By LARRY VAUGHT
As we get set for Christmas, I want to share a story about a special Kentucky fan I met by chance before the Kentucky-Louisville game in Louisville Wednesday night.
As I pulled into the parking garage by the Yum Center, I saw a woman and two children get out of their vehicle. They were all in UK gear. I went over to wish them luck being UK fans on this night — and that’s how I met Joi Martin.
She told me they lived in Cincinnati and how it was the first UK game for her daughter, Sara, a 15-year-old high school freshman.
“My ex-husband and their father was born and raised in Southern Indiana (Borden) and he is the Kentucky fan. It just became a part of our family. We actually had to stop at his house before we headed out to pick up some ‘gear’ for the kids to wear,” she said.
Her son, Anthony, is a 13-year-old seventh grader and he obviously was happy to be coming to a UK game again.
They arrived three hours before tip-off just like me. I wanted to make sure I got a spot in the media room to work after the game. Joi wanted to make sure on her first trip to the Yum Center that she found a spot close to the arena to park and had no reason to be late getting into the game.
“We got a great parking spot, walked around the block and then sat in the car until about 5 and then went and got in line to go in,” she said.
I knew how much tickets were for this rivalry. But she said it was her idea to come to the game and was a Christmas surprise for her children, who like all UK players but count Malik Monk and Derek Willis as their favorite players.
“Their first day of Christmas break was Wednesday and I came home at noon for the day and told them my idea. I knew they would be excited but I was leery because it was not a home game and knowing the only tickets that were available were the ‘nosebleeds’ I was not sure what their reaction would be. They were definitely surprised/excited and my son was the one who actually pressed the enter key (on the computer) to make the (online) ticket purchase.
“I had been thinking about it for awhile. It was not like I just woke up and said let me work a half a day today and spend $400. I had to make sure it would work with my ex because Wednesday is his night. It would not have been an option if there was snow in the forecast.”
She works not only a full-time job, but also jobs bartending and supervising events on weekends she does not have her children. She had worked extra shifts to get money for the tickets and to be able to buy some UK gear for the kids to wear.
“So was is hard to spend the money — yes and no. Yes because the kitchen sink needs fixed and the front step could use a patch job and no because I knew my kids would remember this game for the rest of their lives,” she said.
Kentucky lost 73-70 but the family had no complaints. They even got close enough to where the team entered the arena to get some pictures and Anthony even managed to snag a few autographs on his mini basketball.
I liked this, too.
“Having (Louisville quarterback) Lamar Jackson there and the presentation of the Heisman Trophy (at halftime) was an added unexpected memory,” Martin said.
It was for me, too. It’s not every day you get to see a Heisman winner.
Her family was impressed by how Louisville fans were welcoming and willing to talk to them.
“We were surrounded by both UK and UofL fans and you could see a lot of families and friends that were together were all not rooting for the same team. Even as we were leaving a lady said ‘good game’ to us,” Martin said.
The family got home about 11:30 Wednesday night. Martin headed to work about 6 a.m. Thursday while the children were still asleep knowing she had made a Christmas memory.
But how do you ever top that Christmas present?
“Great question. To make this a tradition would be awesome but watching this game at Rupp Arena is definitely on our bucket list,” she said. “In Cincinnati high school football is big and they both root for opposite teams. Seeing them together and talking ‘stats’ for the same team is something I could not put a price tag on.
“My daughter plays volleyball and I asked if UofL offered her a scholarship would she go and of course she said yes because of the opportunity but she also said I would still ‘bleed blue’ and root for my Wildcats.
“This will be a Christmas memory I hope to remember for a long time. Being divorced and not having the traditional Christmas morning because this year it is not my weekend and my Christmas is not until Sunday night, we lived in the moment and not just for the day. They know the value of a dollar and I know they truly appreciated my effort and I am truly thankful and blessed that I am their mom.”
However, there is a bit more to make this story even more heart warming
Her daughter’s Instagram motto is “Do not be afraid,” a phrase repeated in the Bible 365 times. For Sara, it has been more than a motto. She was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect.
“She had her first open heart surgery when she was 9 months old,” her mother said. “Her second one was when she was 4 years old and had angioplasty when she was 12. She sees a cardiologist yearly. She has no restrictions and even ran track. So we know life can change in an instant.”
They also got an even better Christmas present about two months ago when they were told Sara’s heart was as “perfect” as it can be now.
“She actually wants to be a pediatric cardiologist and part of her reason is because she will know how her patients feel,” Martin said. “She never ceases to amaze me. She has never used her heart as an excuse to not to anything. She thrives in the classroom and outside through sports and her Young Life youth group. As much as I want to freeze time, I cannot wait to see what the future holds for both my kids.
“Anthony is her No. 1 fan. When there is a child in the house that is different, it affects the family dynamics and he has had to take the ‘back seat’ on one or more occasion and he handles it with grace.”
Actually, this whole family seems to handle everything with the perfect Christmas spirit and has helped make my Christmas even more meaningful with this story.