By LARRY VAUGHT
He returned to Lexington after a 13-hour bus ride back from Washington, D.C., where he had been chaperoning his son’s school trip. But not even a sore neck could stop Kentucky coach Mark Stoops from going to Consolidated Baptist Church in Lexington just a few hours later to watch UK players Josh Paschal and E.J. Price get baptized.
That memory jumped out at me at UK’s Media Day last week when Stoops made the emotional announcement that skin lesions Paschal had removed from his right foot had been diagnosed as malignant melanoma.
“Josh and his family are handling it well. They wanted to be open about this so there was no speculation. They also want this to be a reminder for people to pay close attention to any changes in their skin, and if so, have those evaluated,” an emotional Stoops told media members. “Within our family, our football family have been very supportive of Josh and his family, and they are very — they are very strong people and they are doing the best they can in this situation, and we’ll help Josh along the way.”
I spent time with Paschal in mid-July when he came to Harrodsburg along with teammate Quinton Bohanna to speak at the Mercer County Football Youth Clinic. He was happy, outgoing and very optimistic about the upcoming season. He related well to the young players.
“Football taught me if you want to get somewhere, you have to outwork others to get there. You take football seriously but it is also a game and you can have fun. I can be outside and running and as long as I am alive and blessed to be there, I am happy,” Paschal said.
That attitude will obviously be tested in the weeks ahead. But I also asked him that night in Mercer County what getting baptized meant to him.
“It was life changing because I got the chance to grow closer to God. Reading the Bible and being able to grow as man and son of God and a guide for how to live right and with Jesus Christ,” Paschal said. “I always had a relationship with God. I was learning from one of my friends more about God.
“I always thought I had a strong faith, but one of my friends had a stronger faith. I started talking to her about things. I started going to church. Back home I rarely went to church but when I got here I started going to church more and went with a different outlook on things and realizing how God blesses so much. That helped me to realize I needed to strengthen my relationship and become a Christian.”
Paschal said it helped having Price “grow together” with me and having Stoops show up for his baptism meant a lot to him.
“I always knew he was a real coach and great person. When he came, it didn’t really surprise me. I know he has a great heart and he’s not really like normal coaches. He cares about all of us. He doesn’t just care about winning. It’s about us growing as humans,” Paschal told me on that mid-July night.
That was never more obvious than watching Stoops trying to share the news about Paschal last week. He was in the same kind of pain a parent would be telling friends a child had the same issue.
I asked Stoops now if he was even happier now that he took time that Sunday morning to go to the baptism after only being home a few hours after that 13-hour bus ride. He said it was important for him to be there because it was an “important part” of their life.
“In hindsight, yeah, I’m glad I did it, certainly, and being there and supporting them in any way I can,” Stoops said.
Later during the Media Day player interviews on the field, I was able to chat with Stoops just a few minutes about Paschal. I was touched by his concern and I saw a side of a coach we seldom get to see because a SEC head football coach just cannot expose his soft, caring side that often.
Life is funny. I went to Media Day expecting to learn how soon Paschal would be back playing after having the skin lesions removed. I have felt for months his move to the defensive front could be what transforms UK’s defense into a much better unit. Instead, I left Media Day worried about Paschal’s future, not his playing status, and thankful he has a coach like Stoops who will be there to help him through what likely is going to be a difficult emotional and physical journey.