear Courtney yelling, ‘Let’s run. Let’s run,’” Brown said. “That pushes everybody. I love that we have a leader like that. Growing up, I never had a leader like that who pushed me.”

Courtney Love did. It was his dad and his now-departed grandmothers.

And his Faye, whom he has daily races with to see who can text the other “good morning” the fastest.

Even on the phone, the smile in her voice is clear as she recounts watching him grow up.

“I know what he’s went through,” she said. “I know what he’s endured. … He’s always been special and now hopefully everyone else will get to see it.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Kentucky’s linebackers

The main man: Kentucky lost five of its top six tacklers from last season, which included all three inside linebackers, so there’s a lot of production and situational knowledge to be replaced, but coaches seem pleased with the leadership and play they’re getting from junior Nebraska transfer Courtney Love. He’s become a key vocal leader on a group with a lot of untested, but athletic players.

The supporting cast: On the inside, Love will be backed up in part by true freshman Kash Daniel and fellow transfer De’Niro Laster, who also will see time at outside linebacker depending on scheme and personnel. At weakside linebacker, coaches have seen redshirt freshman Eli Brown make a big move as well as high-motored Jordan Jones (10 tackles last season). Much of Kentucky’s pass rush is likely to come from outside linebackers like Denzil Ware (39 tackles, 5.5 for loss) as well as sophomores Josh Allen and Kobie Walker. Expect to see Jordan Bonner, who arrived to campus just before camp, become a difference-maker as the season goes on.

Outlook: So much of Kentucky’s front seven is a question mark, but coaches think they have the athleticism, speed and talent there to become a more stout defense than previous ones. So much of it rides on players who haven’t played much, though. There are questions about depth both inside and outside, but there are options and loads of versatility. Confusing opposing offenses might be the linebackers’ best threat, especially as they get their feet wet.

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