Of the many benefits of omnipresent cameras and social media are occasional glimpses inside of locker rooms. Saturday, after Kentucky ended a losing streak dating to 1984 in Knoxville with a 34-7 thumping of Tennessee, Mark Stoops talked candidly with his team. “We talked about it all week,” Stoops said, “We played for something bigger than ourself.”

Of course, on some level, this is a cliche. Every team is playing for something more than the 85 or so players and handfuls of coaches and support staff in the locker room. They’re playing for the school, for the program, for the other students and the alumni, for the fans in the stands, and for a million other things. But the words carry more weight at Kentucky than most places.

22 strong

The Wildcats are playing for linebacker Chris Oats. Oats, who was 5th on the team in tackles in 2019, and was slated to start as a junior in 2020, suffered an undisclosed serious medical condition in May 2020. Recent photos of Oats (just released from a rehabilitation center) showed him in a wheelchair, and after last week’s victory over Mississippi State, Stoops and two assistant coaches presented a smiling Oats with the game ball.

While the Oats family has been private about the details of Chris’ situation, whispers around the program have suggested that the first priority for Chris Oats is a return to the activities of daily living and not the activities of football. Indeed, UK tight end Keaton Upshaw started a GoFundMe for Oats’s medical expenses.

A different Wildcat wears Oats’ No. 22 jersey each week — it was linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson on Saturday. Tennessee quietly acknowledged Oats with its own social media post ahead of Saturday’s game. During a time when much of the chatter around SEC football has concerned half-full stands or the possibility of rescheduling games, Oats is a stark reminder of the possibility that literally anything can happen in a moment.

Fighting for every yard and day

While Oats’ life was changed in a moment, Kentucky offensive line coach John Schlarman is fighting a battle much longer in the making. As a player, Schlarman was a gutty, undersized guard who played for Kentucky in the mid-1990s. As a coach, he has instilled the same focus and determination in a Kentucky offensive line that has quietly become one of the best in the SEC. And he’s fighting for his life the entire time.

In mid-2018, Schlarman was diagnosed with Stage 4 cholangiocarcinoma. A father of 4, a determined husband, and one of the hardest working football coaches in the nation, Schlarman has undergone an extensive amount of treatment and medication. And yet, he has steadfastly refused to limit himself, and indeed, was on the UK sideline Saturday, earning the game ball after his offensive line helped best Tennessee.

Former Wildcat lineman Max Godby, who was coached by Schlarman early in Mark Stoops’s tenure, recalled on Twitter that when news of Schlarman’s cancer circulated, a perceptive fellow lineman had noted, “Cancer picked the wrong guy to pick a fight with.”

So yes, Saturday’s win was a sweet one for fans who had waited 36 years for a win in Knoxville. It was sweet for Stoops, who again drew his UK record to .500, which makes him the first Wildcat coach in almost 60 years who could say that. It was sweet for the reasons that it’s sweet to build a program at a school that many thought was destined to remain hopeless and at the bottom of the SEC.

But it was sweetest for those who played with thoughts of two men who love football, one young and one older, one black and one white, one present and pushing his players for every additional yard, and the other around a family pleased just to have him home. There is strength in the concept of team, maybe especially at Kentucky.