By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
It was February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach, Florida when a brash young 22-year old named Cassius Clay stepped into the boxing ring to face Sonny Liston, the-then heavyweight champion of the world in a winner-take-all fight for the WBA/WBC heavyweight crown. Liston was known as a brawler, a formidable well-muscled boxer who usually knocked out his opponents in the first round. He was also known as one of the hardest hitting fighters in boxing history. But he wasn’t quick, fast on his feet or known for his movement in the ring. His nickname was “Big Bear.”
His opponent, Cassius Clay, on the other hand was the quintessential boxer. Light on his feet, very quick, hard to hit and very shifty. Clay could slip punches and make his opponents miss with very little effort on his part because of his ability to quickly move out of the way as he saw the punch coming.
Clay, as an 8-1 underdog, won the heavyweight fight that night in Miami by a technical knockout and the victory sent shock waves throughout the entire boxing community. The question everyone was asking was “how could a big bear of a man like Sonny Liston lose to a skinny little fighter like Cassius Clay?”
And here’s the answer. Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, was very, very good at what he did. He was a once in a lifetime type boxing talent. He was quick, a hard hitter and he knew how to use his best weapon – speed — to his advantage. In fact, one of his mottos, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” perfectly describes my number one all-time favorite football player for the University of Kentucky because speed was his weapon but he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
This player, from the Hal Mumme/Guy Morris era, is second in all-time career receptions at UK with 197 and is third in total career reception yardage with 2,339 yards.
But, while he was very good at it, catching passes was not this player’s claim to fame. Kick returning was. He was a three-time First Team All-SEC Player, a two-time College Football All-American, broke or tied 6 NCAA kick return records along with setting 14 Kentucky return records and 11 SEC return records.
Derek Abney, my favorite all-time UK Football Player, was a kick returner. But not just any old kick returner. He was arguably the best kick returner to ever play college football. He still holds the record for all-purpose yardage at UK with 5,856 yards. He returned 8 kicks for touchdowns in his career – 2 kickoffs and 6 punts – and all were against Power Five conference schools. Seven were against SEC schools and one was against the University of Louisville. He also had a game against the Florida Gators where he had a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a 49-yard punt return for a touchdown and a touchdown reception.
And the statistics and awards could go on and on. But suffice it to say that the 5-10, 175 pound former quarterback/wide receiver from Mosinee, Wis., was very, very good at what he did. When I watched Derek Abney return a kick it reminded me exactly of Muhammad Ali’s motto — “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” — because he would catch the ball, take a small loop up the field just waiting for an opening to develop and then, bam, hit the gas and take a straight line right to the end zone. Sometimes he had to slip a tackle or two just like Muhammad Ali was slipping punches, but even with the big boys of the SEC taking shots at Abney, he continued to show that he was a kick returner for the ages.
But, here’s where he differed greatly from Muhammad Ali, Abney had confidence but was not a braggart or showy about his accomplishments. He always credited his teammates for his many kick return accomplishments. He said, “We all thought we could score every single time and so we did”. Confident, but not cocky.
He also believed that his smaller stature and being the underdog was a big benefit for him. It helped him become the great player that he was. Abney said, “My size was my advantage. I don’t think I would have been as good if I had been 6’ and 180 (pounds). I was a little guy so I had to prove to you that it didn’t matter. (I) had this chip on (my) shoulder and it made me who I was.”
And who he was was one of the best overall football players to wear the blue and white. He was the first player in NCAA Football history with 2,000 kickoff return yards, 2,000 receiving yards and 1,000 punt return yards in a career.
But he also had Kentucky roots – his father was from Winchester and his mother came from Frankfort – and he was a teammate’s teammate. When he came to Kentucky after being named the Gatorade High School Player of the Year for the state of Wisconsin he wore number 12 for the Wildcats. He asked for that number because when he was a quarterback in middle school his best receiver and good friend was Ezra Hartinger, who wore that number. On one occasion Abney and Hartinger had had an argument and later that day while riding his bicycle Hartinger was struck by a bus and killed.
Abney said about that fateful day, “We’d gotten mad at each other, and I never had a chance to say goodbye. When I got called up to play as a freshman, they asked what jersey I wanted. I said, ‘No. 12.’ They said, ‘Well, that’s good because that’s the only one available.’” Abney has worn the number ever since in honor of his teammate.
Derek Abney was inducted into the UK Hall of Fame in 2015 and credits his success as a player to believing — believing in yourself and believing in your teammates. He said, “Most important thing for a (player) is to have confidence in yourself. It’s a more important part of the game than people realize.”
And Derek Abney always had confidence in his ability – and who wouldn’t with a a 4.34 forty-yard dash time – but he also always credited his teammates for his accomplishments. I’ll always remember Derek Abney returning that last record breaking punt against Mississippi State and seeing the Mississippi State player trying to stop Abney the last five yards to the end zone when Abney was literally pushed in by teammates Andrew Hopewell and Earvin Flowers. They all ended up in a heap in the end zone but all three UK players were laughing and celebrating the record breaking accomplishment by Abney, as a team, because no kick returner ever returns a ball a single yard without having 10 other players out there blocking and paving the way.
It’s been great to write this series on my five favorite all-time UK Football players because through the process I have had to leave certain players out that I really admired or enjoyed watching play. I had to really take stock of what stood out to me as a fan and supporter of Kentucky Football. And the thing that struck me with each of the players that I selected was first of all they were very, very good at what they did but secondly, they didn’t act like they knew it. They all went about their jobs doing what they did best – whether it was punt the ball, run the ball or throw the ball – with a passion for winning and a smile in their faces.
Derek Abney was no different. Every interaction I saw with him was the same. Very personable to the media and fans, smile on his face and very open and honest with his answers. The same could be said for Glenn Pakulak, Anthony White, Jojo Kemp, Stephen Johnson and now Derek Abney.
So in this final week before the official start of college football, go back and watch some old YouTube clips of these guys play football. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
And for those of you that didn’t get to see these guys play in live action it should be a real treat to see talented and determined players that stepped up and accepted the challenge of trying to bring winning football to a school like UK that had a long history of being a perennial loser – and do it with class and style at a very high level.
So thanks for reading the series and here’s to hoping that some guys on this year’s 2019 team will step up and become one of my all time favorites like these guys did. I’ve got an idea that a few of them just might.