No. 17 Colonels band together to move forward after tragedy
Dean Hood knows how insignificant football is within the confines of the big picture.
The Eastern Kentucky coach also understands how the sport might provide himself and his team with the means to get through one the toughest times in the program's history.
Hood's 17th-ranked Colonels (2-1) take the field Saturday night at Kentucky less than a week after redshirt freshman defensive lineman Joey Kraemer was killed in a single-vehicle accident early Sunday in Richmond, Kentucky. The fatal incident came hours after EKU rolled to a 51-13 victory over Austin Peay in its Ohio Valley Conference opener.
"It's been a tough situation," Hood said. "We're holding tight as a family. There's a lot of people hurting but we're locked in arms and working through all the things that this situation brings up."
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Kraemer did not appear in a game since transferring from UTEP where he redshirted last season, but was well respected during his short time at Eastern Kentucky.
"We are all saddened by the loss of Joey Kraemer," athletic director Steve Lochmueller said. "While his time at EKU was short, I'm sure the impact he made on his fellow students, teammates, coaches and professors will live on."
Hood admits that sports are often overvalued in today's society and sometimes can cloud what's truly important. However, the 51-year-old, who has been part of college football either as a player or coach for more than 30 years, knows the benefits this particular sport has to offer.
"It teaches you about life," said Hood, who is in his eighth season as head coach at Eastern. "A lot of our guys, myself included, are working through this thing because of lessons we've learned on the football field. Or off the football field, but from a coach or our association with football.
"Football is special from a family standpoint."
The support hasn't been limited to the EKU family.
Hood has heard from other OVC coaches as well as Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and Louisville's Bobby Petrino this week.
"It is sad for all of us," Stoops said. "Our hearts go out to (Kraemer), his family and the entire program. That is the sad thing about leading into this game because we are very excited to play them."
Kraemer's death casts a shadow over the first meeting since 2009 between the schools separated by some 40 miles. However, this tragedy could also bring together both programs and squash any bad blood that might linger from a recent off-field incident between the teams.
In January, it was reported that members of both teams were involved in a bar fight. A security camera video was then released showing EKU defensive lineman and former Wildcat Patrick Graffree punching backup Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker in a dorm lobby.
"I have seen it before at other programs where teams that are so close let that kind of stuff filter into the game, and there is no place for it," Stoops said. "I will have no tolerance all week on anything off the field or any talk and all of that BS."
It's also uncertain if reigning OVC offensive player of the year and another ex-Wildcat Dy'Shawn Mobley will miss a second consecutive game due to a hamstring injury.
Mobley gained 1,491 yards, averaged 5.8 per carry and rushed for 20 touchdowns for the Colonels in 2014 after gaining 484 on 84 attempts the previous two seasons at Kentucky. While Mobley admits he's matured since his time in Lexington, his health has limited him to 13 carries for 38 yards and no TDs in two games this year.
"He's a really good kid," Stoops said. "He's a very talented player."
For Mobley, his eagerness to play seems less to do with a reunion and more about simply getting back on the field.
"It's important for me to just get back out there into the flow of things," he said.
Eastern Kentucky, which lost all three previous meetings with the Wildcats, fell 35-0 at North Carolina State on Sept. 12 in its most recent matchup with an FBS opponent.