It’s been eleven years and I still haven’t forgotten the date.
May 24th, 2005.
It’s the day I had my fifth grade graduation ceremony at Dixie Elementary School. I remember packing my things into my backpack as my teacher let me know I was allowed to head to the office. My mom was there to pick me and my sister up early from school, just like most kids on the last day of classes.
“Bye! See ya next year!”
“Have a good summer!”
All of the farewells and sendoffs you typically hear from your friends and teachers when you’re headed off into the summer, the last time you’d see them until August rolled around again.
Only this time it was different. There wasn’t going to be a next year. I wasn’t going with them into our middle school years to see what adventures would come our way next. I wasn’t moving forward, I was just moving on.
I remember we rolled out of the parking lot, drove through Eastland to my home on Cantrill Drive. The moving trucks were loading up the last of the furniture and boxes. I don’t think it had really hit me yet. For months beforehand I’d expressed my love for where I was. Lexington was home for me. It was all I knew.
It wasn’t just home, it was everything that made me, me.
Whether it be those double header coach pitch baseball games at Babe Ruth fields, giving my life to God and being so in love with this idea of salvation that I had learned from my pastor Mark Dunn and his family at Macedonia Christian Church out on Winchester Road, the same church my father and family worshiped at years before me. It’s where Jeff Story and my dad put a basketball in my hands during summer camps and Upward Basketball leagues, where I learned to love the feeling of putting a pair of Air Jordan’s on my feet and pretending I could be like Mike himself every Saturday. I’ll never forget walking out of Calvary Baptist every Saturday after a game and getting in the car with my family, and seeing that giant blue symbol of pride in where I was from, the 5/3 Bank Building, as it glowed high above everything else. This is what I loved. I never wanted to leave it.
But we were.
I wasn’t mad about it. It’s just a part of the journey of life. I had come to peace with it. It was the best possible decision for our family at the time.
My aunt, Joyce Sims, was retiring from her job in Media Relations at UK Athletics, and was moving back home to Harrodsburg.
I had spent so many afternoons after school in Memorial shooting baskets or taking as many posters as I could fit under my arms with me to hang in my room.
In many ways, all of this goes back to her. Joyce’s passion for her job, her “kids” that worked with her in the office, and the overwhelming pride she had in the Cats and the school never left me. It made me want to be in that office one day. It made me want to be one of the students rushing in to the office between classes, or one of the guys chanting “GO BIG BLUE!” as loud as I could at Commonwealth and Rupp. I wanted to be there, and I knew that someday, I would be.
Leaving Lexington was tough, and I have no doubt that it was the right decision at the time for our family, but I never let go of any of those memories.
More importantly, I never let go of those feelings.
I knew I would always need them. I knew that they would help me someday. I knew that having that pride and emotion mixed in with the big dreams I had would bring me back whenever the time was right, and I promised myself the day we got in the car to leave, that I would be back.
We moved to Harrodsburg. I started sixth grade at King Middle School, went on to graduate from Mercer County Senior High in 2012. I had gone from the new kid that was out of his element to being in love with my community. Mercer greeted me with open arms. I made new friends, many which I call family. I learned about hard work, learned how to dig deep and never quit. Whether it was Mr. Jones and Mr. Stoltzfus in agriculture, teaching me the value of hard work and appreciation for everything given to you, or it was Todd Davis pushing me to my absolute limits in the Sports Complex, making me realize I had a lot more in me than I thought I did. It was Jaziel Guerra who encouraged our outrageous pride in our school, and our deep belief that we could do anything if we put our minds to it.
Mercer County had become a home in my heart.
After graduation, everyone talks about their plans for college or work.
Many left to out of state schools, or to play sports for surrounding colleges. Some went to UK, some went to Eastern, many went to work.
Mercer County, above all else, is a very hard working community.
There’s a great pride in being who you are, because of what you put into your community in Harrodsburg.
That pride will be with me for the rest of my life.
After graduation, I didn’t go far.
I was accepted into Eastern Kentucky University, and spent my first two years of college attending classes at their extended campus in Danville.
Danville’s campus was in a shopping center next to a Cici’s Pizza. It never felt like college. I enjoyed my time there, but I’d be lying if I said my heart was in it.
The summer between year one and two at EKU, I started seeking something more. I felt like I had to do something. I was stuck in a job that was draining me, with no hope of advancing anywhere. I had a choice to make. After two years at EKU’s Danville campus, there are no more classes to take. You either move on to Richmond, go elsewhere, or start in the nursing field or criminal justice field in Danville.
Richmond didn’t feel right. I started searching for answers.
I would drive for hours between Danville and Campbellsville to just think about what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be, and above all else, who I wanted to be.
I’ll be honest when I say, the thought intimidated me.
I didn’t know if I had it in me. Not just to be challenged more academically than I was used to, but to do it all over again. To move, to start over, to make the sacrifices needed to make it happen.
The thoughts stressed me to no end, and I felt like I was making it too complicated. I went to one of my favorite places in this world, Green River Lake in Campbellsville, and just looked out at God’s creation. I needed to feel small, and just be alone. I felt like I had done everything I could do. There was nothing more for me to do in Danville or Harrodsburg.
I felt like more than anything I needed a change.
The more time went on, the more I started to realize, that it wasn’t just time for a change, it was just time.
I had started an Instagram page (@859approved) the year before, embracing Lexington culture and our city. It had grown to the point of bringing people from all over the city together. We all loved sneakers, but more importantly, we all loved Lexington. We had these open invite meet ups where anyone could join us for dinner and get to know one another. The first one had thirty people show up. We became a place for everyone to have a place. This is what I am proud of.
We did a booklet with interviews from local artists, musicians, students, athletes, and just every day people to celebrate who we were.
We were students, 9-5’ers, coaches, teachers, mall rats, designers, photographers, and above all, we were family.
The more I sat by that water, the more I was drawn to that feeling.
I sat back and remembered Upward, Macedonia, Dixie, and everything that made me, me.
How could I do something that would make me proud? That inner kid in me that for all of these years had stayed in my heart, reminding me of who I was and where I was from, how could I make him proud?
There was only one way, I had to go back. I had to be that student I wanted to be. I had to do it for me, and for everyone that made me who I was.
My love for the University of Kentucky didn’t come from basketball. It didn’t come from agonizing loss after loss in football. It didn’t come from wearing blue and white on game day or putting “#BBN” in my social media bio.
It came from Lexington.
A degree from the University of Kentucky would represent a promise to myself to come back home, to be the person I wanted to be. It would be a symbol of appreciation for every last person that inspired me as a kid to dream bigger and try harder.
It would be the ultimate “thank you” to the inner child in me that has kept me going at times I didn’t think I could.
These last two years have been full of ups and downs, but I’m still here, still fighting day by day to inch closer to graduation. Through personal trials, disappointments, celebrations, and everything in between, I’m doing it here.
As August arrives, so does my finale.
This fall is the beginning of my senior campaign at UK. It won’t have the fanfare of an athlete, but to me this is everything.
It will not be easy. I’ve taken on a lot of responsibilities this year. 40 hour work weeks, weekend internships, and a heavy class load, but that doesn’t intimidate me. I’m not alone. It’s not just me, it’s my younger sister starting her second year at UK. It’s my friends that have become family since we all stepped on campus in 2014. It’s the 859Approved community that started so small three years ago that has grown into a family relationship I never could have imagined. As of today, our social media networks have a combined following list of over 13,000, mostly within Kentucky. It’s all of the faculty I have encountered at UK, the amazing professors, teachers, assistants, facility managers, maintenance, janitors, student workers, food servers, tutors, and advisors that have made my belief that the University of Kentucky not only was the right choice for me, but has a place for everyone and anyone on it’s campus.
I see all of the critiques, all of the complaints about the directors and the budgets, the tuition hikes and the construction decisions, and more often than not, I find myself agreeing with the critics. But that doesn’t shake my belief that this is one of the premier universities in the entire country, and anyone should be proud to walk on it’s campus.
My ultimate goal is waiting for me in May, when I walk across a stage, a bigger one than the one at Dixie in 2005, and receive a diploma that represents all of the love I have for my home.
Now you know my story, you know where I come from. I am just one of countless stories on this campus. I am a small piece of the puzzle that makes up UK.
I encourage you to learn more about the students at UK that don’t wear a jersey or a helmet. So often we find ourselves complaining about coaching staffs, athletes going pro, and so on so forth.
I encourage you to express your pride through our historic and legendary teams at Kentucky, but I encourage you to source and find your pride in your city, it’s students, and it’s stories.
For me, it’s always been all for Lexington. It’s more than just a geographic location on a map. It’s the people, the history, the culture, the pride, the legacy, all of it. It’s who we are, and who I always wanted to be.