John Clay

Why play football? Kentucky players explain their love for the game.

For my money, this is the best time of the year.

Football is back.

The games aren’t back yet, not the real ones, but those will come soon enough. Practices are beginning. Pads will pop. Spirals will pierce the air. Position battles will commence. Depth charts will emerge. Coach-speak will spread throughout our great land. And we will all be the better for it.

UK Football held its Media Day on Friday at Kroger Field. It’s an annual grip-and-grin affair with photos and optimism, though this particular renewal was a bit different considering the Wildcats are coming off their best season in 40 years. Alas, there were questions about graduation losses, about an expected regression in the win total. Those weren’t my questions, however. My questions dealt with the heart of the matter.

What’s great about football?

Some believe the sport is under attack. Participation numbers have dropped. Safety concerns have grown. Concussions. Brain injuries. CTE. These days you might feel like you have to apologize for getting excited when football season rolls around again. That wasn’t the case Friday. Not at Kroger Field.

“From a brotherhood standpoint,” began Kash Daniel, the senior linebacker and team leader from Paintsville, “I don’t think there’s any other sport out there to teach you how to become a team more than football.

“You’re taking 105 guys from totally different backgrounds and you morph them into becoming brothers, putting differences aside and reaching one common goal,” said the linebacker. “To become friends from across the nation that you can call brothers for life, to know their family — their brothers and sisters know your brothers and sisters — it’s just a team sport that solidifies brotherhood.”

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Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis (44) carried a teammate during Media Day activities at Kroger Field on Friday. Silas Walker aslitz@herald-leader.com

“I love being around my brothers every day,” said quarterback Terry Wilson. “I feel like that’s the biggest thing, having that bond with everybody.”

(Not that Wilson wouldn’t mind playing baseball, mind you. “They’re getting all those crazy checks,” he said, referring to that Bryce Harper/Mike Trout money.)

Landon Young, the 6-foot-7, 324-pound offensive tackle from Lexington who missed last season with a torn ACL, well, he had a different view.

“That controlled aggression,” said Young when asked why he loves football. “This is a completely legal place to knock the crap out of somebody.”

So why do the numbers say fewer kids are signing up to knock the you know what out of somebody in high school? According to Forbes, University of Washington School of Medicine researchers released a survey of 1,025 parents nationwide finding that 61 percent supported bans on youth tackle football for children younger than 12.

“I think some kids are just getting softer these days,” Young said. “That’s just in complete honesty, because back in my dad’s day you never heard any of this. They’ve put in so many rules and regulations, you’re losing the game of football.”

“It’s a hard game; people are getting hit,” said Justin Rigg, a junior tight end expected to take C.J. Conrad’s spot. “I think every day people are researching, doing stuff to make things better. I do understand why some people say they don’t want their kids doing it, but it’s a great sport.”

Why is it a great sport?

“I love hitting. I love catching the ball. I love scoring. I love everything about it,” said Rigg, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 263 pounds. “And then when you play in a great stadium like this, it’s just the best feeling you can get.”

“I understand the parent deal because my mom she was kind of iffy about me playing football when I was little,” said Wilson. “But when I get dinged up, it’s just normal. That’s just the nature of football.”

And the nature of the sport is why so many still love it, and still believe this is the best time of the year.

“With the declining numbers, I think it is actually sort of centering on people who do actually want to sign up for this,” Young said. “The ones that really want to play, the ones who have the love of the sport.”

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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