(Editor’s Note: The following story was originally published three years ago on Father’s Day 2018. We repost today in memory of John Thompson, who passed away last Thursday, June 17, 2021. Our deepest condolences go out to Tyler and her family.)
I lost my dad on Thursday. He's been suffering from Lewy Body Dementia for several years now, and we are grateful the final chapter was fast and he was not in pain.
I feel as though I've been mourning him for a very long time, but nothing prepares you for this. I love you, Dad. pic.twitter.com/XyXfTtkYqu
— Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) June 19, 2021
Like many stories about father and sons, this one is about sports…except, I’m a daughter, and I’m writing this to hold on to my Dad while he fades away.
For the last few years, my father has been suffering from dementia. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease several years ago, but as time progressed, it became clear his memory had regressed as well. Fortunately, his form of dementia – Lewy Body Dementia – is different than Alzheimer’s in that he’ll always recognize his family; however, what he remembers is selective, as though he’s gone back in time ten or fifteen years. Even though I’ve lived in Nashville for twelve years, he thinks I’m still downstairs in my childhood bedroom on summer break from college, a time warp that just adds to the waves of nostalgia crashing over me.
Struggling to keep my Dad’s memories intact is like stopping sand from falling through spreading fingers. Last year, my brother suggested we start writing down our favorite memories of Dad, which should be an easy assignment for me, a writer; however, it’s proved to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. How do you reflect on something you’re not ready to let go of? So, I decided focus on Kentucky sports, which has gotten us through so many hard things in life.
Like many stories about Kentucky sports, this one starts with The Shot.
I’ll never forget how cold the tile was in our den when Christian Laettner caught the inbounds pass and whipped around. Time slowed as the ball left his hands, arched through the air and dropped through the net with a perfect, devastating swish. The chorus of celebration on TV echoed through the room as realization bloomed; an unforgettable run was over.
I was only seven at the time and more into horses than basketball, but felt the heaviness of the moment and stayed quiet in my spot on the floor. A few beats later, family members scattered and muttered, but my Dad just sat and stared at the television. Eventually, he glanced over at me and gave me a sad smile, a tempered reaction that I’d grow to know so well. The eye of our family’s hurricane, my Dad just shook his head while my brother slammed doors, my mother furiously cleaned while listening to Cawood Ledford on the radio upstairs, and someone demanded justice for Aminu Timberlake, whom Laettner had stomped on earlier in the game. Seeing my family react so strongly to something I didn’t fully understand was the catalyst to a lifelong love affair with Kentucky basketball; I had to know more.
At this point in time, my Dad was a casual Kentucky fan. The son of a naval officer, his family moved wherever my grandfather was stationed, hopping from coast to coast before settling in Arlington, Virginia. Polio prevented my Dad from following in his father’s footsteps and joining the service, so when he turned 18, he hopped on a train and landed in Danville, Kentucky to attend Centre College, where he met my mother. More than happy to put an end to his transient lifestyle, he set up shop and never left.
The Shot framed the mold that would hold my Dad and me together for years to come. Anxious to be a part of the cult of Kentucky basketball, I pestered him with questions, always thirsty to know more. Together, we learned the history of the program, its thrilling highs and crushing lows; I was actually proud to have witnessed one of the latter, boasting about how I hated Laettner and how the Cats got robbed at any chance I got.
We didn’t have access to basketball tickets back then, so we watched the games on television, me sitting Indian style at the foot of my parents’ bed and him in his armchair. Even though he signed off just as I was really getting into the sport, Cawood Ledford’s voice was a familiar one in my early childhood; as recently as a few years ago, every phone call from my parents would start with, “Hey, Cawood, is Richie gonna play tonight?”, a refrain that never got old.
When Kentucky started its mega run in 1995-96, the fascination skyrocketed. Every big game was taped and pored over in multiple viewings. We celebrated the postseason run by going to Lexington and buying commemorative t-shirts from stands off Man O’War Boulevard and laughing along to the UK-themed parody songs on the radio. Around the same time, a kid from Hyden named Tim Couch committed to play quarterback at Kentucky, which spilled the fuel over to football. We became football season ticket holders and followed the Cats on the road to iconic SEC towns like Oxford and Athens. Kentucky rarely won, but my Dad and I were there, me in my Kentucky shirt and he in his Oakley’s, purchased in honor of Hal Mumme, of course.
I really knew my Dad’s affection for Kentucky sports had taken on a life of its own in October 1997, when the Cats beat Alabama for the first time in 75 years. I wasn’t able to go to that game, so my Dad took my uncle. I reveled in their tales of the goal posts coming down, a sweet moment whose significance was imprinted on us all, even a transplant Navy brat.
Our rituals from the 1996 championship run became even more pronounced in 1998, when Tubby Smith led the Comeback Cats to the program’s seventh national championship. Our tapes of Kentucky’s wins over Utah and Syracuse became go-to entertainment when nothing else was on or we simply needed cheering up. The walls of my room were plastered with Nazr Mohammed, Tim Couch, Craig Yeast, and ticket stubs, each free pom pom or button treated as a treasure. When The Cats Pause newsletter arrived each week, time stopped while I hopped on the couch with my Wheat Thins and Diet Coke and studied each article, agreeing or disagreeing with the staff predictions. Sunday mornings were for the sports section, which Dad always let me have first. He’s good like that.
One of my Dad’s work friends invited us to Kentucky vs. Louisville in 1998, the opening of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Even though we were guests of Louisville fans, we couldn’t contain our glee as the Cats put a 68–34 beating on the Cards. Tim Couch threw seven touchdowns and led Kentucky to 800 yard of total offense in a thoroughly satisfying romp that had me testing the limits of sportsmanship. I got my comeuppance two years later when Louisville beat Kentucky in overtime, a game that had to be stopped in the third quarter due to thunderstorms. We waited the storms out to have our hearts broken twice – first, when Kentucky’s game-winning field goal was blocked at the end of regulation and again when Louisville’s Tony Stallings scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Only then was I thankful for the rain because it masked my tears.
How deep was our love for Kentucky football? When Tim Couch was drafted by the Browns, we went to Cleveland to watch him play a preseason game vs. the Washington Redskins, my Dad’s favorite pro team. It was my first NFL game, and even though it was just an exhibition, it was an eye-opening experience. I loved the Dawg Pound so much I bought my own rally towel and a dog dish, which joined the litany of memorabilia in my room. Couch’s Browns jersey still hangs in my closet.
My favorite memories from high school are mostly of my Dad and I watching the Cats. I got my first taste of the deep South when we went to Oxford to watch Kentucky play Ole Miss in September 2000. My first walk across the Grove was surreal, the sights and sounds so different than the Commonwealth Stadium parking lot I felt as though I was in a different country. As we got closer to the stadium, the debauchery crescendoed as fans and students were forced to give up their beer and liquor bottles, creating a confiscated mountain of broken glass aside the gate. At a certain point, it was impossible to decipher the cacophony of bottles joining the pile from the percussion in the marching band, which played “Dixie” with gusto at every possible moment. By this point in my life, I had been to several football games, but I will never forget the bleachers swaying and the hats flying as the band launched into their final rendition of “Dixie,” which is no longer allowed to be played at games. Kentucky lost that game by a decent margin, but my, what a sight. On the way home, we stopped in Memphis and saw the ducks at The Peabody, my Dad’s way of trying to make up for the wildness we’d just witnessed.
Kentucky Basketball even helped us through September 11. When the news coverage became too much to process, we turned to the Comeback Cats, escaping in the tapes of the 1998 championship run. A few months later, we scalped tickets and sat in the nosebleeds at Rupp to see Tayshaun Prince hit five threes vs. North Carolina. If “Dixie” made Ole Miss’ stadium sway, Tayshaun’s threes made Rupp tremble.
The next year, I was off to Davidson College. Knowing how hard it would be on both of us to be apart for a year – an entire football AND basketball season! – my Dad focused on helping me survive in Tar Heel country. As my Mom and I got ready to make the six-hour drive to school, he gave me a hug and slapped a UK magnet on the back of the van, too emotional to talk. When I got to school, I found a new UK shirt in my bag and, a few weeks later, my very own Cats Pause newsletter in my school mailbox.
My brother and sister like to complain that my parents only got cable after they went to college; I can one up them there. After I went to college, my parents got Kentucky basketball season tickets, a stroke of incredible luck thanks to a family friend. On trips home from college, I’d go to as many games as possible, and, once I graduated and settled in Nashville, we started taking family trips to away games and the SEC Tournament. Around this time, I became involved with KSR, and the day Matt Jones asked me to join the site full time, I immediately called my Dad and told him the good news. The pride in his voice made the moment even sweeter.
My Dad’s health is so bad he’s had to give us his seats, but for years, every time I’d cover a game at Rupp, we’d find each other across the arena and wave. Four years ago, I took him to an open football practice as KSR’s “photographer” for the day. By this time, the symptoms of his disease were just showing up, but watching him walk amongst and marvel at the giants on the sidelines was one of my best days on the job. The picture Nick Roush took of us sits on my desk as a reminder.
These are just a few of the stories I have of my Dad and Kentucky sports; there’s enough to fill an entire book if my heart can handle writing it. These days, my Dad’s mind has slipped to the point he can’t follow games very well, but we still discuss the Cats every time I call. When Kentucky beat Buffalo to advance to the Sweet 16, I was so happy he was able to remember the game when I called the morning after. When Kentucky lost to Kansas State a week later, I was grateful he went to bed early and wouldn’t know the horrible note on which the season ended.
As time goes on, I know it’s just going to get harder. Reliving these memories is helping me cope with losing my Dad; I just hope that somewhere deep inside, they still bring him comfort too.