By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
It’s seems like it’s always a difficult process to begin writing any new series of articles. Finding a starting point for this series of articles discussing favorite Kentucky Football players has been the same way.
But in looking for help I found an excellent quote spoken by the King of Hearts in the classic novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by noted author Lewis Carroll. In the book, the King is speaking to the White Rabbit about where to start reading a letter and the King says, “Begin at the beginning, then go on until you come to the end:then stop.”
That’s good advice and I think I will take it. So to begin at the the beginning let’s talk about a summary of my own personal criteria for choosing my favorite five UK Football players. I favor the underdog. I love to see players that have a backstory. You know what I mean — they have had difficulties and have had to work hard and stick with it for long periods of time to overcome hardships to reach the end of their football journey. They also have to be competitors. A friend of mine used to call them “root hog or die” competitors. I’m not sure what that means exactly but I like the sound of it. It’s sounds very competitive.
Of course I picked guys that helped carry the team when the chips were down, which seemed to be pretty often for some of the UK teams that I will mention. I also look for players that try to make a personal connection with the fans — both on and off the field — through their play but also through their interactions before and after games and out in the public. You know what I mean, players that are approachable.
Those are the basics for choosing my favorite players. I realize that your criteria might be completely different than mine and that’s okay because as William Cowper once said in one of his poems, “variety is the very spice of life.”
So now that the beginning is out of the way, in deference to the King of Hearts, let’s move on towards the end.
For my fifth most favorite football player I chose a guy that probably is not going to show up on most people’s radar but he was a very accomplished, critical part of the team in the early 2000’s.
This player was a standout athlete at Lapeer East High School in Lapeer, Mich. He played three sports — football, basketball and baseball — and won at least All-Regional recognition in all three sports. He actually started his college athletic career playing baseball and basketball for Rochester College — a small, private NAIA Christian college in Rochester Hills, Mich. After spending a couple of years at the college he decided to walk-on to the football team at the University of Kentucky. He redshirted as a freshman and said this about his initial time at UK, “I was lost those first couple of years at Kentucky, wondering what I was doing down there at times.”
But after his redshirt year in 1999 he was allowed to punt in the last three games of his sophomore year. By now some of you may have guessed I am talking about Glenn Pakulak. For others you might still be saying, “Who?”
Glenn Pakulak was one of the best punters ever produced by Kentucky. In fact, after that auspicious start to his sophomore season where he only punted 12 times, he was selected to the All-American team for his junior and senior seasons — third team in his junior year and first team in his senior year. He also won the Mosi Tatupu award as the best special teams player in the nation for 2002.
Not only was Glenn Pakulak a great punter — he is UK’s best over a four year career at 44.4 yards per punt — but he could also perform as a tackling specialist on special teams. Many times during his career he would be the player making the tackle on the opposing team’s return man. At 6-3 and 220 pounds he could hit hard. Did I also mention that he could bench press 400 pounds?
Needless to say Pakulak was not your typical college punter. He was a guy that worked through adversity as a walk-on to get an opportunity to punt for UK, made the most of it and used that opportunity to become one of the top three punters in the country his senior year.
But you remember in the beginning I mentioned that my favorite players had to work hard and stick with it. Well, this is where the “stick with it” comes into play.
Pakulak, after winning the Special Teams Player of the Year award and finishing as one of the top three punters selected for the Ray Guy Award along with being named a First Team All-American, didn’t hear his name called in the NFL Draft. Out of 262 players over seven rounds he heard nothing. From All-American to undrafted. He had to go into training camp with the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent. The NFL’s equivalent of a walk-on.
From that humble beginning he ended up spending parts of eight seasons with 10 NFL teams including a stint with the Amsterdam Admirals in NFL Europe. He played in 10 games and punted 37 times. By the way, out of 137 career punts Pakulak never had a kick blocked — in college or the NFL. That is remarkable.
So all of that history — from being a walk-on at UK to becoming an All-American to being an undrafted free agent to playing for 10 teams in the NFL — points to someone who is willing to pay the price and stick with his dream. Even when it’s hard. Even when it hurts. Even when it looks like it will never happen. Even when nine other teams have previously cut him from their roster, he hung in there. “Root hog or die”. A true competitor.
But that’s not the final say on Glenn Pakulak as my fifth favorite UK Football Player – this is. You might remember that one of my criteria for being selected for the Top Five list is making a connection with the fans. Well here’s Glenn’s connection.
In 2002 when Glenn Pakulak was a First Team All-American my two sons were 11 and nine years old. Like most Kentucky kids at 11 and nine they were huge Kentucky fans. As part of the end of season celebration — there was no bowl game that year due to NCAA probation even though that Guy Morris-led team won seven games — the seniors had a meet and greet with the fans at Kennedy’s Bookstore. Fans could buy a t-shirt with all the players numbers on a jersey on the T-Shirt, meet a few of the players and get an autograph.
Of course my sons wanted to go and I wanted to take them. At Kennedy’s Bookstore not only did Glenn Pakulak sign the jersey and spend time talking to my sons but he also pulled out a football and proceeded to play catch with both of them in the aisleway of the store for a good five or 10 minutes. Making that connection even when you don’t have to makes for a special player.
Those are the memories that stick with fans forever — both father and sons. Those are the moments that a player can provide to a fan — unbeknownst to the player — that can last a lifetime for the fan. Every fan. That’s why it is so important for players to be approachable, even if it’s inconvenient, even if it costs them some extra time because somewhere down the road that player’s time playing the game runs out but the love and admiration that is created with the fans does not. At least not in Kentucky.