Jun. 18—It's been a long road back for Kenneth Horsey.
The University of Kentucky offensive lineman, heading into his junior season with the Wildcats, wasn't sure what his college experience would be like — or if he'd even have one at all — following open-heart surgery in 2018.
Horsey, a 6-foot-3, 300-pounder, was wrapping up his high school senior year in Sanford, Florida, when he began experiencing serious and worsening stomach pains during family dinner on April 1. After a call to 911 and a number of tests, doctors diagnosed Horsey with endocarditis, an infection of a heart valve that can cause issues throughout the body.
Two days later, doctors were able to remove a growth from Horsey's heart without any problems — a solution that allowed him to continue playing football.
"I already signed with UK to play football, I had prom in a few weeks, and I was set to graduate the next month," Horsey recalled. "I had to just rely on my faith in God to keep me going, keep me strong."
Following a two-week stint in the hospital, Horsey was released to start rehabilitation, a process that lasted well into the start of his Kentucky career that June.
"I could not lift anything over five pounds for weeks," the former three-star recruit said. "I incrementally worked my way back up, but only to about 25 pounds after eight weeks."
Once Horsey arrived to Lexington, 50 pounds lighter after his ordeal, his rehab and training jumped to a whole new level. He started out on a stationary bike to determine what his heart could handle, before moving on to other cardio machines and finally running after a few weeks.
UK physicians were cautious at the start.
"On top of his cardiovascular condition, you have to remember that he came in as a freshman and he is learning a whole different type of training," said Gabe Amponsah, UK athletics director of sports medicine and head athletic trainer for UK football. "The transition from high school to collegiate football training is intense.
"He deserves a lot of kudos for his hard work. He had a long road that was not always easy, and he continues to impress us with his perseverance and determination to fight through adversity."
After redshirting his first year in Lexington, Horsey appeared in four games as a redshirt freshman in 2019. Last season was his breakout campaign, however, as Horsey started in eight games — battling a broken hand and missing the last two games after contracting COVID-19 — and was named one of three winners for the 2020 Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Now, as he prepares for his junior year with high expectations, Horsey has become an advocate for cardiac health and wellness. He and teammates Luke Fortner and Joshua Paschal recently teamed with UK HealthCare to learn hands-only CPR in the case of cardiac arrest.
"If you have the opportunity to save someone's life, if you have the opportunity to make a play on the field — in life, you have to be able to take that risk, take that leap, and trust your training just like we do on the field," Horsey said. "... At first, I didn't want to be the guy that was known for having heart surgery. I didn't want to be labeled as that guy, I just wanted to fit in with the rest of the guys and just wanted to be able to train with the rest of the team.
"What I realized from Coach (Mark) Stoops and Coach (John) Schlarman — rest in peace — is that nobody creates a legacy by fitting in. Nobody is remembered for fitting in, nobody has a story for fitting in, nobody is special for fitting in. It's not my job to fit in. It's my job to be myself, and myself is Kenneth Horsey, student-athlete, brother, son and friend, football player, scholar and just happens to be a heart survivor.
"Sometimes I just press that (surgery) scar to remind myself of the things I went through, to be grateful for everything I have and be blessed with the opportunity that I've been given."