Mark Story

Robbie on the spot

Here's the thing about the game-saving play that made former walk-on Robbie McAtee a Kentucky Wildcats folk hero Saturday night.

McAtee was NOT where he was supposed to be.

When Middle Tennessee State quarterback Joe Craddock heaved his desperation pass toward the Kentucky end zone with his team behind 20-14, McAtee says his job was to be in front of those vying for the long pass.

"We had seven defensive backs in the game. I was supposed to be in front of the pack and our safeties were supposed to be behind it," McAtee said Monday. "For some reason, I just sort of drifted back."

UK football followers everywhere are eternally thankful that he did.

When Craddock's pass skipped off of (or was batted forward by) a Middle Tennessee receiver near the Cats' 15, it landed in the hands of MTSU wideout Eldred King. Stunningly, King was well behind every single Kentucky defender.

Except for one.

Just as the phrase Bluegrass Miracle II was taking shape in minds throughout Commonwealth Stadium, McAtee got King by the foot from behind, would not let go and wrestled him to the ground. They were 1 yard short of the Kentucky end zone.

"The ball got tapped to No. 83 (King), and I just sort of reacted," McAtee said. "I didn't realize how close we were to the goal line until I got up (after the tackle). I was like, 'Man, that was too close.' "

The fact that Kentucky had McAtee, a senior from Louisville, on hand to save the day Saturday can be credited to Keenan Burton.

A Marine Corps kid whose family lived in San Diego, Japan and North Carolina before settling in Kentucky, McAtee played high school football at Seneca High with current UK offensive tackle Garry Williams.

McAtee says he wanted to come to Kentucky out of high school, "but my grades weren't what they should have been."

He spent the 2004 season playing receiver for Franklin College, an NCAA Division III school in Indiana. After one year, McAtee transferred to Kentucky — but his only football was of the intramural flag variety.

"I knew Keenan through a couple of friends we had together," McAtee says of the former Kentucky standout receiver. "I'd sent UK a tape of me, but I never heard anything back. I talked to Keenan and he said he'd say something" to the coaches.

A couple of weeks later, McAtee says he got a call from the Kentucky football office directing him to report to the school's compliance office to fill out the paperwork needed to get eligible.

McAtee spent the 2006 season as a wide receiver on the Kentucky scout team. In the spring of 2007, looking at a depth chart that included Burton, Steve Johnson and Dicky Lyons Jr., McAtee agreed to move to defensive back.

He played in only six games, but ended the 2007 season showing a propensity for keeping his head in late-game pressure situations.

With Kentucky clinging to a 35-28 lead over Florida State inside the final minute of last season's Music City Bowl, UK linebacker Micah Johnson intercepted a pass.

Had Johnson merely fallen down, Kentucky would have had victory clinched. Instead, he tried to return the pick and fumbled the ball back to FSU (which did not ultimately score).

Watch the tape of Johnson's interception, and you will clearly see one Kentucky defender chasing his teammate motioning for him to get down.


"I was running behind him," McAtee said, "but he was caught up in the moment and couldn't hear me."

This past spring, McAtee says Rich Brooks put him on scholarship for his final year at Kentucky. "That makes things a lot easier," McAtee said.

Through three games of 2008, the slight 5-foot-10, 175-pounder has been a regular in Kentucky's nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) packages that play when the foe is likely to pass.

Going into the Middle Tennessee matchup, McAtee was among four UK players tied for the team lead in tackles with six. But last Saturday's contest was easily the most eventful of his Wildcats' career.

In the first quarter, he fell on an MTSU fumble at the Blue Raiders' 10 to set up Kentucky's first touchdown.

During the third period, McAtee was covering Middle's Malcolm Beyah on a slant pattern. McAtee fell down. Beyah went 22 yards to give Middle a 14-10 lead.

In the McAtee account, that last-second shoestring tackle should have more than canceled that one out.

Since late Saturday night, McAtee says the phone calls and text messages have rolled in. Two of the latter came from Burton (now with the St. Louis Rams) and Steve Johnson (now with the Buffalo Bills).

"They just said 'Great tackle. We're proud of you,' " McAtee reports of his former teammates..

On Sunday, at the UK football complex, a one-time walk-on transfer from Division III drew notice from his head coach.

"He said 'good play,' " McAtee says of Brooks. "But he also wanted to know what happened on that touchdown pass. It's always give and take with Coach Brooks."

In the moments after McAtee had hauled King down to preserve Kentucky's 16th win in its past 22 games, Brooks was a tad more effusive.

"Thank God," he said. "that Robbie McAtee got that guy to the ground."

Sometimes, all you need is the right man in the wrong place at exactly the right time.