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Three years and three months or so ago, three local kids from different high schools seized an opportunity to continue their football careers 45 minutes down route 150 at Centre College.
Along the way, Paul Downs, Tyler Knight and Kent Simpson grew together as friends, forged lifetime bonds with teammates and got a top-notch education while doing it.
Now, their football careers just barely in the rearview mirror, the trio will emerge in a few months young men and college graduates ready to take on the world. It took some growing up, though.
“I never realized I’d be playing college football until my senior spring of high school,” said Downs, a starting cornerback for the Colonels. “I wasn’t sure I’d be able.”
That uncertainty was an echoed theme when the others reflected upon their futures as high school seniors.
“After my senior year (of high school), I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do,” said Knight, a special teams ace.
“We came in as freshmen kind of blind,” said Simpson, a starting linebacker.
They’re a more confident lot these days.
“I’m going to use my math degree to go to grad school for mechanical engineering,” said Knight, a fraternity president who’ll be coordinating Phi Delta Theta’s rush efforts in the spring. Internships in Tampa and Indianapolis could lead to future employment while earning a graduate degree from South Florida or Indiana University — Purdue University — Indianapolis (IUPUI). Kentucky and Louisville are also possibilities. “My options are pretty wide-open right now.”
Downs studies political science and is exploring internship opportunities and applying to law schools. He’s hoping for University of Louisville’s Brandeis and awaiting their word, but can “fall back” on Chase at Northern Kentucky University if need be. He’s applied to Kentucky and others as well, but is not quite sure what type of law he’d like to practice.
“My whole life I’ve been interested in government and politics,” Downs said.
Like Knight, Simpson chases numbers, albeit with dollar signs attached. His mom, Gwen, does accounting at Heaven Hill, so a degree in financial economics was a good fit.
He was unfazed while getting thrown into the fray during an internship with a financial firm in Lexington, he said, but flashed a wry smile while recalling “a Calc II and III class that got to me a little bit.”
The undergraduate experience at Centre — an academic institution that produces Rhodes Scholars the way Florida turns out first-round NFL draft picks — has been an enriching one for the young men from Bardstown (Downs), Bethlehem (Simpson) and Nelson County (Knight) high schools. With classes sometimes as small as seven people, professors become friends, and even travel along for study abroad to places such as England and New Zealand, where Downs and Simpson, respectively, spent semesters. Knight will head off to the Bahamas in the spring.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Simpson said of the end of the college road and the friends they made along the way.
Football will be especially tough after the countless hours of sweat and blood invested in games, practice and the weight room, but Downs said the reality that football is over hasn’t quite set in. Right now it feels like any other down time following a season, he said.
“I think when spring practice hits and especially when fall rolls around,” Knight said, pondering the prospect of his first season without football in nearly 15 years. “I’ll get that twitch.”
Simpson and Downs grew up in Bardstown and played together for the Raiders in pee-wee in the rec league. Going to Centre, they at least had each other as friends, but didn’t know anyone else. Knight grew up in Boston and played for the Browns, so he was even more alone.
But with just 1,250 students at Centre’s downtown Danville campus, getting to know people was tricky but not as daunting as wading into a sea of perhaps 15 times that many fellow undergrads at UK or U of L.
“Going to Centre was a big plus for me,” Knight said. “It made me step outside my comfort zone.”
What they found, however, was that their teammates were in the same situation as them — plopped down in an unfamiliar town and having to make the adjustment from the glory of being a high school star to ignominy of third stringer in college. Many athletes can’t deal with the shock and get chased away by that or the distaste over feeling like a cog in a football machine.
“It has a lot to do with the coaches,” Simpson said. “They don’t treat you like a product.”
Hard work in the form of conditioning and other drills in practice, all the weightlifting, meetings and film study leads to a tight-knit unit. The family-like bonds are sealed for life through activities such as bowling with their positional groups, then reconvening as a full team later for “Cookies and Milk,” a Friday night tradition similar to the Colonel Walk and Colonel Prayer on game day.
“You learn how to trust other people and let people depend on you,” Downs said. “If you told me when I was a kid that I’d go to Centre and have the experience (as a student and an athlete) I had, I’d say you’re crazy.”
They’ll miss the thrills of making big plays and celebrating with their teammates, like their come-from-behind 42-40 win at Austin after being down by 17, a game in which Simpson came up with a key fourth-quarter interception, helping turn the Colonels’ season around after a 1-2 start.
Knight said the rigors of practice and the classroom taught them to be problem-solvers.
“In one game you can have a ton of things go against you, and you have to battle through and overcome,” he said. “Football prepares you to roll with the punches in life.”
So while they’re ready for the next stages of their respective lives, it’s a shared experience that will always loom large as part of who they are and what they’ve become.
“I’m just thankful I could play another four years,” Simpson said. “This is how everybody else felt four years ago.”