On a beautiful March morning shortly after the Kentucky football team conducted its second spring practice, Kenneth Horsey stepped behind a podium to answer questions from dozens of reporters about the tall task at hand — replacing an All-SEC offensive guard that would soon hear his name called in the NFL Draft. One quote in particular drew a laugh from the crowd.
“I’m not (Logan) Stenberg. I don’t play like Stenberg and if you expect me to play like Stenberg. I got some bad news for you,” staled the left guard. “I’m going to play like Kenneth Horsey and you guys are going to get to know Kenneth Horsey.”
To truly know Kenneth Horsey, you have to know that he almost did not make it to Kentucky. A spontaneous medical problem nearly derailed his dream of playing in the SEC before he could make it a reality. It had been less than two years since Horsey was on the operating table undergoing open-heart surgery.
“Every day is a blessing. Literally, every day is a blessing. Just going from one point not knowing if I’d be able to play football again to taking reps with the ones. I’m just grateful, blessed and I’m ready to earn my opportunity.”
“There’s Something Wrong”
Shari Horsey remembers it vividly. After celebrating Easter Sunday, on April 1, 2018 the Horseys picked up family dinner. After finishing his meal, her son Kenneth retired to his room for only for a few minutes before she could hear him screaming.
“I go and check in on him and see what was going on and he was just having what we thought was a bad stomach ache. He’s just moaning and groaning and really in pain. It just didn’t seem to be letting up. It was coming and going in spurts so after a few minutes I was like, ‘okay, there’s something wrong,'” she told KSR. “We thought he had just eaten his food too fast, you know, an upset stomach. But it seemed to be a little more than that.”
An ambulance was called and Horsey was rushed to the hospital. As doctors and nurses performed initial tests, Shari noticed a suspicious silence from the nurse as she examined her son’s chest x-ray. The following day the family was informed that something was wrong with Kenneth’s heart.
“It was a growth on the heart valve. I wasn’t believing it. I wasn’t having it,” said Ken Sr. “That was the weird thing about it. His pain manifested as a stomach pain. He was grabbing the side of his stomach. And then a week later we’re talking about open-heart surgery.”
Horsey is lucky the pain originated in his kidney. Typically when heart valve growths detach, the growth goes directly to the brain where it creates clots that can be fatal. Even though it could have been worse, hearing the phrase “open-heart surgery” from a doctor is frightening.
“I cried for about ten minutes,” said Shari. “Then it was the realization of maybe having to tell Kenneth, who was getting ready to go to Kentucky, that he may never have to play football again. You hear open-heart surgery and that kind of procedure you just automatically think that’s what’s going to happen. That I’m going to have to tell my son that he can’t play football anymore because of his heart.”
Luckily for their family, that was not the case. The growth was on the outside of Horsey’s heart valve. Structurally, there was nothing wrong with his heart.
“There’s nothing wrong with the muscle of the heart. It was just a fluke,” she said. “I just couldn’t imagine having to sit and tell my son that he couldn’t play football.”
On April 6 Kenneth Horsey went under the knife and began a long journey back to the football field.
Horsey crawled before he could run. He spent a month in the hospital recovering, followed by another four weeks on IV medications at home. It forced him to miss his senior prom and delayed his move to Lexington from Sanford, Fl., but he was still able to attend graduation at Seminole High School.
Itching to join his teammates in Lexington, he was able to move to campus in July, just a month behind his fellow freshmen. Even though he recently underwent a major operation, the Horseys were not too concerned to move their child hundreds of miles away.
“Meeting the staff and the coaches and everything, we felt really comfortable,” said Ken Sr. “(Director of Sports Medicine Jim) Madeleno was very reassuring and very comforting. That made everything a lot easier, at least as far as I could see.”
Having a Hall of Fame athletic trainer like Madeleno and first-class medical care at your disposal is only good if it’s properly used. Football players are tough guys. Many have grown up rubbing some dirt on a bruise or walking off a turned ankle. As Kenneth’s conditioning slowly improved, he had to learn there are pains you cannot push through. One session proved to be too much for him to handle.
“Kenneth had to learn to communicate because he didn’t want to let them know that he was maybe hurting a little bit because he didn’t want them to think that they couldn’t depend on him. We had to drill in him, ‘if you drop on the field and you can’t go anymore, you’re only making the situation worse.'” His mother added, “They can’t depend on you because you have to speak up if you’re hurting. They understand what you went through.”
After he suffered the minor setback, Horsey gained more and more ground. He arrived on campus weighing just over 340 pounds. By the start of 2020 spring practice he was 295, working to add more muscle onto his frame.
Horsey learned to communicate clearly how he was feeling with coaches and trainers. The next hurdle was telling himself that he could compete in the SEC without fear that he may suffer another significant setback.
“It’s really just trusting myself,” said the offensive guard. “That was really one of the biggest things I had to realize when I was coming back from that healing process to playing, just to be able to trust that it’s — because it’s easy to play scared when you’ve been through something. It’s easy to play scared with the mindset, ‘What if something happens?’ You’re not allowed to think like that. You can’t think about that if you’re going to play at the highest level that (offensive line) coach (John) Schlarman expects me to play at, that this university expects me to play at. I can’t think about that. It was my choice to play this game and I’m going to do it at the best of my ability.”
It was not an easy year for Horsey, but with a strong support system he was able to put his heart problem in the past.
“You have to try to bring that positive light into this situation,” Shari Horsey told KSR. “That’s hard for an 18-year-old but we worked him through it, we talked him through it, and that’s why he is where he is today,”
Fighting for a spot on the Big Blue Wall
In his first full year of football at UK, Horsey played in four games during the 2019 season. Now he is at the top of the pecking order in the competition to to replace Logan Stenberg, a first team All-SEC selection last year that started in a team-high 39 career games. Becoming an elite blocker is just a part of what it takes to play the position. Whoever fits in best in-between Drake Jackson and Landon Young will earn the starting spot.
“It’s a difficult task, especially when you played next to a guy for multiple years,” Young said. “Stenberg and me were a well-oiled machine. I could look at him and he could pretty much read what I was saying in my mind. Our combo (blocks) were like second nature, but now you got a younger guy that you took under your wing and you’re sort of teaching him the position with Drake and all the other old guys, along with playing next to him.”
Even when he wasn’t regularly rotating into the lineup, Horsey’s heart problem forced him to learn how to become a better communicator. When he wasn’t talking with other offensive linemen in the trenches, he got the chance to learn how to be better blocker by watching Stenberg and an All-American, Bunchy Stallings.
“I was able to see different blueprints of how they got their jobs done,” Horsey said. “I feel like with Coach Schlarman’s teachings to keep getting better every day, I think I have nothing to worry about. Like Coach says, we either get better or get worse everyday. It’s up to us to keep working and keep getting better.”
All of Horsey’s attention is focused on getting better on the field. His heart is structurally sound, requiring only an annual examination. He’s passed all of them with flying colors, including an additional exam the UK sports medicine staff sought out upon his return to campus this summer as more reports surface of heart complications that stem from COVID-19.
Coronavirus has the entire college football world on pins and needles, pondering if a season will be played. A day-to-day roller coaster that will be decided by the SEC’s top-ranking officials, even if Horsey cannot compete to start at left guard for Kentucky this fall, John Schlarman is proud of the progress the young man has made despite the incredibly difficult circumstances.
“Going through what he had to go through in his spring semester of high school with his heart, I think it’s remarkable to be honest with you. He’s persevered and endured and gone through all those things to put him in this situation. I think it speaks very highly of his toughness, of his work ethic and what he’s all made up of,” Schlarman said this spring.
“He’s a great story and a remarkable young man that’s persevered through adversity. That definitely as a coach gives you a lot of confidence in a young man like that. You know when the going gets tough, he’s not going to shy away from it.”