Former Kentucky All-American Derek Abney had never talked to UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart on the telephone before when he recently got a call from him.
“I wasn’t sure what was going on, then he gave me the news about the Hall of Fame. It was really nice to get that call,” said Abney. “It is a neat kind of honor that I had not really thought about truthfully. I¿am very honored to be part of history. To be part of that is unbelievable. The more I have thought about, the more it has sunk in. I am honored to be part of a very elite group.”
Abney is one of six that has been selected for the UK Athletics Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony for Abney and J.B. Holmes (golf), Leroy Edwards (basketball), Jeff Keener (baseball), Clayton Moss (swimming and diving) and Nancy Scranton (golf) will be Sept. 14-15.
Abney set seven NCAA, 11 Southeastern Conference and 14 school records for kick returns and all-purpose yardage during his career from 2000-2003. The Wisconsin native was named a first-team All-America as a junior and second-team All-America as a senior. He was a three-time first-team All-SEC performer — something only three other Wildcats had accomplished.
He was the first player in NCAA history to accumulate 2,000 receiving yards along 2,000 kickoff return yards and 1,000 punt return yards. Abney returned eight kicks for touchdowns during his career (six punts, two kickoffs) and ended his UK career ranked second in three statistical categories: receptions (197), receiving yards (2,339) and touchdowns receiving (18).
“To be part of the SEC and just contribute to winning as a team were my main goals as a senior in high school. To come to Kentucky and have these kind of individual awards and honors has just been the icing on the cake for a career I would never trade in,” Abney, one of the most exciting players to play at UK, said. “I did not think this big when I was a high school kid and picked Kentucky. I just wanted to be part of winning teams. To have some records and now be part of the UK Hall of Fame is unbelievable.
“Truthfully, something like this never entered my mind. I just didn’t know if I left enough of a legacy to be part of something like this. You have some elite athletes in there. I just cannot fathom me being part of the Hall of Fame.”
He belongs. Make no mistake about that. His play was electrifying at times, but there was also no bigger team player than Abney. He was devastated when coach Guy Morriss left — Abney had been recruited and started his career under Hal Mumme — before his senior year and let the coach know that in an emotional team meeting.
Current UK¿head coach Joker Phillips became Abney’s position coach his senior year when Rich Brooks arrived as head coach.
“We went through some things prior to Joker and Rich coming, but we did have success as a team and individually,” Abney said.
Maybe his inclusion into the Hall of Fame can provide a ray of hope for those wondering how the UK¿football team is going to fare this season and are questioning Phillips’ future.
“If it is interpreted that way, I would love to help any way possible,” Abney said. “Any way I can help the team, I want to do it. Kentucky football means a lot to me and if someone looks and sees what I did and that inspires them, that’s great.
“This still is one of the most surprising honors I’ve ever had. It’s more of a legacy thing than anything. Every year you will have All-Americans, but very few can say they get into the UK Hall of Fame. It’s a great honor, wonderful surprise. The more I¿think about it, the more I realize what a big deal it is.
“I am all done playing. My competition days are over and to still be remembered is a humbling and wonderful honor. I¿made wonderful friends and had wonderful relationships at UK. I wouldn’t trade it all for anything even if there were some times that didn’t seem that good. And I do wish we could have won a couple more games here and there. I’ll always feel that way.”
He said his family is excited and that his mother was the first one to text him when news came out about his honor.
“My parents are my biggest fans,” Abney, an engineer now loving in South Carolina, said. “I cannot remember a competition that I was part of that at least one of them was not there. They were always a big part of me and who I¿am. My mom was even my soccer coach in my late elementary years, and we went undefeated. They were always there.”
Two former UK teammates were also an “important” part of his success.
“My best friend just happened to be kicker Justin Hutton. He lived with me from my redshirt freshman year on and was an integral part of me as a person,” Abney said. “Tommy Cook was an integral football teammate and was always there for me and went through a lot with me. Those are two guys I would really like to be involved in my Hall of Fame weekend.”
He’s still struggling with who he will have introduce him at the induction ceremony.
“I want to honor those that were a part of my college career, and maybe my football career prior to that. I really have not thought about it enough to pick anyone yet,” Abney said. “It’s really interesting to think someone will be introducing me. I have to think about this a lot. I have had a lot of different coaches in my career, and that support was important to me. My family and friends have always supported me.
“I am debating whether it should be more of a football person or more of a person outside football who helped with life’s intangibles. I just don’t know what to do yet.”