It was exactly what Courtney Love was looking for.
He and the rest of the Kentucky defense celebrated at M.M. Roberts Stadium after they forced a Southern Mississippi incompletion on fourth down. The Wildcats walked away from the 2017 season opener victorious. They had the defense to thank, unlike when they blew a 25-point lead and suffered an embarrassing home loss to the Golden Eagles in the 2016 opener.
Love finished the game with a team-high nine tackles, as well as a key fumble recovery that squashed the Golden Eagles’ comeback attempt. It won’t be remembered like Love’s recovery of a fumble by Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson that helped Kentucky stun Louisville, but it still left quite the impression.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops went on to say that Love’s performance on Saturday was the best of his Kentucky career. It was the type of effort Stoops hoped he’d see from the senior linebacker when he transferred from Nebraska two and a half years earlier.
“He’s exactly what you want in the middle of that defense,” Stoops said. “I think his mentality has rubbed off on our team and on our defense in particular. We definitely took the field (on Saturday) with a greater sense of passion and pride, and I think Courtney has a lot to do with that.”
Love is one of the critical cogs of a Kentucky defense that’s looking to do more than just avenge last year’s Southern Miss loss. Surrounded by one of the SEC’s best groups of linebackers, Love is in a perfect spot to succeed. He’s settled in now in his third and final year in Lexington.
“It is home for me,” he said. “I made a lot of great relationships, met a lot of great people, and this town is just awesome. I love it. It’s been really great for me and my family. I’m just looking to finish here strong and hopefully help bring this town and this state some great victories this year.”
Given his atypical circumstances as a child, just earning a scholarship was no small feat.
Every year, the winner of the Ron Stoops Scholarship is asked to attend a banquet and make a speech. The scholarship is in honor of Mark Stoops’ father, Ron, who was a coach at Cardinal Mooney High in Youngstown, Ohio. The school produced a handful of big-time college coaches. Mark and Bob Stoops went to Cardinal Mooney, as did Bo and Carl Pelini and Texas offensive coordinator Tim Beck.
Mark Stoops was in attendance at the annual Cardinal Mooney High School Hall of Fame banquet in 2012. At the time, he was the defensive coordinator at Florida State.
Also in attendance that night was Love. After all, he was the winner of the Ron Stoops Scholarship. He had a speech to give.
Stoops had met Love a few times because he had attended the Camp of Champions at Cardinal Mooney since he was 8 years old. There was no mistaking how good the star linebacker was on the field.
But Stoops had never seen Love speak in public before.
“He got up there,” Stoops said, “and he just blew me away.”
Love spoke eloquently about overcoming challenges, both on and off the field. He emphasized “do not mistake temptation for opportunity.” That quote, Love said, hung on his fridge while he was in high school. It’s what kept him disciplined.
Stoops saw a disciplined, well-spoken high school kid. When Love transferred from Nebraska to join Stoops at Kentucky in 2015, the Wildcats inherited the same polished leader who crushed his speech at Cardinal Mooney as a high school senior.
— Kentucky coach Mark Stoops
There was no sign that Love was the 8-year-old who ran away from home.
He was defiant little boy who, when things reached a boiling point with his mother, decided to run three houses down to his great grandmother’s house and refused to go back. Love called his dad and asked him if he could move in. From that point on, Love was raised by his dad, Cory Love, his dad’s girlfriend, Madison Faye (Courtney calls her his step mom), his grandmother, Sandra Penny, and his great-grandmother, Rose Allen.
But if Love was going to live under his dad’s roof, he wasn’t going to play by his own rules.
Cory Love was a former U.S. Marine and a strict disciplinarian. One time when Courtney was 11, he talked back to a school bus driver. That, plus his plummeting grades, led to a harsh punishment. Cory Love made his 11-year-old son beg for change outside of a Burger King and told him to “get used to being a bum.”
That type of treatment had exactly the effect Cory Love hoped it would.
“It really just taught me to grow up quick and be a man,” Courtney Love said. “My dad stayed tough on me and just showed me that I had to do it for myself. Nobody else was gonna do it for me.
“Now, I carry that on. I just try and be a leader and help people out as much as I can.”
Before the start of his senior season at Kentucky, Love wanted to get involved. He decided to join the group “Amachi Central Kentucky,” which pairs young adults with children who have parents who are incarcerated. Love was paired with a boy named Antonio, who has a father who is in prison.
The two have a lot in common.
When Love was a teenager, Cory Love went to prison for two years on trafficking and drug conspiracy charges that stemmed from the 1990s. The responsibility of raising Courtney Love fell to Faye, Penny and Allen. Proper manners were enforced. Respecting women was a must. Love had to learn not to talk back to people.
It was “Yes, sir. No, sir.” “Yes ma’am. No ma’am.”
Those basic principles were ones Love wanted to pass down to Antonio. While Love had plenty of family support to help instill those values of respect, he knew the impact they would’ve had if he had a young adult who mentored him as a kid.
“It’s something that I’ve been called to do,” Love said. “And I want to answer that call.”
Love and Antonio’s relationship has grown in the short time they’ve known each other. They talk about serious stuff like treating Antonio’s mom and older sister right and the importance of keeping grades up.
But they make plenty of time for fun stuff, too. They go to the dog park together and play with Courtney’s dog. They grab burgers and milkshakes (Antonio’s a big fan of that). They play catch at the Kentucky facility.
Love is hoping Antonio can make it to his first Kentucky game when the Wildcats take on Eastern Michigan on Sept. 30.
“Definitely gotta show out for him,” Love joked. “Gotta show that his mentor is a great player. Definitely wanna do that.”
There was an obvious tie that drew Love to Nebraska, and later to Kentucky. Both programs were coached by Cardinal Mooney graduates. When Bo Pelini was fired from Nebraska at the end of the 2014 season, it forced Love to re-evaluate.
As a redshirt freshman, he was still working his way up the depth chart. There was no guarantee that would change with a new coach.
Love enjoyed his Nebraska experience, but there was another factor at play. He wanted to be closer to his ailing grandmother. At Kentucky, which was only five and a half hours from Youngstown, he got that opportunity. He requested a hardship waiver from the NCAA so that he would be eligible to play immediately in Lexington instead of red-shirting a year.
The NCAA denied Love, and he was forced to sit out the 2015 season.
— Kentucky linebacker Courtney Love
During that year, Love lost both his grandmother and great-grandmother. But the blessing was that he got to spend more time with them than he would’ve had he stayed in Lincoln.
On the field, Love had all the motivation he needed. He had something else that fueled his fire when he arrived in Lexington.
“There were probably some question marks when I first got here. ‘Oh, well he’s a Youngstown guy. Throw him in because he’s a Youngstown guy,’ ” Love said. “I don’t want that to ever be an excuse: that I’m a Youngstown guy. I want to play because I earned it.”
Love took advantage of every opportunity to establish himself as a leader. In May of 2016, he took a service trip to Ethiopia with two teammates. Shortly thereafter, Love was one of three Wildcats who were selected to represent the team at SEC Media Days in 2016. That was before he ever played a game in a Kentucky uniform.
— Kentucky linebacker Courtney Love
Not surprisingly, Love was voted a team captain for 12 of 13 games in his first active season in Lexington. He finished the 2016 season ranked third on the team in tackles, which still paled in comparison to his off-the-field accomplishments. Love was named to the SEC Community Service team and the SEC Academic Honor Roll. He’s on the watch list for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.
He proved he was more than just another Youngstown guy.
“He means an awful lot to me personally and to our program,” Stoops said. “You can’t even measure how much he’s helped. It’s hard to quantify that because he is just a great human being and he’s a great football player.”
Love has big plans for his future. He already has a degree in community and leadership development and he’s working on a degree in communications. If an NFL career is in the cards, he’ll pursue that as long as he can. He wouldn’t mind one day taking over his dad’s industrial cleaning business back in Youngstown, either.
Looking back, Love said that he doesn’t regret the decision he made to run away from his mother’s home. He believes it shaped him into the person that he became, though he hopes no child has to take that path to reach success. Love reached success at Kentucky.
More importantly, he found exactly the home he was looking for.