LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — It was a surprise to everyone when Kentucky junior linebacker Chris Oats was sent to a Cincinnati hospital in late May with an undisclosed medical issue.
"My first thought was I want to be there for him," said Kentucky defensive lineman Josh Paschal. "Of course, through the whole pandemic, we didn't physically have the opportunity to be there with him. We're there for him emotionally, he knows he's loved by us, there's 100 brothers that are willing to fight for him."
The players aren't just missing their brother on the field, they're missing one of their leaders on the defensive side of the ball.
Oats has seen game action ever since his freshman year in 2018. As a sophomore, Oats played in 12 of the team's 13 games, registering 46 tackles.
Coming in as a junior in 2020, Oats was expected to be a big part of the defense once again. He was also on his way towards taking another step to become a better ball player.
"His development as a player was off the charts from where he was as a freshman to where he developed as a sophomore," said Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White. "I think he positioned himself to have a huge junior campaign."
The team will honor Oats all season, wearing bracelets that say '22 Oats Strong.'
Each week, a different player will wear his number 22.
Fellow junior linebacker De'Andre Square will be the first to do so Saturday at Auburn.
"It's an honor to wear his jersey on Saturday," said Square. "It's been tough because I know he's working hard and he wants to be out here going through practices. Not having him out here is kind of tough but we just go out there every day and every week for him and knowing that he's working hard on his own."
"He's a vital part of this team," said White. "Even though he's not out there on the practice field physically, his presence is always felt. To be able to have the 22 out on that field will be special."
"It's going to be emotional to see it out there but I'm really excited to be able to see that. I know each player that gets to wear it will take great pride in wearing that."