By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Every now and then you run across a person who is a game changer. A program changer. Someone who is a leader of men and believes that they can accomplish what others cannot or will not do. Those type people are rare. Author Chuck Swindoll refers to them as people with “yes” faces — “yes I can” or “yes I will” — people that believe in themselves and believe in what they are doing.
Here’s a brief excerpt from an article where Chuck Swindoll tells a story about how important a “yes” face is. Swindoll writes, “During his days as president, Thomas Jefferson and a group of companions were traveling across the country on horseback. They came to a river which had left its banks because of a recent downpour. The swollen river had washed the bridge away. Each rider was forced to ford the river on horseback, fighting for his life against the rapid currents. The very real possibility of death threatened each rider, which caused a traveler who was not part of their group to step aside and watch.
“After several had plunged in and made it to the other side, the stranger asked President Jefferson if he would ferry him across the river. The president agreed without hesitation. The man climbed on, and shortly thereafter the two of them made it safely to the other side. As the stranger slid off the back of the saddle onto dry ground, one in the group asked him, ‘Tell me, why did you select the president to ask this favor of?’ The man was shocked, admitting he had no idea it was the president who had helped him. ‘All I know,’ he said, ‘is that on some of your faces was written the answer No, and on some of them was the answer Yes. His was a ‘Yes’ face.””
Now, why is that important? Because my third favorite player had one of the most memorable “yes” faces of any player to ever wear the blue and white for UK. This guy was a game changer. A program changer. And not by statistics or awards won but by his attitude, his work ethic and his willingness to sacrifice everything to win. His was the face in the game that when others looked like, “maybe we can’t do this”, his face said, “yes we can and yes we will.” Those type people are program changers. This guy was one of them.
It was Oct. 4, 2014 and UK was 3-1 after the week before suffering a devastating three overtime loss to the Florida Gators in The Swamp. They were now playing in Columbia, S.C. Kentucky, coming off an initial 2-10 season in 2013 with Mark Stoops at the helm, could have folded up after that Florida loss and disappeared like some Kentucky teams of the past. But here’s where the “yes” face comes into play.
That day, led by an improbable hero in sophomore running back Jojo Kemp, UK fell behind twice by 14 points but each time fought back to tie the score. How did they do it? By using Kemp’s “yes” face to run the Wildcat formation and beat the Gamecocks in a physical test of wills.
Kemp was the man. He ran the ball 17 times for 131 yards and three touchdowns, mostly out of the Wildcat formation, and led Kentucky to the victory.
Why is that game so important? Because it was a program changer. It was an example of a player, as a leader, gritting his teeth and saying, “yes we can”. And they did. Kemp, at the point of physical exhaustion, ran all over the Gamecocks. Bud Dupree had a “pick six” late in the game and Kentucky pulled off the improbable upset, 45-38.
That season Kentucky went on to build a 5-1 record and then lost six games in a row to finish at 5-7. No winning season. No bowl game. At that point most fans jumped off the bandwagon and wrote Stoops and the Wildcats off as eternal losers.
But not Kemp and his Wildcat teammates. Remember his “yes” face. In an interview after that big win in 2014 against South Carolina Kemp said, “I came here to change the program around and that’s what we are doing. We are changing the game. Why not Kentucky? Why not us?”
Kemp was a man of his word. UK went on to finish 5-7 in the 2015 season with a similar six out of seven game losing streak to finish the season. Once again no winning season, no bowl game. Others might have quit. Others might have given in to all the “no” faces that surrounded the program. But not Kemp.
His senior year Kemp went on to play on Kentucky’s first bowl team since 2010. That team finished 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the SEC for a second place finish in the SEC Eastern Division and earned a slot in the Taxslayer Bowl.
Kemp finished his career 13th on the UK career rushing list with 1,709 yards and 19 touchdowns. His 5.1 average yards per carry ranks him sixth behind an elite group of five other running backs; Benny Snell, Boom Williams, Moe Williams, Rafael Little and Mark Higgs.
But more than the career yards or average yards per carry Kemp will always be remembered as a guy that swung the momentum in Kentucky’s favor on an October night in South Carolina when his Cats weren’t the favorite. In fact, metaphorically speaking, that river that Kemp was trying to cross that night was much more difficult than anyone imagined because at that point in Kentucky’s football history, the Cats hadn’t won an SEC game in 17 tries spanning a two plus year time period and had lost to South Carolina 13 out of the last 14 tries.
At that point, Kentucky was the doormat of the SEC and adding one more strike against the Wildcats on that October night was the fact that Steve Spurrier was coaching the Gamecocks. The Head Ball Coach. The one that had an 18-0 record against Kentucky Football. Never lost a game. At least not until that night.
But none of that mattered to Jojo Kemp. He was a winner. He was a guy that did all the right things to win. Prepared right, took care of the details and gave one hundred percent effort on and off the field. This is what UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran had to say about Jojo, “I like his toughness, he’s a perfectionist. He really wants to do everything right. So you have a chance. You know you’re gonna get everything from him.”
And on that night in October, with the fate of the football program hanging in the balance, Kemp took the ball over and over again and carried it, and the UK program, over the goal line to a victory that still resonates with Kentucky fans today. And even though the wins for Kentucky weren’t immediate after that victory more players began to believe and had their own “yes” faces during the games and when the chips were down they believed and made their own winning plays to prove it.
So when a special player comes along, one that isn’t highly rated or considered a future “can’t miss” NFL prospect, and helps to turn around a program that has perennially been a loser for many decades, one has to recognize the significance of that individual.
Even today, after that win in South Carolina, I can still in my mind see the smile on Kemp’s face, I can see Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops giving Kemp a big bear hug as he came off the field and I can still hear Kemp saying to the interviewer after the game, “Why not Kentucky? Why not us?”.
And that’s why Jojo Kemp is my third favorite player of all-time at the University of Kentucky because after all, what could be more important to a team than having a guy that believes and says to the whole world, “Why not Kentucky? Why not us?”.